SALT LAKE CITY — Danny Vranes, owner of a Salt Lake construction firm, was sitting in an office the other day when a stranger lamented the cancellation of the college basketball season and March Madness — opportunities that, for many, present themselves once in a lifetime.
“It brought back memories,” he says.
Vranes knows all about such matters. He’s the Olympian who never played in the Olympics, the Olympic medalist who never medaled in the Games. Forty years ago this summer, the U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympic Games. Vranes was a member of the U.S. basketball team.
Many sports aficionados will remember Vranes. In another life, before he went to work in the construction and real estate business, Vranes was a basketball player, but that’s an understatement. Four decades later, he is still the greatest basketball player the state has ever produced.
A lean, athletic 6-foot-7 small forward who could jump out of the gym, Vranes led Skyline High to a state championship and then moved down the road to the University of Utah, where he starred for four years and was named to the All-America team. Utah retired his jersey.
Who knows what he might have done if he hadn’t played for a conservative coach in the pre-shot clock days when teams intentionally sat on the ball. He took only 10 shots per game (and averaged 17 points) because of the team’s plodding half-court style of play and because he shared offensive duties with future NBA All-Star Tom Chambers.
Vranes was the fifth player taken in the 1981 NBA draft. He would go on to play professional basketball for a dozen years, eight of them for the NBA’s SuperSonics and 76ers.
But before his senior season, he had more on his mind than the NBA. He wanted to play in the 1980 Olympic Games. Until 1992, the U.S. Olympic team was stocked only with collegiate players. There was no higher honor.
“It was a big-time dream,” Vranes says. “To be honest, I always thought I could make the NBA, but making the Olympic team was a more far-fetched dream. Just to try out was really cool.”
Dozens of players tried out for just 12 spots on the team. Vranes made the cut, along with Sam Bowie, Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas.
“It was such an honor,” says Vranes. “Omigosh. We were the best. We were representing the country. It was a different thing. Nowadays the pros do it. It’s not that big a deal to them.”
The team was considered the gold medal favorite, but even during tryouts there were rumors that the U.S. might not participate in the Olympics. The Russians, who were going to host the Olympic Games in Moscow that summer, had invaded Afghanistan, and there was discussion of a U.S.-led boycott of the Games.
“It was a big-time dream. To be honest, I always thought I could make the NBA, but making the Olympic team was a more far-fetched dream. Just to try out was really cool.” — Former Ute great Danny Vranes
As Vranes tells it, “It was one of those things being thrown around — we were told this (Olympics) might not happen — but we (players) weren’t that concerned about it. Our main concern was to make the team.” After the team was selected, they were given the news: The U.S. would not participate in the Moscow Games, along with 64 other countries who joined the boycott.
“Honestly, we had no clue,” says Vranes. “We did not follow it. It was a Russia-Afghanistan conflict. Why does this involve us? If Russia had invaded the United States, that’s different, of course. But this is their deal. We didn’t really understand it.”
The team was told to prepare as if the Olympics would happen; there was hope things would change, but that didn’t happen. The Games went on without the boycotting countries. Yugoslavia won the gold medal in basketball, Italy the silver and Russia bronze. Meanwhile, to appease the American team, the U.S. arranged domestic competitions in the various sports.
The basketball team played five games against NBA All-Star teams and one game against the 1976 U.S. Olympic champions. The 1980 Olympic team won five of those six games, their lone loss a two-point decision to the NBA all-stars. Vranes played in all six games and averaged about 7 points and 3 rebounds per contest.
The U.S. teams were also invited to attend several functions in Washington, D.C.
“We went to the White House, we met the president, there were two or three days of sightseeing and functions,” says Vranes. “Several of the guys (from other sports) boycotted it. That was the pinnacle of their careers — for the swimmers and track guys.”
Henry Marsh, a BYU grad and a medal favorite in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, was among those who missed a rare opportunity. He was able to make four Olympic teams, but he never medaled. He was sick for the 1984 Games — his best shot for a medal — and finished fourth.
Vranes and his teammates never had another chance to compete in the Olympics. Unlike the other athletes, they had grand professional opportunities waiting for them (in the NBA), which would preclude them from competing in the Olympics.
“That was probably the biggest disappointment of my career — not going to the Olympics,” Vranes says.
Aguirre, who would be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft a few months later, told the DePaul Blue Demons newspaper in 2014, “I don’t remember where I was when I found out about the boycott, but all I know is that it was a terrible day. It was so bad. Everyone had put in so much work and effort. We were so enthusiastic and fired up to go and compete for the gold medal. All of us knew we had a great chance to bring that home to America. Then, for us not to compete was an unbelievably huge letdown. It still hurts, even to this day. We didn’t even have a chance to compete.”
Vranes remembers watching some of the 1980 Olympic basketball competition, but only halfheartedly. “I wasn’t glued to the TV,” he says.
The U.S. presented medals to each member of the team, undoubtedly to soothe bad feelings. “They looked really great,” says Vranes, who keeps it in a box and shows it to his kids and grandkids occasionally. “It was a neat medal. They (U.S. officials) did the best they could. But you hate to see politics get in the way. Did it serve a purpose?”
He continues. “Sometimes people rehash past (Olympic) teams. It’s really sad we don’t even get mentioned. And rightly so; we didn’t compete. But we’re not even talked about. If we had competed and won a medal, that would’ve been something we could be proud of forever.”