Looking back: Dalipagic, Yugos win 1978 World Championship in Manila (Part II)

As we had previously written, the Philippines became the first country outside America and Europe to host the FIBA World Cup, then called the World Basketball Championship, in 1978, and it became the benchmark against which future such tournaments would be compared.

The three-tiered tournament was held alternately at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, the original mecca of local basketball which has now been left in a near-state of decay, and the Araneta Coliseum, which, in contrast, has been refurbished to remain one of the country’s leading event venues, despite the emergence of the $213 million (P9.4 billion) Philippine Coliseum in the sprawling Ciudad de Victoria in Bocaue, Bulacan.

TV coverage of course was then a premium as they were brought live right in the homes of Filipino basketball aficionados by then-KBS (for Kanlaon Broadcasting System)-Channel 9, the broadcast station then acquired (some say seized) by the government. 

Against a backdrop of political propaganda, 14 teams, including the Philippines, which was automatically seeded into the semifinal round as host along with the defending champion Soviet Union, descended upon Manila for the seventh staging of the quadrennial event from October 1-14.

Then-President Ferdinand Marcos, in an unmistakable sign that he wanted to use the event as a showcase for the country’s supposed pristine state of affairs, attended the tournament’s opening game on October 1 at the Araneta Coliseum between the US and Australia, a tight contest won by the Americans 77-75. The Big Dome, as the venue is popularly known, had a maximum capacity of 30,000, but that was reduced to 10,000 seats for the tournament for safety reasons.

A number of big names in the sport of course came to represent their respective countries, including Drazen Dalipagic of Yugoslavia, Sergei Belov of the Soviet Union, Dino Meneghin of Italy and a budding Oscar Schmidt of Brazil. Other notable players that graced the world conclave were Yugos Dragan Kicanovic and Kresimir Cosic, Soviets Anatoli Myshkin and Vladimir Tkachenko, Brazilian Marcel de Souza, Canada’s Leo Rautins, Czechoslovakia’s Kamil Brabenec, Australia’s Phil Smyth, China’s Zhang Weiping and Italian Renzo Bariviera.

The tournament has actually used various formats through the years as it has expanded and contracted between 10 and 24 teams. The first tournament in 1950 began with a 10-team double-elimination tournament followed by a six-team round-robin phase to determine the champion. From 1954 to 1974, each tournament started with a group-stage preliminary round, with the top teams in each preliminary-round group moving on to a final round-robin group to determine the champion.

In 1978, FIBA added a gold-medal game between the top two finishers in the final group and a bronze-medal game between the third- and fourth-place teams. The host team also received a bye into the final group between 1959 and 1982, but only three of the seven host teams in this era won a medal despite this advantage. The FIBA thus made the host team compete in the preliminary round starting in 1986, during which the tournament expanded to 24 teams, although the event went down to a 16 team-field in 1990 and stayed there for the next four editions. It was only in 2006 that the FIBA expanded back to 24 teams while introducing a format that it continues to use to this day.

Under this format, the teams are divided into four preliminary-round groups of six teams each. If teams finish tied at the end of the preliminary round, the ties are broken by a set system to be applied in this order: game results between tied teams, goal average in the games between the tied teams, goal average for all the games of the tied teams, and drawing of lots. The top four teams in each group then advance to a 16-team knockout round, where eight matchups take place between the top-ranked and fourth-place squads as well as the second- and third-place teams in each group.  

This phase is then followed by the quarterfinals, semifinals and final, with the semifinal winners battling for the championship, the semifinal losers playing for third place, and the quarterfinal losers playing in a consolation bracket to determine fifth through eighth places. In 2019, during which the FIBA World Cup will be played for the first time outside the year of football’s World Cup, the tournament will expand to 32 teams.

In 1978, the 14 teams were divided into three groups of four teams each. Canada, South Korea, Senegal and Yugoslavia were bracketed in Group A, Brazil, China, Italy and Puerto Rico were grouped in Group B, and Australia, Czechoslovakia, the Dominican Republic and the US were classified in Group C.

Yugoslavia and Canada advanced from their group with 3-0 and 2-1 records, respectively, Brazil and Italy moved on from their bracket with 3-0 and 2-1 marks, respectively, while the US and Australia made it from their cluster with 3-0 and 2-1 slates, in that order. The six teams joined the Soviet Union and the Philippines in the round-robin semifinal phase.

