With the Soviet Union staying home from the Los Angeles Olympics, a gold medal for the US men's basketball team might appear to be in the bag. The Soviets, after all, are responsible for the only Olympic defeat ever handed the the Americans, a controversial loss at Munich in 1972. That was the last time the two teams met in Olympic competition.
A rematch would have made for compelling viewing this summer, with a strong US team trying to win back the gold it relinquished during the 1980 boycott. The possibilities of a US-USSR final seemed good, too. The Soviets are the defending world champions, and, in 7 ft. 2 in. center Arvidas Sabonis, they have the man US Coach Bobby Knight has called ''potentially the best player in the world, amateur or professional.''
Even without the Russians, however, the competition could be a lot tougher than some people imagine. To make that point, Knight and his assistant coaches are visiting each member of the US team to discuss the Soviet pullout and to build motivation. He might want to remind them, for instance, that the United States hasn't won the quadrennial basketball world championships since 1954, partly because of the timing of the competition.
Italy, which captured the Olympic silver medal in 1980, is among the countries the US must keep its eye on. The Italian team has become a basketball power that plays the physically aggressive style suited to international rules.
Yugoslavia may be a contender, too. The Yugoslavs were sub-par at last year's European championships, but they will arrive in L.A. with several of the same players who won the gold in Moscow. Brazil and Canada are no pushovers, either, and showed well in last summer's Pan American Games, where the US won, but not in a cakewalk.
Basically, the world is catching up to the US. Partly, says Kansas State's Jack Hartman, coach of the Pan-Am squad, because American coaches have shared their basketball expertise so freely. ''For years we've sent coaches all over the world to teach the game,'' he said, ''and it's marvelous to see how well other countries have learned. But they have learned so well that they are difficult to beat.''
A prime example of basketball diplomacy occurred last year, when the United States Information Agency arranged for a $10,000 shipment of basketball equipment to the East African nation of Burundi.
For sheer numbers of good players, there's still no country that can compare to the US. But as George Raveling, the assistant US Olympic coach, points out, ''In international play, all that matters is your top 12 people.'' Philadelphia's Super Bowl bid
At the National Football League's recent spring meeting Philadelphia received serious consideration as a future Super Bowl site. The prospect of playing a January game in Philadelphia shocked some observers. The NFL has traditionally selected warm-weather locations such as Miami and Pasadena for its championship game. The lone exception was two years ago, when the Super Bowl was held indoors at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Pasadena was eventually awarded the 1987 game at the Rose Bowl, while San Diego secured the '88 title game. When the NFL championship game was last held in Philadelphia, in 1960, the weather was pleasantly sunny, but in 1948 several inches of snow covered the field. The average Philadelphia temperature on previous Super Sundays, however, has been a relatively comfortable 391/2 degrees, a fact city officials and the Eagles impressed upon league voters. Furthermore, they reasoned, if the NFL can hold conference championships in cold-weather cities without domed stadiums, these cities ought to be suitable for the Super Bowl as well.