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MOVE TO GAIN POLITICAL FREEDOM, NEW COUNTRIES HIGHLIGHT CONTEST

SHARE MOVE TO GAIN POLITICAL FREEDOM, NEW COUNTRIES HIGHLIGHT CONTEST

It's easy to sum up the World Championship of Basketball: Sixteen teams played 64 games at three sites over 11 days for three medals.

But there was so much more than just the results, from Cuban players making the move of a lifetime for political freedom to countries like Russia and Croatia playing for the first time under their flags to the most enthusiastic of fans waving those flags non-stop.Richard Matienzo, Cuba's leading scorer in the tournament, and reserve forward Augusto Duquesme both sought refugee status, a move which ended their relationship with their native country.

Both players said they felt they had to make the move to give themselves a chance to get out from under Cuba's communist rule. Team officials were just as fervent in their response to the actions.

"Our team, just like with a revolution, approaches games with conviction and with strength," coach Miguel Calderon Gomez said. "We play games for Cuba regardless of what happens."

Cuba finished 15th in the tournament.

Three countries debuted in the World Championship: Russia, Croatia and Germany.

Russia lost to the United States twice in taking the silver medal, while Croatia lost only to Russia once in winning the bronze.

Both republics had a strong history in the tournament, with the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia tying the United States for the most titles at three.

Germany's 10th-place finish may not look like much on the surface, but without star players Detlef Schrempf of the Seattle SuperSonics, who chose not to play, and Christian Welp, formerly of the Philadelphia 76ers who is recuperating from shoulder surgery, it wasn't that bad.

Germany was the only team with two opening-round victories not to advance to the quarterfinals, losing out to Greece and Puerto Rico in a three-team tiebreaker.

The best fans of the tournament, hands down, backed Croatia and Greece.

The local communities of both heritages turned out in impressive numbers at all three arenas - Hamilton's Copps Coliseum and Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens and SkyDome. There couldn't have been many happier people in metropolitan Toronto than those that make flags. It seemed each person rooting for Greece and Croatia arrived with their own and waved it throughout the game.

There was no more impressive sight than the top level of SkyDome constantly in movement with thousands of red, white and blue Croatian flags.

The impact of the NBA on the tournament wasn't limited to the roster of Dream Team II.

Almost every timeout and halftime meant an appearance by either Hugo, the mascot of the Charlotte Hornets, or The Gorilla, the dunking simian from Phoenix. The crowds were also entertained by the Phoenix Suns' dance team.

Four years ago at Buenos Aires, Argentina, fans were left on their own to pass the minutes without basketball and they managed with one large drum and impromptu singing and dancing.

The NBA brought some of the corporate sponsorship into the tournament, but each country has its own and it's not unusual to see company names on uniform shirts.

Russia's warmups and uniforms have "YAMBRUGGAS" displayed on them and many a courtside wit came up with that as the Russian translation for McDonald's.

Actually, it's the name of the largest oil and gas company in Russia.

Sponsorship can cause problems for some companies and it also made for an amusing scene before each game involving the United States.

Coca-Cola was one of the corporate sponsors of the tournament and its familiar red-and-white cups were used to dispense water on the benches, and seat covers with its emblem were used on each bench.

Shaquille O'Neal has a considerable endorsement deal with Pepsi and before each game boys and girls who worked on each bench were told to make sure O'Neal was only given water in a clear plastic cup and one seat was left coverless for him to sit on when he wasn't playing.

An estimated 1.8 billion people in 80 countries watched some part of the World Championship on television.

The most interesting of the broadcast teams was doing the game back to Russia: Vladimir Gomelsky on play-by-play and Alexander Gomelsky, his father, as the analyst.

The elder Gomelsky was the coach of the Soviet Union team that won the Olympic gold medal in 1988 and is now the Olympic attache for Russia.

"This is the first time we have worked together and it has gone well," Vladimir Gomelsky said.

Alexander Gomelsky was asked if his style could be compared to Dick Vitales's.

"No. No," he said. "I have heard Dick Vitale. No. No."

This was the first major international tournament with TV timeouts. Just as in NCAA games, the game was stopped four times in each half, a big change for international coaches and players who are used to having only two timeouts per team per half with none guaranteed.