MADRID – The confetti falls, the star-spangled banner plays and the USA Basketball illusion plays itself out again and again. Here come the Duke and Syracuse coaches hugging the NBA stars, primping for pictures that they'll rush through texts and Twitter to star recruits. Pity poor Serbia, the silver-medalist props to a college recruiting video.
The World Cup of Basketball is a wonderful event, a well-run, well-coordinated tournament with pride and history and gravitas. It is something else, too: beneath the threshold of worthiness for NBA stars to participate. For Indiana Pacers star Paul George to have broken his leg in a televised pick-up game on the Vegas strip never felt as senseless as did watching the United States hang 129 points on Serbia in the gold-medal game Sunday at Palacio de los Deportes.
Outside of Derrick Rose using FIBA as a Double-A rehab assignment and some sportswriters beefing up on Marriott points for post-summer vacations, this tournament was a waste of everyone's time and resources. They used to call it the World Championships. Now it's the World Cup of Basketball. This is certain: It has outlived its usefulness for the NBA, and owners and executives will be wise to petition FIBA to reshape the future of international basketball.
As one GM told Yahoo Sports, "[Outside of the U.S. team], there's more talent and more interest from basketball fans in the NBA summer league than this event."
For all the inspiration the U.S. coaches and players tried to drain out of George's injury, understand something: It was in vain. He lost a year of his career for the chance to play in a tournament that few watched back home, and even fewer felt mesmerized by across the world. The risk-reward for NBA stars participating in FIBA tournaments has never been so low, the gains of the Mike Krzyzewskis and Jim Boeheims on the bench so high.
George will be the impetus to end the full participation of NBA stars, but far from the reason. After the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the World Cup of Basketball and Olympic Games are destined to become an under-22 developmental tournament.
"We need to get our vets out and move our younger players in," one NBA general manager told Yahoo Sports. "The support's there for the change, and it's getting stronger."
No more grinding down of Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as thirty-something stars for countries that desperately need them to compete, no more Yao Ming dragging a battered leg up and down the floor for China. Rival countries to the United States don't have the depth of Team USA's talent, nor the reinforcements to let stars sit out qualifying events, to excuse them to nurse injuries.
Sooner than later, people will understand: Those most stridently touting the irreplaceable value of USA Basketball are those profiting the greatest from it.
As much as ever, USA Basketball has been co-opted into a Krzyzewski leverage play for the Duke Blue Devils. If that doesn't rile Kentucky's John Calipari, wait until the Duke coach is credited for DeMarcus Cousins' maturity with the Sacramento Kings this season.
The end's coming for USA Basketball's grip on the game in the States, but once change goes into effect come the 2018 World Cup, it won't matter much to Krzyzewski anymore. He still has two full summers of USA Basketball access left to him, and that'll make it a full decade of control. As one Duke alumnus would tell you: There is a USA Basketball storefront selling patriotism and duty with a backroom reality that peddles the Blue Devils and Nike swooshes.
When Team USA goes to the U.S. Military Academy to practice on its pre-tournament tour, guess what the stories are: Krzyzewski returns to his West Point roots. There's Coach K with the cadets. There's Coach K in the mess hall. There's Coach K teaching those rich NBA players about sacrifice and selflessness. People call Calipari the greatest self-promoting coach of his time, but Krzyzewski doesn't get nearly the credit due him. USA Basketball is a machine with its tentacles deep into every level of basketball, and Krzyzewski taps into every element.
USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo has set it up for Krzyzewski to have a free run, and he's been strategic and shrewd in its use. NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave Krzyzewski a big hug on the floor Sunday night here – another Dukie thrilled about how this partnership has closed the gap on Calipari and Kentucky, and gone a long way toward burying the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Krzyzewski never violated an NCAA rule when he climbed aboard a flight, flew cross-country and addressed the 2013 under-19 USA Basketball national team at its Colorado Springs training camp. He addressed players in a group, and talked to them individually, sources told Yahoo Sports. For the record, Krzyzewski is USA Basketball's senior national coach and the visit gave him an opportunity to personally welcome those young men into the program's feeder system.
Well, the trip did something else, too: It gave the Duke coach unfiltered access to two of the best high school players in the nation. Florida's Billy Donovan was the under-19 head coach. Virginia's Tony Bennett and VCU's Shaka Smart were his assistants. They probably didn't need Krzyzewski's voice, but he probably didn't ask their permission, either.
The roster of college stars happened to include two 17-year-old prep phenoms: Chicago's Jahlil Okafor and Houston's Justise Winslow. When Krzyzewski makes his triumphant return this week, two freshmen stars will be awaiting him on Duke's campus: Okafor and Winslow.
Within the college recruiting game, no one ever considered it a coincidence when one of those younger USA Basketball national teams would detour through Vegas to watch Krzyzewski and his Duke assistants on the training camp floor with the biggest basketball stars in the world.
Without the access of USA Basketball, there's a strong belief within the basketball community that Krzyzewski would've never landed Jabari Parker. Only, he had it, used it and signed him. He's on a tremendous run, and let's face it: Krzyzewski is so untouchable, he could keep Mason Plumlee on this World Cup roster without much of an uproar.
Every four years, Colangelo and Krzyzewski deliver that well-rehearsed routine of the coach wanting to step down only to have the managing director convince him of a return for four more years. Every time, we fall for it.
As long as Krzyzewski needs recruits at Duke, he needs USA Basketball. Why sit in the steamy summer-circuit AAU gyms trying to make eye contact with 16-year-olds, when you can use the media to write about all the close, personal relationships you've developed with LeBron and Kobe, 'Melo and Kevin Durant? Hey kids, Krzyzewski even texts them during the season – maybe sometimes right after he texts you!
Krzyzewski is a great coach. After the 2006 World Championships debacle, he's done an excellent job with these United States teams. He commands respect and sells a vision. Yet once the top players were willing to play again, the United States was never losing – and it hasn't. The gap has grown in the world again, and the romance of the Dream Teams is slowly, surely dying. Under-22 is the way to go, the best young NBA players and a college superstar or two for introduction into the global market.
The beginning of the end for USA Basketball had come on that August night, when George crumpled to the court and a bone blasted out of his flesh. It was a sick, sobering moment, and the USA players were still talking about it on Sunday night in Madrid.
The image was startling, and it'll stay with people for a long, long time. It'll be one of the catalysts to get NBA stars out of FIBA basketball. As the hours passed that August night, Krzyzewski changed the conversation about his involvement in the NBA losing a $100 million star in a worthless scrimmage. At the foot of George's hospital bed, someone had been waiting to snap the photo of the U.S. national coach reaching down and embracing his stricken player.
Suddenly, this most private and personal moment turned out to be anything but that. Within minutes, that image would be flying through Twitter and Instagram for all those moms and dads to see the compassion and caring of Duke's coach.
So the NBA stars climbed onto the podium on Sunday night at the Palacio de los Deportes, and there was Mike Krzyzewski making his move to the far end, framing himself with the gold medalists. The flashes flickered, the confetti swirled and the NBA had a chance to take a long, long look at the photo and ask itself: Who benefited the most in this picture, and why the hell would we keep doing this?