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RIO DE JANEIRO – The gold medals were already dangling around the necks of 12 players who had only a month to come together and maintain United States basketball supremacy when USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo came around the podium, avoiding the glare of lime green sneakers, to present some extra swag. This Olympic journey came with a few bumps – “some BS,” as DeMarcus Cousins put it – for Team USA, so it almost felt appropriate that the celebration also included a blooper.
As he prepared to hand one of the mini-trophies to Kevin Durant, Colangelo watched as the Rio logo atop the base slipped off and shattered on the floor. Colangelo handed out the rest of the trophies to the players without a problem but ran out when he got to the last player in the line – the guy who was making his final appearance in a USA uniform, Carmelo Anthony.
That little trophy was about all that wasn’t in Anthony’s possession as he left Carioca Arena 1 after his final Olympics. Anthony became the first men’s basketball player to ever win three gold medals and retires from the program he helped elevate from embarrassment as the leading scorer and rebounder in American Olympic history. No other player from this roster understands the misery of international failure or the pleasure of sweet redemption like Anthony, who was emphatic that he was joining Coach Mike Krzyzewski on the way out of the door.
“I think I’ve given enough to Team USA Basketball,” Anthony said afterward. “As much as I’m going to miss it, it’s time to pass it along to some of the guys who was on our team this year, but also to the younger guys coming along and give them an opportunity to be a part of something great.”
The U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team’s 96-66 obliteration of Serbia was the final stop on a two-week roller coaster ride when it went from looking unbeatable, to vulnerable to indestructible. The Americans hit a nervous patch in pool play, winning the final three games by a combined 16 points, which exposed some of the problems that can come from the unfamiliarity of having 10 players making their Olympic debut, including six making their international debut. But after Krzyzewski got a little more familiar with his personnel, he made the necessary adjustments and Durant awoke from an early tournament slumber to help the U.S. quadruple the separation by winning the final three games in the do-or-die phase by a combined 64 points.
With the Americans claiming their 15th gold medal in 18 Olympic Games, with the most lopsided gold-medal victory since the 1992 Dream Team, Colangelo was unusually frank about why a significant gap continues to exist despite the growth of the game around the world and the international talent littered throughout NBA rosters.
“I’m all for raising the bar for global basketball,” Colangelo said. “The more interest in basketball on all levels, I’m for. I’m a lifer of the game. Basketball is the No.2 sport in the world. We just need to see these other countries get their acts together and become more competitive. I’m not going to be making any excuses.
“One of the officials said to me, ‘You oughta play with four.’ I said, ‘No, maybe the other teams oughta get their act together and compete.’ We’ve been helping in basketball around the world for 50 years. We’ve taught the world the game. We’ve taught their coaches. Look at the number of players in the NBA. Look at the number of international players in college today in the states. We’re all for that. I want to see their level raised.”
Ten years ago it appeared that the level had been raised, with a string of humiliating international defeats between 2002-06. But the program that Colangelo built, Krzyzewski directed and players like Anthony made desirable is so good that it was able to send less than the best it had to offer and still keep alive a 53-game international winning streak dating back to a semifinal loss to Greece in the 2006 world championships in Japan. Anthony and Krzyzewski shared a podium that night in Saitama, and a commitment that they wouldn’t share that failure again.
“He didn’t make any excuses,” Krzyzewski said of Anthony. “We took responsibility for the loss and gave credit to the Greek team. We built on that. I call it character. At that moment, sometimes in a loss, you find out a deep character in someone and that’s what happened with Carmelo, then the commitment from LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant] and all these guys, Chris [Paul], Kevin, all these guys have great character. It’s just built to where now we have a great, great culture.”
Anthony is the only link between the Redeem Team and what, until making light work of Serbia, had taken on the title of the By-Any-Means Team. James, Paul and Bryant weren’t around. Neither were Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook or James Harden, leaving Team USA in a unique, rebuilding summer that was more about survival than making a statement. Those players who accepted invitations, sacrificed their summers and put aside any fears over Zika or crime were rewarded for their commitment. Not only did they avoid scorn back home by winning gold, but they also formed lasting friendships. “This is the best feeling ever,” Cousins said. “Honestly, it’s the best feeling ever.”
Colangelo was pleased that enough players wanted to take advantage of a rare gap year for the program, with so little turnover from previous teams. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that might not otherwise been there for them, so I’m happy for them,” Colangelo said. “It bothers me when some of our players are called ‘B’ players or ‘C’ players. That’s ludicrous. They’re all great players. They came. This is a group that had never been together. Basketball is the ultimate team game. It’s about teamwork. And with 10 new people, you only have them for a few weeks, it’s not enough time. For me, I’m glad we’re past this. It’s vindication for all that we’ve done. But we need to continue with the continuity. We can’t go back again with 10 new players. That’s not going to happen.”
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will take the reigns from Krzyzewski for the next USA Basketball cycle and he could be stepping into a more competitive field for the 2020 Tokyo Games. The Americans never found a team that could exploit their noticeable flaws, with Argentina and Spain aging, France disappointing despite substantial talent, and Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania too young to be considered dangerous. The latter three should be better in four years, with Australia and Canada sending enough quality talent to the NBA in recent years to generate promise.
“You look around at the programs that may be big-time programs going forward. Some of the programs are going up and some are going down, but the healthiest thing for the game of basketball is to have competition around the world that makes it even more intriguing,” Colangelo said. “But we’re going to continue to keep on doing what we do, to stay on top.”
As for that mishap with the trophy at the podium, Colangelo wasn’t sure what happened.
“It fell off. It was in my hands,” Colangelo said, adding that Anthony “will get one. It’s in the mail.”
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