Five-ring Circus

The 2004 Olympics

A prayer for the Angolan basketball team.

Angola knows all about the agony of defeat
Angola knows all about the agony of defeat

Of all the athletes poised for humiliation in Athens, none is likely to meet with quite so much shame as the members of the Angolan men’s basketball team. Every four years, the mighty Angolan dozen trots into the Olympic Stadium, red, yellow, and black banner held high, and steels itself for a beating.

In 1992, Angola became the world’s first ritual sacrificeto the Dream Team, the squad that included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley. At the beginning of the game, the Angolans seemed star-struck—a player guarding Jordan waved to the bench and asked a teammate to snap a photo.

The Americans didn’t return the love. Barkley whipped an elbow into the chest of Angola’s Herlander Coimbra, sending the reed-thin forward toppling to the floor. “You hit me, I’ll hit you,” Barkley said later. “Even if it does look like he hasn’t eaten in a while.” Barkley added that he was worried that Coimbra might pull a spear on him. The Dream Team won by 68 points. The Angolans finished in 10th place in Barcelona. They did manage to beat the home-standing Spanish team, though. After the game, the Spanish coach was asked, “Do you plan to resign?”

In Barcelona, the Angolans at least had the aura of a Jamaican-bobsled-style lovable loser. But four years later, the team’s haplessness had become pitiful. When the Angolans arrived in Atlanta, Barkley again taunted poor Coimbra: “I’m going to hit him the same way I did the first time. I have been lifting weights since the day the season ended and I am ready.” Miraculously, the Angolans played marvelous defense and held the new Dream Team to 87 points, the United States’ lowest total in eight years. They still lost by 33.

Angola didn’t win a single game in Atlanta. Four years later, in Sydney, they again posted a 0-5 record, dropping games by an average of 21 points. Despite the team’s continued futility, Angola keeps qualifying for the games because it almost never loses to foes like Madagascar and Mozambique. Africa is like the MAAC or the Big Sky of the Olympics—the weak continent that has to send somebody to the big dance.

Angola’s best hope for victory is probably Joaquin “Kikas” Gomes, who at 6-feet-7 is the team’s tallest player. Kikas has issued heartbreaking quotes about how much a victory—any victory—would mean to the fans back in Luanda. As the Dream Team diminishes in stature, it’s no longer heroic to get blown out by the Americans. The Angolans play the Dream Team on Aug. 23. Pray for them.