- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

BEIJING — At the time, Jerry Colangelo had no emotional ties to the 2004 Olympic team, and he had no clue USA Basketball would soon call him about it.

But what he saw - a third-place finish, a lack of fundamentals and bickering - ticked him off.

“In watching the games, body language has always been a key ingredient for me,” Colangelo said. “It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t feel like they were doing a good job representing us. I was just embarrassed. It was a sad moment to see for the state of basketball. I didn’t know I would be the one asked to change it, but when they did, I love challenges and this is sure a big one.”

Tabbed to construct this year’s Olympic team, Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns, has teamed with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski with two goals: reclaim gold, and do it the right way.

It’s hard to argue with the results so far. Asking players for a three-year commitment - the 2006 world championships, 2007 Olympic qualifying tournament and the Olympics - the U.S. team finished third and first in the first two tournaments.

In their tuneup tour, the Americans have won games by 55, 36, 36 and 25 points. They open play against host China on Sunday at 10:15 a.m. EDT.

“We have a unique opportunity to represent our country, not just go for the gold medal,” said Krzyzewski, a Hall of Famer with three NCAA titles. “We want to set a standard for how the game should be played in our own country - with teamwork, camaraderie, enthusiasm, attention to detail - things that make team basketball what it is. This team is showing that.”

The 2004 team was panned for several reasons, but USA Basketball brass realized it too was at fault and an overhaul was required. Teams like Argentina and Spain developed chemistry and confidence through years of playing together. Team USA was trying to get away with throwing together a roster at the last minute and accepting that the best players weren’t interested in the summer-long commitment.

The United States lost three games in Athens. It had lost two in the previous 14 Olympic Games.

The world had caught up.

“In some respects, we’ve been arrogant about the game and saying it’s our game,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s not our game. It’s the world’s game. I don’t think we should be shocked at how good our opponents are.”

The first step for USA Basketball was hiring Colangelo as director of the national team. He asked and received full authority to hire a coach and make final roster decisions.

“I was certainly aware of how things were structured in the past, and I felt we needed to change that culture,” he said. “I feel pride in the fact that we invented the game and introduced and taught the world the game.”

Krzyzewski was hired, and he and Colangelo began telling NBA players it would be a three-year commitment or none at all. Their credibility got young players and veterans to buy in immediately.

“The first thing Jerry talked about was how we were building the USA Basketball brand, and it was going to be a three-year commitment,” Kobe Bryant said. “That wasn’t a concern for me - I was down to play for three years, four years or five years, whatever it was.”

Bryant and seven others will make their Olympic debuts. Jason Kidd (2000) is the only player with a gold medal. Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade return from the Athens team.

An emphasis for the flashiest player was scrapped in exchange for a well-tooled roster that could play a variety of styles.

“We would have great individual talent, but we needed role players. We needed shooters. We needed players who would accept their roles,” Colangelo said.

The strength of this U.S. team is at point guard (Kidd, Chris Paul, Deron Williams) and defense (it held Russia to 39.7 percent shooting last week). Its weakness is height (no 7-footers).

The United States’ top competition figures to be Puerto Rico, Spain and defending gold medalist Argentina. In pool play, the Team USA plays China, Angola, Greece, Spain and Germany. Despite its recent championship drought, the Americans are the favorite.

“Our goal is to win a gold medal, but it’s also to do it the right way and develop a program that other players would want to be a part of for the next Olympics,” Krzyzewski said. “I really think that’s been a success. Now we have to close the deal by winning the gold medal.”

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