The six other teams that were left out after the preliminary round – South Korea, Senegal, Puerto Rico, China, Czechoslovakia and the Dominican Republic – were relegated to the classification round, where they played another round robin to determine ninth to 14th places. The Czechs, starring the 6-4 Brabenec, the tournament’s top scorer with a 26.8-point average, Stanislav Kropilak and Jiri Pospisil, topped the classifications with a 5-0 record to rank ninth, followed, in this order, by Puerto Rico (4-1), China and the Dominican Republic (both at 2-3), and South Korea and Senegal (both at 1-4).

Yugoslavia, meanwhile, continued with its winning ways in the semifinal round by remaining unbeaten in six games during this stage.

The Yugoslavs, led by All-Tournament Team members Dalipagic and Kicanovic as well as Ratko Radovanovic, had, of course, swept their preliminary-round assignments, crushing African champion Senegal 99-64, annihilating Asian runner-up South Korea 121-85, and thumping Canada 105-95.

Against Senegal, it was over almost right from the start, with the Yugoslavs jumping to a 50-27 halftime advantage. Five players – Kicanovic with 20 points, Radovanovic (15), Mirza Delibasic and Zoran Slavnic (14 each) and Branko Skroce (10) – scored in double figures for the Yugos in a great demonstration of their depth.

They followed almost the same script against the Koreans, with seven players this time – Peter Vilfan (24), Dalipagic (13), Duje Krstulovic (12), and Kicanovic, Skroce, Slavnic and Radovanovic (10 each) – tallying in twin digits this time as they took the half 65-44 and coasted from there.

It was only against the Canadians that the Slavs encountered some resistance as Leo Rautins, then an 18-year-old forward at Minnesota who later played for Philadelphia and Atlanta in the NBA, fired 31 points.  But again, Yugoslavia’s deeper roster would eventually prevail, with Radovanovic (24 points), Dalipagic and Delibasic (18 apiece) and Kicanovic (17) combining to offset the 6-8 Rautins’ hot night.

In the semifinal phase, the eventual champions clobbered the Philippines 117-101 before following up with five more victories, a 108-76 blowout of Italy, a 100-93 win over the US, a 105-92 thumping of the defending champion Soviet Union, a 91-87 squeaker against Brazil, and a 105-101 decision over Australia.

Dalipagic finally exploded in that victory against the Philippines with 31 points, and three other players – Radovanovic (20), Delibasic (17) and Krstulovic (15) – had twin digits to pace Yugoslavia, which coasted to victory after taking a 54-45 lead at the break, perhaps feeling a little sympathy for the host country which had previously hosted the Yugoslavs in a couple of exhibition series. Ramon Cruz matched Dalipagic with 31 points of his own while Steve Watson had 20, Alex Clariño 16 and Bernardo Carpio and Leopoldo Herrera 10 each for the Filipinos.

Against the Italians, the Slavs left no doubt about their superiority despite the presence of Meneghin on the Italian side as Dalipagic again exploded for 29 points. The 6-6 Dalipagic received support from his chief sidekick, Kicanovic, who had 21 points, and Slavnic who had 13.  Lorenzo Carraro led Italy with 12 points while Meneghin and Gianni Bertolotti each had 10. The Yugoslavs erected a 53-36 halftime lead and never looked back.

The Americans, then represented by the core of the Athletes in Action team in a reflection of the minimal importance the US then placed on the World Championship – in contrast to the Olympics – did give the Yugoslavs a competitive game, holding the latter down to a 48-41 advantage at the turn and never allowing them to break away. But Dalipagic’s 28 points, along with Slavnic’s 16, Kicanovic’s 14, Cosic’s 11 and Zeljko Jerkov’s 10, were enough to keep the Bill Oates-coached US team at bay. Irv Kiffin Jr. led the Yanks with 24 points, while Wayne Smith (18), Tim Hall (17), Eugene Parker (14) and Ralph Drollinger (10) also scored in double figures.

