BEIJING – Since the voice on the telephone from Milan left the comfort of a college job 37 years ago, this American expatriate has been telling the hard truths on the rise and fall of United States basketball in the global community. Dan Peterson packed his bags at the University of Delaware for surreal success over the next 14 years in the Italian Pro League – 11 Final Fours, nine championship series and four titles – and stayed forever fearless of the consequences that come with offending the untouchables of the U.S. basketball elite.
Even so, Peterson had come to be so enthusiastic over Team USA director Jerry Colangelo’s vision about constructing a true national program. Peterson had outlined a similar structure in 1976 in an article for a coaching magazine, insisting that the United States would eventually fall behind without a system.
Nevertheless, Peterson, 72, had come to believe that Mike Krzyzewski was the perfect coach for the 2008 Olympics. And then that hope was shaken when a Hall of Fame coach walked into the news conference after a loss to Greece at the 2006 World Championships and sounded like someone out of CYO ball, straight out of the losing cause of American arrogance.
“I thought No. 4 was spectacular in the first half, No. 7 was spectacular in the second half and No. 15 hit huge shots for them at the end of the clock in the second half,” Krzyzewski told stunned European reporters.
Even now, it boggles the mind: Krzyzewski never bothered to learn the names of Greece’s players. At least, he didn’t have command enough to use them. How much did the U.S. prepare? How seriously was Krzyzewski even taking this job?
Different regime, different coach and nothing had changed.
It made Peterson and the rest of the educated basketball world wonder: How many times did the United States have to get embarrassed to show the respect to learn the names of several of Europe’s elite players?
“If you’re a player and you hear your coach say, ‘No. 4,’ you are going to think: ‘Oh, this guy must be a nobody,’ ” Peterson said before the United States’ 106-57 victory over Germany in the final Group B game. “How about you say his name and say, ‘Hey, this guy was MVP of the Euro League and he runs that pick and roll, and he’s one of the great players in Euro history.’ Jesus, Theodoros Popaloukas took him apart like a surgeon, and you don’t even know his name?
“He didn’t know the name of a single Greek player. …The international press crucified Krzyzewski, just ripped him to pieces. They wondered, ‘This is a great coach?’ ”
As with most, Peterson feared that maybe they would never get it in the United States. And then, Team USA hit Beijing for these Olympic Games and the world has taken a deep breath and exhaled.
“The U.S. is going to win the gold medal,” Russian coach David Blatt said. “Everyone else is playing for silver. They have learned the Euro way and they are enormously talented. There are no more advantages for Euros to utilize against them.”
Perhaps this surprises people in the States, but most of the world has been rooting for this American renaissance. They understand it’s good for basketball. They’ve never been afraid of Americans holding a standard for them to chase, and now they’ll do it again. They understand that kids everywhere will emulate these players and that the restoration of Team USA trickles down for everyone’s benefit.
“The perception (in recent years) has been simply horrible,” Peterson said. “Perception after 2002: The USA doesn’t know how to play. Perception after 2004: The USA team has some bad people. Perception after 2006: The USA is arrogant and ignorant.”
Yet, Peterson is grateful that Krzyzewski learned that hard lesson and did his part to prepare a team that, with the seriousness of its mission, has shown the world the respect it deserves. Team USA isn’t just playing peerless basketball – the best the world has witnessed since the original Dream Team in 1992 – but it’s balancing that ferocity on the floor with unmistakable sportsmanship and spirit.
As much as Team USA has gone a long way to repair the damage done to the United States’ image as a basketball superpower, it has done much to repair the ugly American episodes overseas. The international model for a national team has taken hold, and beyond the beautiful basketball of its five blowout victories, most heartening to the rest of the world has been the way that Team USA has carried itself in these Games.
“Colangelo has been the key to me, but none of this happens without Kobe (Bryant) and LeBron (James) setting the tone here,” Peterson said. “Nobody’s going to rock Colangelo’s boat. He’s put together a tremendous nucleus of players and he’s let them know how it’s going to be now: They’re going to play defense, set a tone and no bad guys. You don’t see a superstar like LeBron coming out after six minutes pouting on the bench. What you’re getting is, ‘OK, it’s your turn and I’ll be here cheering.’
“I’m doing the game on TV for Euro Sport here and I hear someone is saying that they should’ve put Amare Stoudemire on this team instead of Tayshaun Prince. I mean, are you crazy? You want a prima donna instead of a team guy like Prince who only cares about winning? I mean, just shut up. You are out of your mind. Colangelo got it right here. We’re seeing that now.”
Everyone sees it here. Everyone’s talking about it. The medal round is on the way Wednesday against Australia, but Colangelo’s vision of leaving this Olympic cycle with the world thinking much better of America’s biggest basketball stars has been accomplished with or without gold. Across five Olympic Games for the Aussies – 1984 through 2000 – the great Andrew Gaze probably played more international games against the Americans than any player alive. He was honored to compete against the Dream Team in ’92 and repulsed to have Vince Carter stand over his fallen body and taunt him in 2000.
“With what we’ve seen here, they’ve overcompensated to a point where you can’t help but admire the way they’re presenting themselves, especially the superstar players,” Gaze said. “It’s impressive just how friendly and open they’ve been to the competitors. This American team has made (itself) a part of the competitions with the other sports, getting out and seeing different things.
“I’ve never seen that in the past.”
Jason Kidd has been to the Olympics for the United States twice now, and he concedes that he never saw an American basketball team so immersed in the Olympic spirit. Kidd was texting James Blake in the U.S. locker room moments after his victory over Roger Federer on Friday and going on and on Monday about how amazing it was to sit on the pool deck and witness the sheer speed with which Michael Phelps moved through the water.
Dwight Howard had swim goggles propped up on his head during a post-game news conference Monday night, with Phelps treated like a conquering hero on a visit to the Team USA locker room. So much of Colangelo’s vision of running a true program – insisting upon a three-year commitment from the players – was because of the ownership it was destined to create, a sense of continuity that would inspire duty and responsibility. This team has had no time for acting the fool at the Olympics, refusing to allow anything but the genius of the basketball they’ve played to be what people remember of them.
“I think the two- and three-year programs we have now has done a lot for the way we pull for each other, the way you see guys cheering each other,” Kidd said. “We aren’t showing people up. There’s no celebrating on the court. …We’re going to do this all the right way.”
Two years ago, no one was so sure Team USA had learned to respect the world. The United States has gone eight years without winning a major international tournament, but that’s all about to change now.
“What was it that the Japanese officer said after Pearl Harbor?” Russia coach David Blatt asked. “ ‘I think we just awoke the sleeping giant’? Well, that’s what Europe has done with the United States. And now, they’re all about to go under afoot of the U.S. again.”