Bronze-medal run a gold-medal example of Rudy Tomjanovich's coaching acumen

Hall of Fame hopeful coach did some of his best work in directing Team USA's finish in 1998

Fran Blinebury

If the “Dream Team” had been there, Rudy Tomjanovich would have gone home with a gold medal.

If the “Dream Team” — Grant Hill, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway and the rest of the big-name NBA stars at the time — had been there, the outcome would have been a foregone conclusion. The United States likely would have won by 10, 20 or 30 points per game.

If the “Dream Team” had been there, the only question might have been whether Nike or Adidas won the sneaker wars.

The 1998 World Championship of Basketball in Athens, Greece ended with Yugoslavia edging Russia for the gold medal and Tomjanovich’s American team whipping the home country for a third-place finish, which was anything but a bronze bust.

When it comes time to make selections for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2017, “Rudy T” has a resume that is both short and sweet, a couple of attributes that work both for and against him.

In an age when coaches are often known to stay around for generations, Tomjanovich’s career on the bench spanned just 11 full seasons and parts of two others, shortened by a bout with bladder cancer. In that time, he compiled a record of 527-416 (.559), led the Houston Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and ’95 and coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. From 1994-95, his Rockets won a record nine consecutive playoff road games and a record six straight elimination games. The ’95 Rockets are the only team in history to win four playoff series over teams with at least 57 regular season wins.

“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!” became Tomjanovich’s tagline in 1995, after the Rockets became the only No. 6 seed ever to win the NBA title.

But if there is an achievement full of heart and yet most overlooked in Rudy T’s career, a hidden, under-appreciated gem, it is that work done one summer in Athens. Tomjanovich had been named Team USA coach a year earlier and had expected to lead a roster filled with All-Stars against the world. Then the league’s labor lockout in 1998 scratched NBA players from taking part and they were replaced by a collection of ex-collegians and journeymen.

“This was the greatest basketball experience of my life,” said 33-year-old forward David Wood, who had played around the world for 13 pro teams and eight different NBA franchises. “It was an honor to play for my country and for my coach. This will always be special.”

It was special because of the circumstances that brought them together for a 4 1/2-week whirlwind tour through four counties as a disparate group of European exiles, Continental Basketball Association lifers and one college star stepped into the breach left by the “Dream Team’s” absence. The college star, point guard Mateen Cleaves, was expected to run the offense and solidify the lineup, but he suffered a severe ankle sprain on the even of the tournament and never played a minute. Wood, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy King, Brad Miller and the rest played on.

The question of their worthiness dogged their every step.How could they fill the Dream Team’s high-tops? How could they ever live up to the great American expectations back home?

Simply by following Tomjanovich’s lead and believing.

“With the Dream Team the talent level, of course, would have been overwhelming,” Tomjanovich said. “With that team, you’re talking about detail work, getting plays right, trying to do this and that and, at the same time entertain everybody.

“That’s almost a no-win situation. If you win by 15 or 20, people say ‘why it wasn’t 25 or 30?’ In spite of the disappointment of third place, this felt more satisfying.”

Precisely because it was. Tomjanovich and his staff fought the odds of playing against veteran national teams from around the globe that had been together for years and a deck that was stacked against them. First, the NBA stars abandoned them. Then, a group of agents sabotaged their effort, persuading experienced former NBA players — i.e. Dominique Wilkins and Byron Scott — to pass on invitations as a show of support for the union.

In the end, what did the U.S. fans miss without the Dream Team, except a gold medal that would have come from overkill in the place of true competition. What they got instead was an effort from a gritty bunch that was truly inspirational.

Tomjanovich’s squad had nearly pulled off a miracle in the semifinals, letting a 10-point lead over Russia slip away. Those of us who were there will always remember those last three minutes, the misplays, the several horrible calls by the officials. It was a different, quicker, more unfamiliar game to the Americans in a time when the NBA rules had not yet been changed to allow more flow and international players did not yet populate nearly one-fourth of the league.

Tomjanovich would not allow them to stay down from the emotional blow. In the fragile hours when the loss to Russia still hurt like an open wound, Tomjanovich got them to look at the bigger picture accomplishment that could come from winning the third place game over Greece and leaving with their heads held up.

This team played hard, running their legs and not their mouths. There was little ego, certainly no sense of entitlement.

“Those guys got as much out of what they have as any team I’ve ever been around,” Tomjanovich said.

So did a coach, who deserves to be bronzed again.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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