'84 U.S. OLYMPIC HOOP TEAM MAY HAVE BEEN GREATEST EVER

BUT UNDEFEATED KNIGHT-LED SQUAD WAS MEMORABLE FOR MANY OTHER REASONS _ LIKE THE CUTTING OF CHARLES BARKLEYIt was the best of teams, it was the worst of times. It was the inevitable end product of the union of Robert Montgomery Knight and 12 of America's best basketball players.

It was the summer of 1984 for the U.S. Olympic team, one its members won't forget soon.How to sum it up?

Try, three months of scaling Olympus, with occasional side trips to Hades.

As expected, the team played impressively, pocketed its gold medals and retired to greatness, undefeated, untied, unchallenged, if somewhat unnoticed.

No Soviets, no competition, no drama, scant air time. Mary Lou Retton winds up on those Wheaties boxes instead of Bob Knight.

The U.S. team was hardly unmarked, though. It might have been the finest amateur team ever assembled. Or maybe that's still the '60 Olympic team.

The game's historians, such as they are, can argue it through the wee hours of the morning in tap rooms throughout this great land of ours.

But, of course, that's not exactly how this team will be remembered.

It will be remembered for Knight, who dominated every moment of its short life, making himself the central issue, as he always does. This is a phenomenon that constantly recurs in his career and constantly mystifies Knight, himself, who is otherwise an intelligent man.

It won't be remembered for Michael Jordan, its Hall of Famer-in-waiting, who held to the team concept, averaged a mere 17 points a game and went largely unacknowledged by the coach.

It wasn't until four years later that Knight broke the news to Esquire's Mike Lupica that Jordan "is the best that will ever play this game. Bird and Magic are great players - they just aren't Michael Jordan."

Why didn't he say that in '84? Back then, Jordan was treated as just another grunt in red, white and blue.

It won't be remembered for another candidate with Hall of Fame potential, Charles Barkley. Knight cut him, terminating their battle of wills decisively and predictably.

It won't be remembered as Patrick Ewing's team. The most talented Olympic center since Bill Russell didn't play well for Knight, who made little secret of his distaste for Ewing.

"I don't think anybody will ever be able to coach him," Knight told Lupica. "We were a week into practice when I came off the court and said to my assistants, `One of you guys go coach that s.o.b., because I can't.' "

It won't be remembered for the coaching job Knight did, which was routinely brilliant.

Ask the players what they remember from '84 and they'll talk about Michael, Charles, the camaraderie, the pride, the feeling of omnipotence they had.

But most of all, they remember Bob.

Only the best tuna get to be Starkist, as the commercial says, and only the best-mannered at the U.S. trials were going to get to be star-kissed.

And that left Charles Barkley out.

Not that he made a big thing out of his defiance. It was low-key and joking, but it was there, all right, and if there was one man in the universe who could ferret it out and who would not stand for it, it was RMK.

Not that Barkley left one single thing to be desired as a player, at first, anyway. Weighing in at 284 pounds - he had tried to go on a crash diet of juices, landed in the hospital and gave up the effort - he blew the minds of all watching and playing, and most meaningful of all, scouting for the NBA.

Said Northeastern forward Steve Halsel, who tried to block a dunk only to have Barkley throw him down with his left hand and jam with his right: "After that, me'n Charles, I been trying to be his friend. He didn't want me to interrupt him."

Said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim after two days of practice: "If they cut Charles Barkley, they'd better mail it in."

Knight cut Barkley all right, in a minicamp after the trials.

Barkley has since said he has a love-hate relationship with Knight: "I love to hate him."

What had happened?

Lots of things.

"Charles didn't like anything about Coach Knight," says Alvin Robertson, the Olympic guard who is now an all-star with the San Antonio Spurs. "There were a lot of confrontations with Knight.

"(The coaches) would talk about being on time. (Knight) was telling us all to be punctual and then he showed up about 10 minutes late.

"Charles got up and said, `It's 10 after 5, where the hell have you been?' And Knight just went off - `Let me tell you something, you fat s.o.b., there's only one leader in this army' - he just went totally nuts."

Actually, Barkley wasn't sure he wanted to be there. Knight wasn't sure he wanted him there. More's the pity.

"Charles' whole idea was to make the top five in the draft," says former Olympic guard Leon Wood, now an Atlanta Hawk reserve, once Barkley's road roommate with the Philadelphia 76ers.

