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  •   Thompson's U.S. Team Wins Olympic Bronze

    By Michael Wilbon
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, September 30, 1998; Page D8

    The U.S. basketball team beat Australia Thursday night, 78-49, to complete Olympic competition by earning a bronze medal that will always remind the players of what was, perhaps, one of the biggest upsets in international basketball history.

    Coach John Thompson stormed the sideline Thursday, criticizing and encouraging and doing the things he normally does, which surprised many in attendance. "I purposely wanted to be extremely emotional," Thompson said. "These kids played hard and they played well. I told them they did not need to go out on an empty note.

    "No matter how you look at it statistically, we made one mistake. It was a big mistake."

    Thompson knows he will be hit by criticism when he returns to the United States this weekend. Disappointed Americans are already questioning his player selection, among other things. But it is not something Thompson is overly concerned about or unprepared to deal with.

    "The people who like you will sympathize with you," he said. "Those people who don't like you will criticize you. I would never have accepted this responsibility if I didn't think I could handle it either way. I and we did everything we possibly could to work toward and achieve a certain goal."

    Thompson knew that, after the 82-76 loss to the Soviet Union in an Olympic semifinal, getting up for the bronze medal game would be incredibly difficult for his team.

    But five U.S. players scored in double figures, including Mitch Richmond, Dan Majerle and David Robinson, each of whom had 12 points. And the Americans pressed the Australians until almost the very end, holding star shooter Andrew Gaze – bound for Seton Hall and at least two more battles a season with Thompson – to 17 points.

    The Americans obviously played hard, even if their hearts weren't in it. "There's only one medal that we wanted here," Thompson said. "I told them before the game, you play this one for pride, and because you've put a lot of effort into what we've done . . . "

    Most of Thompson's comments focused on the 12 players. But as he did in emotional, draining losses in the NCAA championship games to North Carolina (1982) and Villanova (1985), Thompson took full responsibility for the loss.

    "I have had to live with many burdens in my life," he said. "Sometimes, I have dealt better with the burdens than I have with the successes ... As I said, I'm very disappointed. But I'd be more disappointed with myself if I didn't continue to try. A very smart person once said you're not a failure until you stop trying. Honestly, we tried to do the best we could.

    "The demands are great," Thompson said, adding he would not have wanted to accept the challenge if they weren't, and that the great deeds expected of a U.S. Olympic basketball team are the highest compliment that can be paid to U.S. success historically.

    When the talk turned to Xs and Os, Thompson started by saying, "Hindsight is 20-20."

    He indicated he didn't buy the theory that this team was so defensive oriented it didn't properly use the offensive talents of players such as Robinson and Danny Manning, who didn't score a single point against the Soviets on Wednesday.

    "You compare our offensive stats with the Soviets," Thompson said, "and our stats are very comparable. You can't play basketball without emphasizing offense."

    There was also the unrealistic expectation that a defense, just because it was coached by Thompson, would be as tough and effective as those of Thompson's Georgetown teams. "Over a four-year period of time," Thompson said, "it's easy to establish roles." Over a four-month period, it's infinitely more difficult, he said.

    Thompson said he would have only played the what-if game, as it concerned personnel, if Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing had been available. And he repeated a statement he made earlier in the summer that he advocates professional players being allowed in future Olympic basketball competitions.

    Bill Wall, executive director of the Amateur Basketball Assocation/USA, said he'd like to have seen the game played with a healthy Hersey Hawkins, the U.S. team's fabulous outside shooter. Hawkins, a 6-foot-3 guard from Bradley, missed the final three games because of a strained knee.

    It all seemed such a sour experience for the U.S. players. "I feel for them," Canadian player Jay Triano said, "because I know what kind of criticism they're going to get in the States."

    But Manning, who had 10 points in his final amateur game Thursday before joining the Los Angeles Clippers, said he leaves at least knowing he gave it everything. "We worked hard every game," Manning said. "A lot of teams had bad games here but we picked ours at the wrong time ... I admit I was frustrated [zero for four against the Soviets]. I had my opportunties, but things didn't click."

    Thompson had said he would talk specifically about the U.S. procedures for participating in this tournament and on the NBA's role in helping star center Arvidas Sabonis and the Soviets prepare for this competition.

    But Thompson hadn't planned on losing. "It would be senseless," he said, "for me after losing to harp on that now ... Only the victor is able to identify the war criminals."

    © Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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