As Jerry Colangelo walked out of the losing U.S. locker room at the World Championships a year ago, his "We don't ever want to feel this again" speech done, the man hired to bring back a gold medal knew that no one truly wanted to hear that CEO-speak of changing the culture and waiting out the process. When it comes to USA Basketball, such words forever sound like loser's laments.
Greece had just run a pick-and-roll clinic on Mike Krzyzewski and played pop-a-shot on the Americans in Japan. Chris Bosh could see what everyone else did, confessing, "We didn't make the right adjustments. They ran the same play. We made it easy for them."
The young stars of the sport – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony – had lost in the Athens Olympics in 2004 and again now in the 2006 worlds. Krzyzewski, the Duke coach Colangelo chose over the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich, had been hustled in a 101-95 semifinal loss. As badly as it looked, as horrible as it felt, Colangelo remembers, "I felt instinctively that it might be a blessing in disguise."
Well, there wouldn't be the fool's gold of a perceived overnight cure to confuse the Americans again. This USA Basketball program was broken, bordering on shambles, and it needed what failing to qualify at the World Championships for the 2008 Beijing Olympics brought it: A longer, hotter summer in the Nevada desert than the coaches and players believed would've been necessary when they committed to Colangelo's three-year program.
Nevertheless, Team USA has benefitted with its July minicamp and a longer training session in August to prepare for the next qualifier, the FIBA Americas tournament currently under way in Las Vegas. The U.S. needed Jason Kidd to see the necessity to come out of his international basketball retirement, and needed Kobe Bryant to honor his promise of finally wearing the red, white and blue.
Most of all, this program had to start taking a look at the way the rest of the world prepared for global basketball championships and stop this flawed and failed act of simply showing up and expecting gold. As much as anything, that's been the vision of Colangelo since taking over as managing director of USA Basketball in 2005. Get everyone to understand: World dominance is no longer the American's divine right. Throwing together teams doesn't work anymore. The USA needed a program.
"I'm not going to indict anyone, but let's put it this way: Other countries looked at us as somewhat arrogant – the people representing USA Basketball, the players, the coaches," Colangelo said. "Certainly what I talked about to our players was having humility. Don't lose sight that we're still playing with their balls, their rules, their court and it's always dangerous.
"Don't take anything for granted."
For everyone else, coaches to players, Team USA is a part-time job. For Colangelo, it's his life now. Since selling the Phoenix Suns, Colangelo kept his chairman title with the team, but his wildly successful NBA creation belongs to him no more. The Suns started as an expansion franchise under him and he turned them into the fourth winningest franchise in history. He sold his majority share, and now, his work is done there.
"This came at an ideal time for him," said Colangelo's son, Bryan, the Toronto Raptors general manager. "It gave him an opportunity to become fully ingrained in formulating a new plan for USA Basketball, a whole new program. He's never going to just scratch the surface of things. He's going to go in knee-deep to understand the best way to accomplish a goal."
Across 30 years as Suns emperor, Colangelo built a model NBA franchise. His teams long contended and reached championship cusps, but they never did win a title. He has called that a "void" and would be less than honest if beyond his patriotism, beyond his belief, that this job is a chance to give back after a Hall of Fame career, that the chance to finally construct a champion hadn't been an irresistible reason for taking on the challenge.
Colangelo was the insider's insider in the NBA, as powerful and connected of a figure as any that worked in the game. He could get people together and get things done in the league. With failure after failure for USA Basketball, it finally did away the cumbersome, politically driven selection committees. Less than a year after the bronze medal in Athens, Colangelo was hired to run everything. "Total autonomy" is how he describes it, and truth be told, that thrusts him onto the firing line like no one before him.
For too long, USA Basketball had been a confounding haze of NBA committee members and indistinguishable bureaucrats. Once the world closed the gap on American basketball, the U.S. could no longer win despite itself. In Athens, where coach Larry Brown started ripping his roster's construction as soon as he passed through airport customs, there was an endless passing of blame.
Now, Colangelo gets to answer for everything. He gets to win this, or lose, on the courage of his basketball convictions. With unprecedented periods of American preparation time for pro Olympians, with Kidd and Bryant on board and several injured stars, including Wade, Bosh and Carlos Boozer, expected to return for Beijing, Colangelo makes the case that "USA Basketball is in its strongest position in years."
Between now and a gold medal in Beijing, Colangelo will mostly be on the line for choosing Krzyzewski over Popovich two years ago. In the past, the losing coach has taken the most grief for failing to win Olympic gold, but this time Colangelo's autonomy makes a massive target, too.
Perhaps Krzyzewski didn't have his finest hour in the loss to Greece, but Colangelo is sold on the long term of his coach pitching a roster of max contracts on a vision of all for one and one for all.
"He's got this group of players totally in the palm of his hand as it relates to responding to him," Colangelo said.
As Colangelo understood a year ago, losing could only be a "blessing in disguise" once under his watch. Once this team gets out of Vegas, Colangelo knows judgment on this job is coming in Beijing. There will be no misunderstanding the ultimate truth of success and failure.
"It's all about winning a gold medal," he said.
So now, a beleaguered basketball power has entrusted him with the biggest burden of all in America. However it goes, they'll know where to find Jerry Colangelo: Knee-deep in it all.
- Jerry Colangelo