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And Then There Was the Time Dean Smith Won a Gold Medal

Dean Smith's role as coach of the 1976 Olympic basketball team doesn't get much mention in the annals of Carolina basketball. Part of it is because the U.S. was expected to win the gold medal every time, even when putting amateur college kids up against the professionals of other nations. And it was Dean Smith. Of course he'd lead America to victory.

But it was a bigger gamble than you'd think. The previous three teams had been coached by Hank Iba, a two-time NCAA champion and a coaching legend who'd been inducted to in the Basketball Hall of Fame in '69. Smith had fifteen years as a head coach, but was famous for not having won a championship, and only had four Final Fours to his credit. The logical guy to go to was John Wooden, but he had a long-standing grudge against the Olympics, and his players wouldn't even participate in the trials. So somehow a committee decided on Smith, despite the fact USA Basketball was coming off its first-ever Olympic loss, to the Russians in 1972.

Dean Smith brought Bill Guthridge and John Thompson on as assistants; he had met the latter when recruiting a player in D.C. to whom Thompson was both coach and guardian, and later recommended him for the Georgetown job. He didn't get to chose his team, which was done by committee, and more than a few big names (Robert Parrish, Leon Douglas, and John Lucas) didn't try out. The resulting team included seven ACC players, and four from UNC — Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak, and Tommy LaGarde. Kupchak and LaGarde were the only two players taller than 6'7". The resulting team was the youngest in the tournament, and considered underdogs to the Russians, and possibly a few other teams as well.

Of course, Smith ran the team hard, taking only six weeks to put together the squad for Montreal. Once there, they romped over Italy, 106-86, probably earning the free-biscuit equivalent at Tim Horton's, for all that I know. They barely squeaked by Puerto Rico, 96-94, after Ford and Kupchak combined for 39 points, including two game-clinching free throws from the Carolina guard. The Americans would finish the round-robin with wins over Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, plus a forfeited win over Egypt (politics).

In the Olympic semifinals, the U.S. met home team Canada, and quickly destroyed them behind 22 points from Scott May, father of future Tar Heel Sean May. This set up a rematch with the Yugoslavians, who had knocked out the Soviets by 5, and had only a loss to the U.S. blemishing their record.

It wasn't even close. USA started on an 8-0 run and led 44-22 after fourteen minutes. They would go on to win, 95-74, behind Adrian Dantley's 30 points, and May and Kupchak's 14 apiece. In six games, the Americans would be held below 90 only once, and win by an average margin of 14 points. It would be the last time U.S. amateurs would win the gold in full international competition, as we boycotted the 1980 games and the Soviets the ones of 1984. Ford, Kupchak, Davis, and LaGarde would join Larry Brown and Charlie Scott as UNC players to win gold medals, a distinction that would eventually include three other Tar Heels — Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and Vince Carter. This year will mark the third straight Olympic team without a Carolina alumnus, a shock considering the university put a member on the team every year from 1964 to 1992.

Dean Smith would return from Montreal still with the reputation of being unable to win it all, one that would dog him until 1982. He felt no coach should helm the Olympic team more than once, unlike Iba, and never represented his country on the international stage again.

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