Jerry Colangelo deserves credit for U.S.A. Basketball rebirth

Nick Friedell
August 24, 2008

No matter what happens in this morning's U.S.-Spain gold medal game, the American squad already has its MVP.

Jerry Colangelo.

Let me explain ... Four years ago at this time, the U.S.A. Basketball program had hit rock bottom. They had just earned the bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics; no longer was the United States viewed as the best basketball playing country in the world. Even worse, the Olympics didn't seem to mean as much to the top U.S. players as they once had. Several NBA All-Stars rejected U.S.A. Basketball's offer to play in the Games. Colangelo (the man with the microphone in above picture) summed that time up nicely in a recent interview with the Wall St. Journal.

Mr. Colangelo: The experience (in Athens) left such a poor taste in everyone's mouth, our attitude, our performance -- even our own fans were booing the team. It was a sad state of affairs, and we had to make a change.

Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns, became U.S.A. Basketball's managing director in April of 2005, and hasn't looked back since. In order to change everything, he smartly asked for and was granted "full autonomy," meaning that he had the power to make whatever decisions he deemed necessary.

Mr. Colangelo: Look, I was appalled by the status of USA Basketball. It needed a new infrastructure. In the past, teams were thrown together for a couple of weeks, and that was OK since the gap with the rest of the world was big enough it didn't matter. But if you look at the successful international teams, they've been together for five or 10 years, so you get that continuity and teamwork. The first thing I wanted to establish was a real national team, not just an all-star team.

What many people don't remember is that Colangelo organized a panel of over 30 U.S. basketball legends during the summer of 2005 to get their feedback on the reasons why the nationals basketball program had faltered. After that meeting, Colangelo decided to make two more crucial moves. First, he hired longtime Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to be the team's head coach, and he required that all players being considered for the team make a three-year commitment to the program.

In my mind, these were two of the smartest moves Colangelo made. In Krzyzewski, he found a coach who was willing to play younger players, something his predecesscor Larry Brown did not want to do. The players seem to genuinely respect Coach K and his staff, and it shows with the way they play on the court.

As for the three-year commitment, it showed players that they could no longer just expect to win a gold medal by putting in a month's work every few summers. Colangelo took the time to actually to talk to each player individually and gauge their interest about playing for the national team. It's clear in the way the team has played so far that Colangelo has picked the right guys.

I think he deserves almost as much credit for changing the image around the team itself. For example, I can still remember reading stories about how Carmelo Anthony spent most of his spare time in Athens sitting on the team's yacht and playing video games. I was in Athens and I hardly ever saw any of the American players at events other than their own.

Fast-forward four years, and you see Anthony and the rest of his teammates at all kinds of different venues in Beijing. Colangelo realized that there was an image problem relating to U.S.A. Basketball and made sure that each player knew that they had a responsibility to fix it.

Out of all the changes he made, Colangelo's legacy might be that he made the Olympics "cool" again to a generation of American players who had lost interest in the Games. Win or lose against Spain, it sounds like most of these players will be back again in London four years from now.

Paul, who is 23, said: "I'm sure if you ask those guys if they want to play in 2012, they'll say yes."

Paul's answer is a credit to Colangelo's vision, because it sounds like no matter what happens tomorrow morning, U.S.A. Basketball is back on the right track.

Photos via Getty Images