Jerry Colangelo’s three-year commitment and team-bonding exercises facilitated the gold medal procession of the U.S. basketball team at the Beijing Games.
The loss of basketball stature in the international community never was about the quality of the U.S. players. It never was about the U.S. being unable to adapt to the different rules of the international game.
It always was about the selection system and imploring self-indulgent multimillionaires to subjugate their egos. It always was about getting celebrated NBA players to embrace the Olympic experience.
USA Basketball long had been accustomed to cobbling together a team at the 11th hour and stepping up to the podium to claim the gold medal as if it were a birthright. But the folly of that approach eventually was exposed in the world championships in 2002. It no longer was our basketball world. And as if it to show 2002 was no fluke, the U.S. was rebuffed in the Athens Games in 2004.
That prompted the best basketball minds in the U.S. to come to the conclusion that an overhaul of its system was necessary.
The dividends did not come immediately. The U.S. finished with a bronze medal in the world championships in 2006, the first of the three-year commitment.
Colangelo, though, knew he was onto something, knew there could no other way. It had to be a team in every sense. And it needed time to mesh and improve its coping skills in the final minutes of a tight game.
That was the U.S. team fighting off the challenge of Spain in the final minutes of the gold-medal game. That was the U.S. and Spain trading basket after basket, with the U.S. clinging to a precarious lead, never certain until the final seconds that all its good work in the tournament would lead to a gold medal.
Kobe Bryant converted a four-point play that gave the U.S. a 108-99 lead with 3:10 left, and still the Spaniards refused to acquiesce. A 3-pointer from Carlos Jimenez cut the U.S. advantage to 108-104 with 2:29 left.
But then Dwyane Wade hit a 3-pointer, and finally the U.S. players could see the wisdom of the three-year commitment. They had been challenged. They had been pushed. And if not for all the practices, the training camps and exhibition games, they might not have pulled this one out.
They might not have had that feel for one another that genuine teams inevitably have. They might not have been as efficient as they were, an efficiency that was essential to the outcome.
Colangelo said there was no way the U.S. could have prevailed against Spain without the structure that was formed in three years and without the continuity that was built in that period.
Mike Krzyzewski, the college coach entrusted with reaching those accustomed to logging big minutes and launching 20-25 shots a game in the NBA, found a willing audience. It was getting old, the stronger athletes losing to the stronger teams on the international stage.
“If we didn’t have three years together, we wouldn’t have won this game,” Krzyzewski said. “The three years gave us character to beat a great team that had character in Spain. It was one of the great games in international basketball history.”
And the U.S. basketball team did not win its first gold medal in international competition since 2000 because of its raw athleticism. And it did not win because of defense. Neither team was able to slow the other. It won because of its shot-making ability from the perimeter, the principal area of concern going into the Olympics.
The Americans made 13 of 28 3-pointers, and not one came from Michael Redd, the team’s designated shooter who played less than a minute in the gold medal game.
It won because of Krzyzewski’s care with the lineups. Jason Kidd, long past his prime, was in the starting lineup to be a facilitator on offense.
And it won because of Colangelo’s long-term vision.
U.S. basketball had but one mandate going into the Beijing Games, and it met it. It can proclaim anew that it is No. 1.