From the moment he accepted the position as head coach of the Maccabi USA youth men’s basketball team for the 14th Pan American Maccabi Games, Josh Javer knew he wanted Gus Thompson on his team.
Thompson, a Scarsdale High School senior, had played for Javer and assistant coach Lee Joffe for the Westchester Maccabi Games teams the last four years, and the Junior Maccabi Games before that, and when the team needed a clutch performance, it was most often Thompson stepping up amongst the local players.
“We had Gus since he was 10 or 11,” Javer said. “We found out we were doing this in the middle of the Games in California this past summer and Gus was our best player. We were disappointed with some other players from here and Long Island and how they performed, so we looked at Gus and for basketball reasons we wanted to have him, but for every other reason under the sun we wanted him to come with us.”
Javer and Joffe also like Thompson’s ability to lead and build a team.
“Guys want to be around him,” Javer said. “Guys listen to him. He makes the experience fun. It’s almost like eight weeks of camp in one week. You’re with everybody 24/7 for a full week, so you’ve got to have people there that you want to go with. If you don’t, it’s going to take away from the experience for everybody. It’s not AAU. It’s not just basketball. It’s social, it’s cultural, it’s a unique event, which is why I give up my time.”
Thompson remembers his first Junior Maccabi experience in Philadelphia with Javer and Joffe. “This summer it will be two weeks, but every other summer being with them for a week was just a blast,” he said. “It’s a fun way to travel. It’s kind of like a vacation within sports.”
The Games will take place July 5-15 in Mexico City. Thompson is one of more than 400 athletes representing the United States and among more than 2,500 athletes from 19 countries playing 24 sports. Thompson’s team will train from July 1-5 in Dallas before heading to Mexico.
The rest of the roster is made up of players from Michigan, Arizona, New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio and New York.
Thompson understands his role with the team. “I am fairly confident to say I’m not going to be one of the more skilled guys there, but I think after talking to the coaches they think I can use my size and get up and down the court in a way that’s conducive to the way this team is going to play,” he said.
In addition to seeing and experiencing Mexico for the first time and immersing himself in the culture, Thompson has his sights set on winning gold.
“The coaches always say every year that you don’t remember what you did in what game — you remember the end result,” Thompson said. “That is true. From the past four years we won the gold medal in Birmingham, bronze in St. Louis, Orange County we didn’t medal, and Milwaukee we got the bronze as well. That’s all you remember. I want to win a gold medal to say I went to Mexico City and won a gold medal.”
Thompson was 6 feet tall in middle school, yet Javer liked to use him to handle the ball and build his skills to make him a well-rounded ballplayer. That paid off for the teams Thompson has played on as well as for himself.
“I was always one of the bigger kids and having good coordination and athleticism for tennis it translated on the basketball court,” Thompson said. “The summer of eighth grade I felt I developed my skills pretty well for basketball. I like to play as almost a small forward out on the wing. That’s when I felt most in tune with basketball.”
Seeing Thompson play his first and only year of varsity basketball for Scarsdale this winter assured Javer further that he had picked the right player to build his team around. It also gave Thompson quality competition with the likes of Mount Vernon and New Rochelle.
As a starter for the Raiders alongside All-State players Cole Kattan and Jayshen Saigal, Thompson averaged 5.2 points per game and had 135 rebounds, 17 assists, 14 steals, 13 three-pointers and eight blocks.
“I would credit Lee with getting all over him and telling him he’s got to play varsity,” Javer said. “I don’t know why he didn’t play and I don’t want to get into that, but Joe Amelio is a really good guy and Gus was comfortable with him. I knew he was going to help the team. We saw what he can do the past few summers. His role in Scarsdale is exactly what we’re going to ask him to do. We’ve got a lot of shooters, a couple of Division 1 kids who have offers already, so we’re going to tell him to rebound, take charges, to get garbage points, pick guys up off the floor. And he’ll do it.”
Even if Thompson didn’t play varsity, he was going to be on the Maccabi roster. “You don’t always need 12 of the best players,” Javer said. “You need other guys to not want to take every shot. Most of the kids are the leading scorer on their high school teams.
“He did have a good season and he did get coached really well and he got so much more refined than this past summer even though he was playing in tennis shoes.”
Tennis shoes is no surprise for Thompson, who played varsity all four years for the Raiders, including the last two years in the No. 1 double spot.
“When I was really young I really only played tennis until I was 10 or 11 years old,” Thompson said. “I swam a little bit, but never really that seriously. I was just playing a lot of tennis. Around 11 or 12 I felt that it was too much tennis, too competitive and taking up too much of my time at that young of an age. I toned down the tennis a little bit and picked up basketball in about fifth or sixth grade.”
He traveled the country and played tournaments, but after playing junior varsity as a freshman he opted to go back to tennis.
“I guess I could say I didn’t really have the greatest experience, so I decided to pick back up with tennis my freshman year,” he said. “This year I thought, why not play one last year of basketball for the school my senior year.”
For Thompson, who will enroll at Yale in the fall, tennis and basketball go hand in hand. “With tennis I’m maintaining my footwork and I’m still able to move on the court,” he said. “I think tennis also adds some dimensions to my game. I was playing the other day and I noticed on the defensive end my hands felt a little quicker. I was making more pass deflections and stuff like that. I think overall staying active and getting some shots up once in a while will get me ready. Then using the training camp will really prepare me.”