The Soviets, who were then unbeaten going into their first matchup with their European arch-rivals, finally bit the dust against the Yugos as Dalipagic exploded for 37 points, the third-highest total in the tournament behind Brabenec’s 44 and 41, and Kicanovic also burned the hoops with 34 points in a two-man display that’s probably never been seen before in the history of the event.  Even as the 7-4 Vladimir Tkachenko tried to assert himself with a team-best 24 points, the Yugoslavs’ deadly artillery could not be overcome by the defending champs as Dalipagic and Kicanovic combined with Radovanovic (18) and Cosic (14) for all but two of Yugoslavia’s total.

The Yugoslavs were pushed even harder by the Brazilians than the Soviets. The South Americans led 46-44 at the half before eventually giving way to the Slavs’ well-rounded attack. Kicanovic (23 points), Dalipagic (20), Jerkov (16) and Cosic (15) led the way for Yugoslavia. Schmidt, meanwhile, proved to be the biggest thorn on the eventual winners’ side with 31 points, with Marcos Antonio “Marquinhos” Leite (15), De Souza (14) and Milton “Carioquinha” Setrini (10) providing him support.

Yugoslavia, which was coached this time by Aleksandar Nikolic after having been steered the previous 11 years by Ranko Zeravica and Mirko Novosel, assured itself of clinching the top spot in the semifinal stage – and with it secured a finals berth – when it made it six in a row by beating Australia on October 13.  This was even while resting its Big Three of Dalipagic, Kicanovic and Cosic and used just seven players to prepare for the championship game the following day.  Vilfan, with 28 points, Rajko Zizic (22), Skroce (20), Krstulovic (13) and Radovanovic (11) proved themselves equal to the task as they negated the Aussies’ full complement that included Smyth, Gordon McLeod, John Maddock, Andris Blicavs and Mel Dalgleish, all of whom were in double figures. 

The Soviets, meanwhile, bounced back from that 13-point defeat to the Yugoslavs to win their last three games, 76-69 over Italy, 97-76 over the US, and 94-85 over Brazil to finish 5-1 behind the Yugos and arrange a showdown for all the marbles. Brazil, on the other hand, just missed a finals berth with that loss to the Soviets but finished 5-2, including a carryover win over groupmate Italy in the preliminaries, to get a shot at a podium finish against the Italians themselves, who wound up with a 4-3 card in the semifinal round. The US (3-4), Canada (2-5), Australia (1-6) and the Philippines (0-7) brought up the lower half of the semifinal cast and would be matching up for the final placings.  

Australia routed the host country 92-74 to complete the Filipinos’ winless campaign and finish at seventh place. The Americans, meanwhile, salvaged fifth spot with a tight, come-from-behind 96-94 victory over Canada as Griffin scored a game-high 25 points.

In a cliffhanger that was as thrilling as the championship match, De Souza hit a buzzer-beating two-handed shot from near midcourt to power Brazil to an 86-85 triumph over Italy in the battle for third place. The Italians, led by Meneghin, vehemently protested that the shot came after the buzzer, but veteran referees Hugh Richardson of the US and Mikhail Davidov of the USSR ruled that the shot was good. De Souza, then only 22, led the Brazilians with 22 points in what could have been his handover of the leadership mantle just the same to the then-20-year-old Schmidt, who was by then nipping at his heels as the top Brazilian player and would go on to become the all-time leading scorer in the event’s history with 843 points for an average of 24.1 points. 

Schmidt would also go on to break the single-tournament scoring record of 33.7 points set by guard Nikos Galis of Greece in 1986 by averaging 34.6 points in 1990. The 6-8 forward also became the most prolific scorer in Olympic history with 1,094 points for a per-game norm of 28.8 points, and was actually a member of the 1978 World Championship’s All-Tournament Team along with Yugoslavs Dalipagic, Kicanovic and Cosic as well as Soviet big man Tkachenko.

The 1978 Worlds, however, belonged at least to Dalipagic, then regarded as the single most accomplished player outside the NBA who was, in fact, the apple of the eye of Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach as early as 1976, when he started turning heads even before recruiting international players into the NBA became in vogue. Truth is, Dalipagic could have become the first major international player to have played in the NBA even before fellow Yugoslav and eventual Croatian star Drazen Petrovic joined Portland in 1989 and Soviet teammates Sarunas Marchiulionis and Arvidas Sabonis also did the same in 1989 with Golden State and 1995 with the Trail Blazers, respectively. This is if Yugoslavia’s strict socialist policies did not prevent Praja, as Dalipagic was also called, from exploring the opportunity to play in the world’s ultimate basketball league.  

