Gene Smith has a home-court advantage. While other players were rushing around, trying to figure out which end was up at Georgetown's McDonough Gymnasium, Smith calmly found his locker, his favorite basket, his favorite coach, and then went to work.
"I love this place," he said. "I'm waiting to run sprints. I know all the tricks around here. I know how to get out of the manager's sight, and steal a few feet of court. I know the dead spots on the court. I know the live ones, too."Smith spent four years of his life at McDonough, sweating, working and trying to learn how to play Georgetown-style basketball under Coach John Thompson. Now, four years after graduation, Smith is back at Georgetown, reunited with his college coach, and trying to pass another checkpoint to continue on an unlikely path to the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul.
Smith is a member of the 11-man United States select team that will begin a tour of Europe next week, and he could be called back for the next set of U.S. Olympic team trials at Georgetown, July 17. Directing this story is Thompson, the U.S. Olympic coach with a unique talent for putting together teams without stars. Smith fits the mold.
"I can make the Olympic team if I play my game," Smith said. "My game is defense. I'm all out guts and glory. That's what America was built on. I'm an expendable guy, the kind who would be at the forefront of the next American war."
Smith was in the middle of the Hoyas' Big East battles in the early 1980s. He was Thompson's on-court alter-ego, a point guard who led with his ferocity. Smith averaged only 4.7 points a game in his senior year, but he was a vital contributor to Georgetown's championship season. In an incident that revealed his unselfishness, Smith passed up playing in the championship game against Houston because of a pulled leg muscle. He limped off the Seattle Kingdome court a champion.
"There were a lot of strange things going on in my head that night," he said. "But the bottom line is we won."
Smith didn't live in a glory-days dream after college. After failing a tryout with the Indiana Pacers, he hooked on with Nike, working first in Memphis, and then heading west to Spokane, Wash., to manage a store and consult in product development. Smith kept in shape playing in a recreation league, never in his wildest dreams figuring that he would be asked to play for America's Team.
That was all before The Call. Two weeks before last month's initial U.S. trials in Colorado Springs, Thompson called Smith at work.
"I never thought I would play for John Thompson again," Smith said. "At first, I thought he wanted me to be a coach, or talk with the guys. Then, he started talking about playing. I didn't hesitate. You bust your butt to represent the United States."
At the trials, Smith was diving for loose balls and playing aggressive defense, all the time showing others what it took to play for Thompson.
"I've played for the guy for four years, and I know exactly what he'll try to get across - your defense is your offense," Smith said. "The idea is to create easy baskets."
Smith realizes that nothing will come easy for him in his pursuit to make the Olympic team. He is 25, several years older than most of his competitors for the 12 spots on the team. But he is in terrific shape after three-a-day workouts in Portland. And he has the home-court advantage.
"I understand the purpose of Thompson's drills," he said. "But I can never explain him. I respect him, I know what his goals and objectives are, but I'm only 25. I need years before I can explain John Thompson. Winning is what he and I share."
Apparently, they don't share the same idea when it comes to basketball shoes. The U.S. team will wear Converse-brand sneakers.
"Thompson asked if anyone had any problems wearing Converse," Smith said. "I raised my hand and said yes. I work for Nike. He said, we'll be wearing Converse. When democracy breaks down, dictatorship takes over."
(BX) (BX) (BX)
Two players to watch closely on the select team tour are former Navy center David Robinson, and Rex Chapman, the Kentucky sophomore who will enter the National Basketball Association next season.
The nine-day, tour, which begins June 17 in Kotka, Finland, was designed to give Robinson needed work. Since participating in last year's Pan American Games, Robinson has played sparingly while fulfilling a two-year active military service commitment.
"On a scale of one to ten, where I want to be, I'm at a six," Robinson said. "There are a lot of things I want to work on."
Chapman performed poorly during the first set of trials and even Thompson said: "We're still looking for the real Rex Chapman."
The real Rex Chapman said he is ready to display his jump shot in Europe. He'll need to perform well to advance to the next trials at Georgetown. Seventeen players, led by Kansas' Danny Manning and Robinson, have already earned slots in the July practice sessions.
"I know this is a second chance for me," Chapman said. "My concentration just wasn't there at the first trials. I didn't play as well as I should have."