The scores came out of places like Tbilisi, Vilnius as well as Moscow and they confirmed what John Thompson had been saying all along. The Russians are tough. Atlanta Hawks 85, USSR 84; Hawks 110, USSR 105. In Moscow, it was USSR 132, Hawks 123.
"I was even impressed with the losses," Thompson was saying the other day. "Every game was close. The Atlanta Hawks had all they could do to handle them and now . . . "
And now John Thompson may have to do it with a different team. A younger team. His team. The United States Olympic team.
Once every four years, for a two-week period, U.S. basketball puts its reputation on the line at the Olympic Games. While the rest of world will be sending national teams three years in the making and developing, the U.S. is putting together its usual 10-week miracle that everyone expects to result in another gold medal.
"But it's not getting any easier," warned Thompson in one of his weekly telephone press conferences. "All you have to do is look around. Check the scores. See what happened at the Pan Am Games last year (Brazil 120, U.S. 115). Look what happened to the Hawks."
Thompson's task is to put together a team in 10 weeks and then go out and beat the Brazilians and the Yugoslavs and, of course, the Russians. Take the gold. Do all that and you might receive a pat on the back. Lose and you're going to have to answer a lot of questions.
He'll have to do it with players like David Robinson, Danny Manning, J.R. Reid, Brian Shaw, Sean Elliott and Stacey King and Charles Smith.
And they're all going to be on display for the first time Sunday afternoon when the Olympians face a group of NBA all-stars at the Providence Civic Center. Thompson says don't expect to see a finished product. "Still experimenting," he said. "We're still trying to find out who can do what and in what situations. Everyone is working extremely hard, I have no complaints there. But I'd to see more cohesion. I'd like to see some people taking charge."
He is an intriguing figure, John Thompson. Depending upon your view, he can be a huge, menacing man, stalking the sidelines working the officials for every edge he can get. Or he can be a great leader of young men _ work hard, play hard. The enjoyment comes in doing well and winning. Gavitt, once his freshman coach at Providence College, chuckles at the image.
"All people see is the intensity and his great size and that towel draped over his shoulder," says Gavitt. "What people don't know is what kind of coach he is. He's got to be one of the most organized people I've ever seen. He leaves no stone unturned. He's a great coach. A great motivator. A great choice for this team. He coaches the style that's needed to win."
Watch the Olympians and you will see the Georgetown Hoyas, except they'll be wearing red, white and blue uniforms. And there'll be a little more talent. But the style will be the same _ baseline to baseline pressure; baskets off transition. Speed and quickness will be the Olympians' calling card.
"I have to coach the style I know best. That only makes sense," says Thompson. "But it also happens to be the style we need to win the gold medal. I don't think we can win any other way."
International basketball is now a game of 6-9 Europeans taking jump shots behind the three-point line (a mere 20 feet, 6 inches from the basket). The Soviets and the Yugoslavs, for example, predicate much of their offense on the three-pointer. Thompson doesn't know how good his kids are at the three-pointer yet.
"But if we can't hit it," he says, "the least we can do is defend against it. We have to make them shoot with someone right in their face."
At the moment, Thompson has 17 players and he has to cut to 12 _ ten on the roster plus two alternates. And don't ask him who is leading where. If there are questions, they revolve around two postions _ point guard and center.
At center, he has David Robinson, the Naval Academy All-American of two years ago. But Robinson has had to struggle to get back into his playing shape.
"It's obvious that he was set back by the year layoff," admitted Thompson. "But he has worked extremely hard at getting his game up another level. No one has worked harder."
At point guard, the search is still on. Charles Smith, who is Thompson's own play-making guard at Georgetown, remains a leading candidate for obvious reasons. But Thompson also has looked at others _ Brian Shaw, the 6-6 Celtic draft choice, Jeff Grayer of Iowa State, Willie Anderson of Georgia, Bimbo Coles of Virgina Tech.