When it became clear the boycott was going to be followed, the US National Team was left with a schedule of exhibition games against six NBA “All-Star” squads held in NBA cities, the French National Team (which also boycotted the Olympics), and a finale against the ’76 US Team. It wasn’t Moscow and a chance at an Olympic Gold medal, but it was basketball, and it was titled The Gold Medal Series. “It was a chance to play together outside of practice, and after a while we were ready to play anyone, anywhere,” says Thomas.
“Once the President made the decision to boycott the Olympics in Moscow, we put our focus and energy into the exhibition games and not on what we were missing,” says Gavitt. “I think we were successful in that regard.”
And how. Team USA ‘80 went 5-1 with the would-be Olympians beating an NBA squad 97-84 in L.A. to kick things off. They then went on to Phoenix, where they didn’t have much competition, beating the NBA squad by the largest margin of the exhibition series, 97-66. A 77-75 win over the pros in New York and then a 82-76 victory over France preceded the one loss, a 78-76 decision in Seattle.
The last game of the Series was against the ‘76 US team, packed with NBA veterans at the height of their powers. The 1980 side won, 81-77. To the players, it was just further evidence that they would have had no problem winning Gold in Moscow. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union did not win the tournament they hosted, finishing third behind Yugoslavia and Italy
“I understood why President Carter made the decision, and we were disappointed, but it was actually a blessing because we got to play against the All-Star teams,” recalls Williams, who started at forward. “So it all worked out in the end.”
All 12 players saw time on the floor. La Salle’s Michael Brooks, a 6-7 forward who started alongside Williams, was the team’s leading scorer at 13.2 points per game. The 7-foot Bowie led the team in both rebounding with 6.9 per game and shots blocked with a total of 14 during the six-game Series.
Bowie was one of the many future solid NBA players on the team, while Thomas, who held down the playmaking duties with a team-high 37 assists, went on to become the team’s only Hall of Famer.
Asked how disappointed he was to not achieve one of his playing goals due to political red tape, Thomas answers quickly: “I felt empty inside. That was a huge opportunity taken away from us that we would never be able to get back. When you look back on your résumé, your body of work, there’s a huge piece missing.”
Williams echoes those sentiments. “That Gold medal was one thing I was unable to accomplish. That was the missing piece for me along with an NBA championship.”
Some 30 years later, the sting from the one that got away clearly still hurts all the players involved.