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Boxing Team: Hey, We’re Just Like Any Other Family

July 16, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ This was a day for the U.S. boxing team to do a little image repair.

They mugged for the television cameras. They pawed at each other playfully. They were all smiles when told to assemble for a group portrait.

After three long _ make that really long _ months in the gymnasium, there was a sense of relief that the Olympics are finally here. This will seem like a bout against Peter McNeeley compared to the strenuous workouts, the personality clashes, the legal troubles.

``It’s been a long, hard road,″ coach Al Mitchell conceded Monday, the team assembled around him in a location totally unbecoming of its image, the swanky Ritz Carlton hotel. ``We are little tired of each other. I’m tired of them and I’m sure they’re tired of me.″

During the longest pre-Olympic training session ever undertaken by a U.S. team, there were reports that the boxers were tired of the regimented schedule and the coaches were disgusted with the prima donnas they had assembled.

Now, everyone says, it was all overblown. They say the team endured the normal tensions associated with bringing together 12 distinctly different human beings _ nothing more, nothing less.

``Me and my brothers fight and argue all the time,″ said 19-year-old bantamweight Zahir Raheem, one of four teen-agers on the youngest American team ever. ``Things are itchy and scratchy and then you get right back together. This team is the same way. We’re just like brothers and sisters.″

That may be the case, but it didn’t help when two boxers had to deal with legal problems. Light middleweight David Reid was arrested June 19 on misdemeanor charges of domestic violence and battery, and the following day it was revealed that super heavyweight Lawrence Clay-Bey is enrolled in a court-ordered rehabilitation program as part of a guilty plea to sexual assault charges in a February 1995 incident.

``At first, it was somewhat of a distraction,″ said Clay-Bey, who at age 30 is the oldest boxer on the team and was elected team captain a few days ago. ``It bothered me that something so old would come back to haunt me. But I sat down and talked with people who are close and dear to me, and they told me ... not to let it bother me so much.″

Mitchell said he’s noticed a change since the team broke camp in Augusta and checked into the Olympic Village last Friday.

``I saw them come together,″ the coach said. ``They’ve learned that it’s not all about gold medals, hanging out at the malls, hanging out with the ladies, being in the limelight.″

Mitchell hopes to make up for the dearth of experience with an extra bit of toughness that comes from growing up in the inner city. This is definitely not a team born with a silver spoon in its mouth; these are guys from the streets of South Central and North Philly.

``One of these Cubans or Russians has more experience than our whole team put together,″ he said. ``But this team has a street toughness. They’re used to fighting for everything. They’re not scared of anybody, not the Cubans, the Russians or the Germans.″

This team is sure to be compared to the great U.S. squad that dominated the Montreal Games two decades ago. Most people don’t expect this group to match up, even though the powerful Cubans have been depleted by the defection of two of their top boxers.

``We’re not the ’76 team, we’ll never be the ’76 team,″ Clay-Bey said with a shrug. ``I know from past history that if we happened to win all 12 gold medals, they would still find a flaw to keep the ’76 team over us.″

But hey, at least this team seems to be getting along. Finally.

``This is an experience I wouldn’t trade for any in the world,″ Mitchell said. ``I like a challenge and, believe me, this has been a challenge. Oh my, has it been a challenge. But it’s been fun, too.″

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