"So he kicked butt. To me, he was the best player the first week. After his stock went up and it was known that he was going to be in the top five, he pretty much coasted. I don't think he really wanted to play."

The trials themselves were a weeklong physical ordeal-cultist's paradise. The players practiced three times a day. The monsters were pitted against each other over and over, including the heavyweight championship of Barkley vs. 250-pound Lorenzo Charles, which was fought all over the Indiana University armory.

There were 250-pounders bashing each other to smithereens everywhere you looked: Antoine Carr, Karl Malone, Wayman Tisdale, Joe Kleine.

There was enough talent to stock a league. Eight No. 1 National Basketball Association draft picks would be cut. Six more seniors who eventually went No. 1 that year, such as Otis Thorpe and Kevin Willis, weren't invited.

Twelve lucky players survived. There were Knight's pets - Jordan, the incomparable; Sam Perkins and Chris Mullin, the coach's dreams - plus Ewing, whom Knight farmed out to assistants C.M. Newton, Don Donoher and George Raveling. Then there were eight other players who were about to discover new dimensions in rage.

It's not unusual for Knight to rail at a player, or toss him out of practice. Actually, if there is anything to the war stories Indiana players whisper, then the Olympians got off lightly, indeed. Never did Knight have them vote to see if one of their members deserved to stay on the team, as Knight is once said to have had the other Hoosiers do with Uwe Blab.

Everyone, however, learned how to play basketball the RMK way.

"One day in San Diego, Tisdale took a charge," says Alvin Robertson. "Coach Knight stopped practice and got a magic marker and had him write his name on the floor of the court, for the first time ever (that Tisdale had taken one)."

Says Jon Koncak, an Olympic center now with the Hawks:

"Some guys like Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, he didn't yell at as much because that was their personality. The guys like me and Tisdale and Steve Alford and Joe Kleine and Leon Wood - Leon ran the stadium stairs more than anybody. He'd dribble the ball up the floor and Coach Knight would look at him and say, `Leon, get the hell out of here.' "

Of course, there's a story behind that, too. Knight was never keen on Wood, a pro-style guard who excelled in running a fast break but who had the ball too much for Knight's taste. Knight is said to have allowed his mentor, Pete Newell, to talk him into keeping Leon.

Drilled within an inch of their lives, the Olympians went 8-0 in exhibitions against NBA stars. This looked glamorous but meant relatively little. The pros were out of shape and disorganized, if talented enough to put on a good show.

Then the U.S. team encamped in San Diego for final preparations and scrimmages against teams in the Summer Pro League.

More blowups and another expulsion or two.

"There was one time when we were playing some of the NBA rookies," Koncak says. "They had a bunch of no-names and they were just drilling us. This is the day, I think, that he threw Wayman Tisdale out of the gym in front of Jerry West and all those guys (NBA scouts).

"We're playing these guys who've gone like second, third, fourth, fifth in the draft for, like the San Antonio Spurs, and they'd been practicing a little bit. And they start to kick our butts, to be honest with you.

"So Knight stops practice and says, `I know some of you s.o.b.'s haven't heard of any of these guys, but they're kicking your butts! You've got to be tougher' - blah, blah, blah - `And Wayman, get outta here!'

"He used to get off on doing that stuff."

By the time the Olympics rolled around, the Americans were unbeatable.

They won by an average of 32 points a game and went five games before they ever trailed, at 2-0.

The closest anyone got was West Germany in a 78-67 loss. The Germans came from 22 behind during garbage time while Knight sat on the bench, yelling loudly enough to be heard by nearby photographers, "I can't believe this team! I can't believe this team! They just go out and play the kind of game they want to play!"

If there was no one worthy of being on the floor with them, the Americans were nonetheless brilliant, and the more so because they rarely allowed their level of play to be dragged down.

With drama non-existent, however, attention waned. Attendance in the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., was only 13,500 a game, less than the Lakers averaged that season. When the United States started its semifinal game against Canada, which it had already beaten by 21 points, ABC cut away after five minutes with the United States ahead, 8-6. ABC's basketball announcer, Keith Jackson, was reportedly complaining about lack of air time.

After the United States had won the gold with a final 31-point lambasting of the just-happy-to-be-there Spaniards, and Knight had laid a final tongue-lashing upon the ears of Leon Wood on the way to the dressing room at halftime, people started asking about the Soviets.