His still is an imposing figure, towering on this particular day over those NBA players sitting on chairs and listening to his every word.
John Thompson is a Hall of Famer whose basketball coaching career at Georgetown spanned 27 years and included close to 600 wins, defined as much by the countless players he sent to the NBA as the white towel that he draped over a shoulder for each game.
Ironic, though. It was a loss Thompson suffered that played a major part in how today’s USA Basketball program is shaped, a vision of chairman Jerry Colangelo that has delivered immense success and a burning desire by those who play the game at its highest level to be included.
Thompson was the Olympic coach in 1988, when Russia beat the U.S. in the semifinals of the Seoul Games. It was the first time the Americans failed to reach a gold medal game in basketball and the last time they sent college players to pursue Olympic glory.
“The one thing I remember is that people took for granted that kids wanted to play on the Olympic team,” Thompson said. “I remember us calling dormitories looking for kids and trying to find where they were over the summer and trying to convince them to come try out.
“The (NBA players) now, these guys are working and playing all year, and then they come here to make this kind of commitment, which is not easy. I have a lot of respect for these guys. They are as patriotic as anyone in (the Olympics). We couldn’t find kids back (in 1988). It’s not as easy as people think to assemble this team.”
It is not, at least now, for a lack of interest.
Twenty-eight players attended a four-day minicamp here this week that concludes with tonight’s intrasquad scrimmage at the Thomas & Mack Center, the beginning of the program’s three-year journey to the Rio Games and its pursuit of a third straight gold medal under the guidance of Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski.
It is as un-Athens a program as Colangelo could have dreamed, as unlike that bronze-medal American team from 2004 in Greece whose actions lost the respect of the basketball community across the world. They neither looked nor acted the part.
They do now.
A gold medal in 2008 at the Beijing Games was followed by another last summer in London, and what many witnessed here this week as the U.S. went through practices at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center is the continuation of all the hopes Colangelo owned when handed complete control of the program following the mess in Athens.
Those here could be fighting for just a handful of spots on the team that will compete at the Worlds in Spain next year and then in Rio in 2016. LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Kevin Love. Deron Williams. Chris Paul. Dwight Howard. Derrick Rose. None participated this week, and yet all have to be considered short-list locks if healthy and willing, particularly for the Olympics. Durant and Love committed for the Worlds on Wednesday.
But that is what makes this week so impressive, as more and more millionaires put egos aside for the opportunity to chase the same sort of moment James and Kobe Bryant and the nation’s best experienced twice over the past eight years.
“We don’t see any slippage, and I don’t think we will,” Colangelo said. “If we can keep everything together — the continuity and the infrastructure — it will keep going for the foreseeable future. No one can predict how things will look 20 years from now, but it’s in good shape.
“I always had the confidence we could fix it and make it work and win. All of that happened. I never have low expectations. People say the best thing that ever happened was (the U.S.) getting beat in Greece. Really, it isn’t. But because we lost, we knew we were vulnerable. I do think it gave us even more resolve.”
Thompson is adamant America never should return to a time when college players are sent to the Olympics to compete against professionals, that the game has evolved enough globally to the point that results like the one his team suffered in Seoul and the one in Athens years later merely should remind the U.S. what can occur when focus isn’t sharp and superiority is taken for granted.
He also realizes the types of hands USA Basketball resides in with Colangelo and Krzyzewski.
“They know what the hell they’re doing,” Thompson said. “You’re not going to get anything done if the people at the top don’t understand what the challenge is. Both of them understand all of it. The order, the organization, how they approach this.
“We couldn’t find kids back (in 1988) ...”
They can now. Kids. Pros. Call them what you want.
They’re all in.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.