Gus Thompson had two goals heading to Mexico City for the 14th Pan American Maccabi Games: 1) To experience a new culture and 2) to win gold. The recent Scarsdale High School graduate returned to Scarsdale earlier this week having achieved both.
As a member of the Maccabi USA youth (ages 16/17) men’s basketball team, Thompson made his presence felt both on and off the court, where he averaged about 12 to 14 minutes per game over the five 40-minute games.
The U.S. team bulldozed its way through pool play against Australia, Mexico, Columbia and Israel, averaging 107 points per game. The games consisted of two 20-minute halves, different from the four eight-minute quarters the American high schoolers are used to playing. There was also a 24-second shot clock.
“That was perfect for us,” coach Josh Javer said. “We ran and we pushed, so 107 points seems like a lot, but the games are long.”
The closest pool play opponent was Israel, at about a 40-point deficit.
“These other countries just don’t have the depth and they don’t know how to play as well,” Javer said. “It’s a weird thing. You see the layup lines and you think athletically everyone looks similar. We didn’t have anyone taller than 6-3. We weren’t big, but when you get to the style of play, our kids are so prepared. Obviously they’re all coming from good programs, but it’s the little things like angles on defense and the way we communicate and play the game is just so different. These other teams didn’t stand a chance.”
The U.S. team spent four days together in Dallas for a bit of preseason work and blended together well heading down to Mexico.
“The biggest thing was just unselfishness in the sense that even though we had so little experience playing with each other the only team that could beat us was us,” Thompson said. “It’s making that extra pass. That really showed throughout the four pool play games.”
Javer noted, “When we got to Mexico City the chemistry was already really good. After practice I was really surprised how good these guys really were. You see game films and maybe catch a random game, but when they were playing altogether I felt this team could win Section 1 by 30 points in AA.
“When we got there and started to play a little bit we knew it was going to take a monster effort to beat us.”
The top four teams advanced to the medal games, with one playing two and three playing four. The U.S. and Israel met up once again for gold, but this time Israel stepped up its game.
With the U.S. team not showing that cohesiveness and fundamental play it had in pool play, Israel led by double digits in the first half until the U.S. made a big run and went on to win 82-63 to take home gold.
Thompson credited teammate Shmuli Coates for a hustle play from the three-point line to get a loose ball at midcourt for turning things around for the U.S. against Israel in the finals.
“When he put his body on the line it got us fired up and we started playing for each other again,” Thompson said, adding, “I think in five minutes we went from down 12 points to up 12 points… Once that happened we just couldn’t be beat.”
Winning the gold with a comeback effort made it seem more worthwhile, like the team earned it.
“In pool play we never dealt with any adversity and it felt good that we were winning, but it didn’t feel good we didn’t get pushed back by anyone,” Thompson said. “It was all fun and games until that championship game. Going out there and playing and competing in a close game felt good.”
Thompson was a presence off the bench for the U.S. team. He gave the starting center a rest and did some rebounding, ball distribution and scored some points, too.
“It was highlighted by 7 or 10 points against Columbia where he made a three,” Javer said. “He contributed exactly how we thought he would with rebounds, finding the open guy. He was always the first one off the bench to give everyone a high five.”
Setting the tone for the team was something Thompson started in Dallas. Javer knew two things from the moment he was named the team’s coach: 1) That Lee Joffe would be his assistant coach and 2) Thompson would be on the team for his intangibles.
After all, the trio has been a force in the local JCC’s Maccabi Games over the years and they wanted to showcase that on an international level. Thompson, though never the best player on paper on his JCC Maccabi team in the summers, always emerged as the go-to guy when it mattered most.
“Chemistry-wise when you go on these trips it’s so important everybody likes each other, has a good time,” Javer said. “Gus had a leadership role that was really strong. Everybody loved him and listened to him. Basketball-wise he came off the bench and gave us some good minutes.”
Javer didn’t want it to end. Five games with this group just wasn’t enough.
“Camaraderie was really good,” he said. “It’s one of these things you’re lucky to do and you’re like, ‘How is these only lasting five days?... These were legitimately some of the best 17- and 18-year-old Jewish players in the country. I think Gus knew that and ran with it. He was happy to be part of it.”
Thompson, who played four years of varsity tennis and one year of varsity basketball for Scarsdale, also savored the off-court experiences, especially when it came to cuisine. “I think Gus might have eaten at every restaurant in the city,” Javer joked.
“We had a great time with that,” Thompson admitted. “We had a lot more free time than Maccabi Games in the past and me and my roommate just went in a direction until we found something to eat. We got to eat at a bunch of amazing local restaurants.”
Seeing the sights was also a boost to the experience, including the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.
“Seeing those pyramids and getting to go to the top of the Sun Pyramid was a very amazing, interesting experience,” Thompson said. “It’s amazing to think about how long ago the pyramids were built and how I was able to stand on a monument from that time.”
Like the JCC Maccabi Games, there was a day of service in Mexico City. The basketball players drove an hour into the mountains to about 10,000 feet elevation to help fit locals who didn’t have the means for eyeglasses. “That was a very rewarding thing,” Thompson said.
Thompson will join older siblings Bebe and Sol at Yale in the fall.