TOKYO — Gregg Popovich is 72 years old but he had no problem staying up well past 1 a.m.here to greet the final arrivals to his U.S. men’s basketball flock — the fresh-from-the-NBA-Finals trio of Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday who arrived early Sunday morning in Tokyo.
Team USA’s opening game of the Olympics is Sunday Night, so it wasn’t a moment too soon.
Pop, of course, was still going to Pop.
These were three guys emotionally drained from the Finals — for varying reasons. They were jet lagged after a trans-Pacific flight — 1:12 a.m. in Tokyo (when they arrived at their hotel) was 12:12 p.m. the previous day in the eastern time zone of the United States.
They were still spared no mercy.
“You should be sending flowers every day,” Popovich joked with Middleton about arriving “late” to the team, according to a video released by USA Basketball. “You’ve got all kinds of stuff you’ve got to do to make up. You’re in trouble.”
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Americans failed to capture a gold medal for the only time since they began sending NBA players with the original 1992 Dream Team. USA Basketball responded by conducting a full autopsy.
The conclusion was they couldn’t just throw 12 players together — no matter how skilled — at the last moment any longer and still win the Olympics. The rest of the world had gotten better.
A new system was implemented that prioritized building teams through multiple years — World Championships and Olympics — lots of training camps and time together, a collection of stars and role players. A college coach, Mike Krzyzewski, would take over. Stability and teamwork were everything.
It delivered three golds.
Now, for reasons out of USA Basketball’s control — almost all of it springing from the COVID pandemic — they are truly just throwing a team together at the final moment.
“I’m ready,” Booker said. “Long flight, but we’re here now. Right at it in the morning.”
Tip-off was in less than 18 hours.
Even for a team as talented as the U.S., this is wild.
Olympic rosters have 12 players. Until Sunday morning, the US only had nine in town. Two of those —JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson — joined the team just over a week ago after Bradley Beal (COVID-19) and Kevin Love (injury) had to drop out. A third, Zach LaVine, didn't arrive until Friday — four days after the rest of the team — after clearing his own COVID protocols.
So only seven Americans went through any kind of camps or even all the exhibition games. Granted those seven include Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum and others, so don’t cry for Coach Pop just yet. But it does make for one interesting Olympics.
COVID pushed the 2020-2021 NBA season back, which kept a number of veteran stars from joining the team as they sought some offseason rest. Then the Finals didn’t end until last Tuesday, which occupied Milwaukee’s Middleton and Holiday, and Phoenix’s Booker.
Then came that bizarro flight to Japan, where Booker, no doubt still crushed over losing the Finals, had to sit with two guys who were presumably still on Cloud 9 from winning it. Awkward on both sides.
Booker is a class act and a pro’s pro, but that couldn’t be easy to deal with. Same for Middleton and Holiday, who probably would have been fine smiling and telling stories of their triumph the whole way but likely took their new teammate's feelings into account.
At least that’s the hope. Considering who these three are — and how much representing their country means to them — it should be OK.
Weird, but OK.
“You’re talking about three true professionals, three extremely, extremely competitive guys that wouldn’t be on their way here if this didn’t mean something,” forward Draymond Green said. “They all just finished competing in the NBA Finals, just finished completing an NBA season. … I have a lot of respect for those guys for not only committing to do this, but actually keeping their word.”
Indeed they did, almost literal last-minute arrivals for the most rag-tag, thrown-together Team USA ever.
“Long trip,” Middleton said on the video. “Finally here.”
Don’t worry about the flowers for Popovich. Get some sleep.
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