August 12, 2010
In 2005, after a dismal third-place showing at the Athens Olympics, Team USA basketball was turned over to the enormous hands of Jerry Colangelo. Since then, the United States men's basketball team has regained its place as the world's premier basketball powerhouse, culminating with a gold-medal win at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. On Wednesday morning I talked to Colangelo about building the team, and the man can talk. What follows is an unedited interview with the national director of Team USA, because once he starts riffing, you don't want him to stop.
Trey Kerby: You've been the architect for making the USA basketball team really, really awesome again.
Jerry Colangelo: Well, no one else wanted the job. (laughs)
TK: (laughing) Someone should have told me. I would have taken it if they were just giving it away.
JC: (laughing) I'm just kidding.
TK: But it has been really fun to watch.
JC: Thank you.
TK: With the 2008 Olympics a lot of guys were really wanting to come out and play. This year, there are a lot of younger guys that are going to play, and it seems like it's going to be a really exciting team.
JC: It is.
TK: I know you're obviously trying to put together the best team possible, but when you're building a team, do you consider that it'll be fun to watch? Or is just an effect of the style that Coach K likes to play — with a lot of shooters and guys that can get out and run?
JC: Let me go back and try to cover some of the things you said.
Number one, back in '04 when the system was in the tank a little bit after the Olympics in Athens, we had to restructure. We needed to change the culture, and we needed to make it an "in" thing to represent your country and be proud of wearing the USA uniform. Fast forward through the Olympics in '08, a lot was accomplished. We re-established. We showed respect for the rest of the world basketball community, which was a must. We had players committed throughout that whole process. We promised we would win. But it was how we would win, and how we conducted ourselves on and off the floor, and all those things.
As I look back on it today, in 2010, all of our infrastructure is strong and solid. We're the defending gold medalists in the 16-and-under, 17-and-under, 18- and 19-and-under men and women. It's loaded. The pipeline is loaded. Everyone aspires to represent their country, and we did this in a few short years. That's really important.
And so, emotionally, the Olympic team — right after the Olympics — they all said, "We're coming back. We're going to do this. And I said, "Well, take a little time. Take a little time."
So we met at the All-Star game in Phoenix a year ago February, and I said, "Look guys, I'll leave this up to you." I'm talking to all these All-Stars in the East and the West, and I said "We can either compete in '10, win the World Championship, take off '11, and then the Olympics in '12." That's one option. Second option is you don't play in '10, maybe we win, maybe we don't in the World Championships with the other group, but if we don't then we'll have to qualify in '11, then the Olympics in '12. My opinion, if left up to me, I think there's some unfinished business. I'd like to see us win the World Championship. If I were voting, I'd vote for that. But what do you think?"
They all said, "Yeah, let's do it." All of 'em. Well, OK, for that moment, that's where we were. So when I was asked if these guys were going to play I said, "Well it appears that they will. But it's early." I qualified it. And then free agency came. Big. And that kinda changed a lot of things, and then some of the players who weren't free agents thought, "Well, if they're not going to play maybe I shouldn't play." Finally, I said, "Time out. Everybody gets a pass. It's OK. You've already put in a lot of time and equity."
And it's all about equity. Just like Kevin Durant(notes), who is one of the faces of this team. He's 21, he lead the league in scoring, and he's been with us the last three years. He has equity. He hasn't represented us, but he's been there and this is his time. So in the perfect world, this pipeline that I'm referring to, you're going to continue to have players getting there. So there's going to be some turnover, and that's the way the system should work.
So when people ask me, "Well, what if you won the World Championship this year? What are you going to do about the Olympics?" And my answer is, "Right after we win the World Championships, we'll address that." Now? Why even think about it?
So now to part of your question, which was about the kind of players we have. There is not a wealth of big men in this country on any level. High school, college, pros. It's kind of interesting — most of the bigs in the pros are European. It's just the way it's worked out. That's point No. 1. Point No. 2 is we've lost some people that we thought would be with us — David Lee(notes), Amar'e Stoudemire(notes), two Lopezes. And so, you know what, you deal with the cards that you have, and you go with it.
So, what are the cards that we have? They're young, they're aggressive, they're athletic. It's guard dominated. We've got some very good shooters. We have very good shooters. Very coachable. A lot of enthusiasm. So this team is kind of a coach's dream. They're out there like a bunch of young guns, you know. And so that's what this team is going to be. What's their mark? We'll see how it plays out, but I think that they could be fun to watch. And I think fun to coach. Definitely low maintenance, compared to maybe our last group because of personalities, et cetera. But they're young! If this was a 23-and-under tournament we were in, I'd like our chances! They're all young kids for the most part. I think we have six that are 22 or 23-and-under.
And if we had a 6-foot-4-and-under tournament, I think we'd do pretty good too. (laughing)
TK: (laughing) Yeah, you could win a lot of men's leagues.
TK: When you're building the team, is it just you that is picking the players? Or is it you along with the coaching staff?
JC: It's collective. When I took the responsibility on, I wanted full autonomy. I told David Stern that, and I said I had two conditions. Full autonomy — I pick the coaches, I pick the players, but in saying that, what I meant was that I'll put the group together, and I've always been one that collectively with my sports teams, with the coaching staff and so forth, we collectively [decided]. And we talk about these things all the time. Coach K and I, from Day 1, because of our relationship, we were joined at the hip immediately. We've never disagreed about anything. We're always on the same page.
TK: You talked about how the free agency was obviously a huge thing this summer. Were you surprised how important the 2008 Olympics were to those guys making their decision? Were you surprised that the Olympics seem to be one of the driving forces behind their choice?
JC: No one really knows except them. There's a lot of speculation. Let's just say this — the Olympics turned out to be a great platform for all of the players in terms of their own branding, in terms of their own marketability, in terms of their own value. We told them that would happen. So I'm happy, in each case, that it happened for them.
They also developed some real relationships. One of the things we told the players then, and today we say the same thing, this is going to be a great experience. You're going to become better people, better players. You're going to develop relationships and friendships that will be life-long. Well, all of that happened with that group.
At the end of the day, it was a lot of factors [that went in to their decisions]. There has always been a relationship with those people. Was it cemented? Was it enhanced when they were together with us? Probably. Why not? They spent a lot of time together.
But ultimately, they make that kind of decision — where you're going to spend your time in the NBA — was it predicated on that? Or was it predicated on maybe four or five factors? I'd go for the latter.
TK: Obviously Team USA will be in the Olympics no matter what in 2012. How tough do you think it will be if those guys (LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes), Chris Bosh(notes), Chris Paul(notes), etc.) decide to play, and you have to mesh them with this younger team? Obviously you'll be replacing guys like Michael Redd(notes) and Tayshaun Prince(notes) from the 2008 team with guys that in another two years are going to be huge stars.
JC: This is the next wave. And see, those are high-class problems. And that's why I say, "Why worry about it now?" After the World Championships, one way or another, we either have to qualify in '11 or we don't. Even if we were to win, we would then take a pretty good look at what we want our team to look like in '12. It may mean we get together in '11, not competing, but just collectively meet for a week and go through some practices. Just kind of feel it out a little bit. Will there be some turnover? Yes. You mentioned names, I won't get into the names, but you would expect there would be turnover. That's part of this whole system. That's healthy.
If guys felt they were closed out at a certain level, why bother? We would never do that. That's not fair.
TK: Last question then, you're happy with the way that the entire pipeline is set up?
JC: Very much so. I'm really pleased.
Very long, but totally worth it. Jerry Colangelo really knows basketball. Thanks to him for taking all this time to talk hoops, and also to Shelly Peng and Niketown for putting us in two directors chairs facing each other.