Jerry Colangelo: Team USA has a 'high-class problem'

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – While making the rounds for short interview sessions at the U.S. Olympic Committee's media summit at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo became startled as he glanced at his cellphone.

"Jimmy Butler is about to visit Dr. James Andrews?" Colangelo asked with a tone of shock and concern as one of the 31 players in the pool for the U.S. Olympic team decided to seek a second opinion on his troublesome left knee from the famed Alabama-based surgeon. Colangelo announced Wednesday that he plans to choose the 12-man roster for the Rio Olympics sometime between June 26-28, without the benefit of a tryout. With the deepest collection of talent on board since he took the reins of Team USA in 2005, Colangelo acknowledged that he will have a difficult decision but also added that attrition – either through injuries or players opting to decline for personal reasons – will settle some of the dilemma.

"I call it a high-class problem to have too many people who want to participate," Colangelo told The Vertical. "Because we have 31 names, really, you can take two or three hits from guys who it might not be in their best interest, and it's going to be OK."

Jerry Colangelo plans to stay with USA Basketball until 2020. (Getty Images)
Jerry Colangelo plans to stay with USA Basketball until 2020. (Getty Images)

Colangelo has taken some satisfaction in creating a culture in which participation in USA Basketball has emerged as the ultimate status symbol for American NBA players. The process required some frank discussions with the game's elite, firm commitments and the gratification that comes with a 75-1 international record and four gold medals in the Olympics and the FIBA World Championships and the inaugural FIBA World Cup.

"It's satisfying, but you don't rest on that. Yeah, we've accomplished a lot and we're strong, in terms of what we've created. I don't think you'll ever see a mass exodus from that," Colangelo said. "The players, they get the benefit, they see what it means to them, think about what it means for branding for these guys, worldwide. That's a huge thing, I think. Plus, many of them are in situations where they're not happy with their teams in the league and they come to us and it's a whole different environment. Guys want to be happy, they want to have a good time and we've created a situation where they have that opportunity, so it sells itself."

When he began this endeavor, with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, Colangelo said he anticipated the ride would take him through 2016 and an expected Olympic finale in his hometown of Chicago. Colangelo was a member of a star-studded team that included President Barack Obama, his wife, Michelle, and Oprah Winfrey that tried to bring the games back to the United States but was upset when the International Olympic Committee chose to have the Olympics in Brazil, taking them to South America, for the first time. Rio was then going to represent the end until reconciliation with San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich – which led to Popovich's participation in the Tokyo games – extended Colangelo's commitment to the program through 2020.

"My plan was, let's win a gold medal in Chicago and ride off into the sunset in Lake Michigan, except that's the reverse because the sun rises over Lake Michigan, it doesn't set," Colangelo told The Vertical with a laugh. "But we are in Rio. But it's pretty simple, I was done in 2016 until I asked Popovich to be the coach for 2020 and he responded by saying, 'I'll do it but you have to stay because I don't want to do it without you.' So I recommitted to do that, but I'm certain that will be [the end of his time with Team USA] in 2020."

Krzyzewski had originally planned to step aside as coach after the London Olympics in 2012, when the players on the victorious team famously placed their gold medals around his neck as a show of gratitude for his dedication.

"Two weeks later [he] was having withdrawal pains about having said that and wanted to reconsider. And he made a comment, he said, 'I think to myself, I'm as much connected to USA Basketball as I am to Duke.' That's really how he kind of weighed things, which was a pretty strong statement," Colangelo said. "Deep down inside, I knew [Krzyzewski didn't want to leave]. I knew him well enough, he's loved this association. It's been great for him. He's been like this with Duke. They give him this other platform and for him to have this success, he says he's a better person, a better coach and all of that experience with us, with USA Basketball has expanded him big time, so it works both ways."

Colangelo expressed some concern about Krzyzewski's health during the All-Star break but fully expects to have him around this summer despite the coach's plans to have knee replacement surgery at the conclusion of Duke's season. After guiding the team in Rio, Krzyzewski will continue to work with Colangelo as an adviser through the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics. Colangelo added that he expects Popovich to be around the team some this summer to get a sense of how the group operates.

Lebron James has yet to give a firm commitment whether he will play in Rio. (Getty Images)
Lebron James has yet to give a firm commitment whether he will play in Rio. (Getty Images)

To get Popovich on board for the future required some mended fences after a lengthy cold war over comments Colangelo made about Popovich possibly being "burned out" from his experience as an assistant on that disappointing bronze-medal team in the 2004 Athens Games. They met over lunch in Carmel, Calif., hashed out their differences and forged a new partnership.

"We had a great time together, kind of laid all that stuff on the table and when that luncheon was over, it was cool. It was done. It's always about communication. There was a misunderstanding, quite honestly," Colangelo said, adding that Popovich's demand for him to stay around, "says a lot right there."

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony both have an opportunity to participate in their fourth Olympics and have the chance to join Chris Paul in pursuit of an unprecedented third Olympic gold medal. Throughout his time with the program, Colangelo has placed an emphasis on equity and rewarding time invested in Team USA. But the team is obviously moving into a transition as the talent has gotten younger, and other stars have emerged from the 2014 World Cup team. Finding the right mix, while respecting the contributions, will be a challenge. James and Paul George – who has recovered from a broken leg during a Team USA scrimmage that cost him a spot in the World Cup – have yet to make firm commitments for this summer but Anthony has already expressed a desire to play.

"All of those things still are very, very important to me. The equity, relationships, but it has to work both ways," Colangelo said. "Are they as committed individually? Each guy has to come to his own conclusion. We can build a case to say, 'Wouldn't it be great to see these guys win three gold medals and play in four Olympics?' How many players ever get a chance, but they're the ones that have to make that decision.

"Trust me, they may think one thing today but it'll change a month later or two weeks later when their bodies feel better, so until we have that final discussion with each, it doesn't matter what people are saying or what they're speculating. If you're physically hurting, the thought of maybe another month of basketball is not as appealing as it would be if you weren't hurting. When you're young, it's, 'Hey, let's go play.' When you start to get up there [in age], it's, 'Aw, I don't know.' In my mind and before we pick our 12, we're going to know. I'll have all those conversations."

More NBA coverage from The Vertical: