Sunday, July 11, 2004

Moeller grad was only American to medal in '80


Dual-citizen Mike Sylvester won silver with the Italian basketball team

By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

The most curious legacy of Mike Sylvester's accomplished sporting career was that he was the only American to medal in the 1980 Olympics.

"I became a trivia question," he said.

The Loveland resident, a Moeller High grad, led Italy to a silver medal in basketball. The curiosity of his story led major media outlets to fixate on him during an Olympics the United States was boycotting.

"I had an entourage following me," Sylvester said. "Newsweek. The CBS Evening News. Phil Donahue wanted me on his show. People were looking for any angle, and I guess my story was special."

Sylvester, 52, was then six years into a 17-year professional basketball career in Italy. Three years earlier, he had gained dual nationality after discovering his grandfather had retained his Italian citizenship when emigrating to America.

That wasn't a big deal until he was asked to join the Italian national team. In the Olympic qualification tournament in Geneva, Sylvester almost single-handedly led Italy past several European rivals to qualify for the Games.

Then the U.S. boycott was announced, and he wondered whether he should honor it.

"An Italian player refusing an invitation (to play in the Olympics) potentially could be banned from playing professionally over there," he said. "That was my career. I didn't want that to happen."

Sylvester said he contacted the U.S. State Department and explained his dilemma, and they advised him to play.

Sylvester had a sprained ankle during the Games and thus wasn't his team's high scorer, but the Italians scored a huge semifinal upset of the Soviet Union before losing the gold-medal game to Yugoslavia.

"I have to admit that when I hit the podium to get my medal, I never felt more Italian in my life," he said.

Sylvester, who played at the University of Dayton and later coached two minor-league basketball teams, is best known now as the father of Matt Sylvester, a Moeller grad who's playing basketball at Ohio State.

But in 1980, Sylvester was the biggest story in Italy. Just before the Games, his contract was sold from Milan to Pesaro for $500,000 - which at the time was the largest amount every paid for a player in Italy's pro league.

How big was the news?

Said Sylvester: "That was about the same time there was an attempt made on the pope's life. They had those placards out on the newsstand, and I saw one with the main headline, 'Sylvester transfers to Pedro.' And below that was, 'Attempt made on pope.' "

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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