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A 44-Point Victory Takes Some Heat Off Thompson

When John Thompson was named to coach the U.S. basketball team, the issue of race didn’t take long to rear its ugly head.

Brent Musburger of CBS brought it up publicly, saying, “It’s fair to ask the question, whether John Thompson will put any white guys on this team.”

Well, it wasn’t really fair to ask that, since nobody blinked or spoke up in 1984, when Bobby Knight loaded the U.S. team with five white players, leaving behind blacks Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, who went on to become possibly the world’s two greatest forwards of the moment.

“They weren’t Bobby-style players,” was the explanation given back then and it was universally accepted. Knight was never accused or suspected of racism, because everyone knows he has great and equal contempt for everyone, regardless of race.

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Thompson is a controversial guy, too, but sometimes the controversy spills over into the area of black and white.

The last white starter on Thompson’s Georgetown team was in the 1983-84 season, and his current Georgetown club has one white bench warmer, who is the son of the school’s assistant athletic director.

Besides, Thompson is a gruff, intimidating coach who takes great pains to make his players inaccessible to reporters. If he could hide them in a monastery and let them out only to play games, he would.

Thus, battle lines tend to be drawn between Thompson and the rest of the world, and he seems to find that arrangement comfortable. This mutual lack of understanding between Thompson and some of the outside world is probably what led to the suspicion in some quarters that he wouldn’t pick any white players for the Olympic team.

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Thompson also has come under some criticism from blacks in the Washington, D.C., community because he does not bend over backward to favor black people and black organizations with his money and attention.

He seems to have a proud defiance of many conventional beliefs, including the one that black people who become famous community leaders should focus their energy on helping the rest of the black community.

But as Thompson has said in another context, “When you bend over backward, you can break your back.”

Anyway, for no other discernible motive than the will to win ballgames, Thompson did pick a white player for his Olympic team, a 6-foot 5-inch forward named Dan Majerle (pronounced Marley), from Central Michigan. The unknown soldier.

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And any feeling that Thompson picked Majerle in order to answer the Musburger question, any suspicions that Thompson picked him as a token, are not only insulting to Thompson, but to Majerle.

As we saw Sunday morning, if there was any doubt, Thompson selected the best 12 players he could find who could play his style of ball, and one of them, the player who maybe plays the Thompson style as well as anyone on the team, happens to be white.

Majerle, who starts at small forward, was a key player as the U.S. team crunched a respectable team from Spain, 97-53. Majerle made 5 of 7 shots in the first half, and finished with 12 points.

In Thompson’s liberal substitution pattern, a fresh set of troops thrown into the fray seemingly every two or three minutes, Majerle had the most playing time.

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Thompson never did care much for the easygoing style of basketball, and Majerle is the kind of guy who plays the game with his elbows cocked and his teeth clenched. His defensive style is up close and personal, and he has no trouble running the floor as wing on the fast break, which is so vital to the U.S. style of play.

Just about any imaginable criticism of Thompson’s selection process took a beating Sunday. It’s too early to award the gold medal to the United States, but it’s obvious this is a very good team. Inexperience notwithstanding, the team is poised, quick and hungry.

Maybe mad, too. A rumor has been circulating that Danny Manning was chafing under Thompson’s oppressive rule and considered the possibility of jumping the team.

Manning stayed, of course, and played well Sunday, although in Thompson’s style of ball, it’s difficult to stand out. Instead of intimidating the Spanish players with individual brilliance, the United States basically scared its opponents to death with its collective skills and intensity.

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Maybe that’s what Bobby Knight’s team did, too, but we’ll never know how good that ’84 Olympic gold medal team was, because it played in a relative vacuum.

This edition of the U.S. Olympic hoop dynasty has a chance to be the best ever. It has one element going for it that most U.S. teams in the past did not--legitimate competition.

The world, it was being said going into the Games--by Thompson, among others--has caught up with U.S. basketball.

Well, the Iberian Peninsula portion of the world obviously hasn’t, and it soon will be seen if the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakian portions of the world have.

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As for any controversy that might arise along the way, Thompson can deal with it. Probably couldn’t live without it.


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