Haskins seeks gold in Atlanta

by Scott Bradley

Clem Haskins has experienced enormous success throughout his playing and coaching career in basketball.
As the Gophers head coach, Haskins elevated Minnesota from the Big Ten cellar to the NCAA men’s basketball regional finals in four years. Before playing nine seasons in the NBA, Haskins was an All-American center/guard at Western Kentucky during the 1960s.
But nothing will compare to what Haskins is about to experience.
The same man who has helped revive Minnesota’s basketball tradition is traveling to Chicago today to begin his duties as an assistant coach for the USA Olympic team. For the next six weeks, Haskins will work alongside such individuals as Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Knowing his team’s chances of winning the gold medal are as certain as the existence of mosquitos in Minnesota, Haskins is already referring to being named an assistant Olympic coach as the highlight of his coaching career.
“It’s a great honor for me,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing and being a part of. I will do my best to help bring the gold back to the U.S.”
Haskins will work under USA head coach Lenny Wilkins, who is the winningest coach in NBA history with the Atlanta Hawks. Both coaches played against each other during their NBA careers, and Haskins considers Wilkins a close friend.
Haskins will join Jerry Sloan and Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins as the three coaches assisting Wilkins.
Haskins played for the Chicago Bulls between 1967 and 1970 and during that time, he and Sloan were teammates. Haskins said that knowing the coaching staff helps him going into the Olympics, which begin July 19.
“It’s good to work with someone you know already,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the people I’m working with, especially Lenny because he was the first coach to win 1,000 games.”
Haskins, who will focus his coaching on defense, will meet with the rest of the coaching staff today in Chicago. The team members will arrive June 30 and play five exhibition games before their first Olympic competition late next month.
The USA team won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics, the first year NBA athletes were allowed to play. This year’s squad is highly favored to win again with its NBA talent, but Haskins said there’s still a lot of work to be done between now and then.
“Our goal is to get these guys to play together as one unit,” he said. “And it’s not as easy as it sounds. We have tremendous talent, but they must play as a unit to win the gold.”
Regardless of whether the USA team wins the basketball competition, men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart said Haskins’ experience will benefit him and the Gophers program in the future.
“I think it was a compliment to Clem that he got selected,” Dienhart said. “Wilkins could have selected anybody from the collegiate ranks and his selection of Clem is a reflection of his ability as a coach.”
Haskins isn’t the first Gophers coach to participate in the Olympics. Gymnastics coach Fred Roethlisberger was an assistant for the U.S. team at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.
Haskins’ experience in Atlanta will likely prove invaluable, and he said he’s ready.
“It’s exciting to think about walking onto that court in Atlanta, knowing that I’ll be working with the 12 best players in America,” he said. “Playing to win for your country is a great feeling.”