Remember that this was the time when Yugoslavia hadn’t yet broken up, an upheaval that took place in 1991 and gave rise to several independent states like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro (which became plain Serbia in June 2006) and Slovenia. This of course coincided with more liberal policies that eventually allowed talented players like Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic to play in the NBA while still being able to play for their national teams.

The Celtics’ loss, however, became the Yugoslavs’ gain as Dalipagic became one of the most acclaimed athletes in Yugoslavian history while playing a total of 243 games for the Yugoslavian national team between 1973 and 1986 and tying for the all-time international record with four medals in the FIBA World Cup. He won the gold in the 1978 World Championship and another gold in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow when the US and other Western countries boycotted the Summer Games in protest of the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan.

In the championship game of the 1978 event in Manila, it was Dalipagic who wielded the big stick for the Yugoslavs before a packed crowd that filled the Big Dome to its adjusted maximum capacity of 10,000.  Dalipagic fired a game-high 21 points against the Soviets’ unrelenting defense to lead his team to a thrilling 82-81 overtime victory. The game was tied at the half at 41 and was still knotted at 73 at the end of regulation, which was then still made up of two 20-minute halves unlike now when four 10-minute quarters are played under international rules.

But with Dalipagic leading the attack supported by the sharpshooting Kicanovic who had 17 points, the Slavs eventually prevailed in the end as Tkachenko, who topscored for the USSR with 14, joined Cosic in the showers after fouling out at the one-minute mark of the extra period. Just how tight the championship contest was may be reflected in the fact that both teams shot 32 field goals and the margin of victory was only provided by the Yugos’ going 18-of-22 from the free-throw line to the Soviets’ 17-of-21. The one-point differential may be due to American referee Ron Omori’s and Canadian ref Don Cline’s calling one more foul 24-23 on the Soviets.

But the Yugoslavs, runners-up in 1974 when the event was held in Puerto Rico, wouldn’t be denied. They wound up unbeaten in 10 games, the only undefeated team in the tournament, while the dethroned champions went 6-2. Yugoslavia, true to its high-octane offense, also averaged the highest – 103.3 points – in the tournament as it boasted of two of the circuit’s top 10 scorers – Dalipagic who ranked third with a 22.4-point average, and Kicanovic who finished ninth with an even 18.0 norm. Brazil, with No. 6 De Souza (18.9 ppg) and No. 10 Schmidt (17.7 ppg) also put in two.

Dalipagic was rightfully declared the tournament’s MVP. After all, he was the undisputed lead star of this Yugoslavian team, and he delivered especially during his club’s most crucial games, resulting in the second of a tournament-high four championships, which is tied with the US. The Slavs won in 1970, 1978, 1990 and 1998, when NBA players did not play because of a lockout. There’s actually some discrepancy in the records as Yugoslavia was still entered as the winner in 1998 long after the original republic’s breakup, but that was supposed to be in recognition of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Serbia and Montenegro that is classified in some circles as Yugoslavia, although Serbia did win another title in 2002 by beating Argentina in overtime 84-77. That was the year the US, for the first time since using NBA players in international competitions, did not medal due to internal conflict and placed just sixth.

The Soviet Union, before its dissolution into 15 independent states in 1991, won three FIBA World Cup titles, while Brazil has won two and Spain, Argentina and Serbia (there you go) won one each.

The Soviet Union, by the way, has spawned the following states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.  Besides these 11 republics, three other Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – as well as Russia, all of whom played international basketball before 1945, inherited their old records prior to being merged with the USSR. A team called the Unified Team or the Commonwealth of Independent States actually represented the Soviets for one year during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when the first team of NBA players called the “Dream Team” first played in an international competition.

That started the globalization of the sport in the ‘90s, a phenomenon that has now exploded to make the FIBA World Cup, unlike its original incarnation as the World Basketball Championship, the much-awaited global event that it now is. – Rappler.com

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Metro Manila Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.