USA Basketball Was Built To Succeed (and Fail)

The Olympic team that went to Greece in 2004 was an utter disaster and everyone had to be accountable. Second year players LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were immature. Allen Iverson was the leading scorer. Tim Duncan didn’t get the ball enough. Larry Brown was autocratic. The team was built without enough outside shotmakers unless you consider Stephon Marbury a go-to scorer. He had 31 points on six threes against Spain. The U.S. lost to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and then when it counted, Argentina in the semifinals. They averaged 88 points a game which was a measly +4 in differential. Scoring was an issue and they had to swallow bitterness and wear that bronze medal while everyone chimed in that they were selfish losers. But what was forgotten was that the 2003 FIBA Tournament of Americas first place team had 9 defections. They passed on going to Athens. And so this was the result.

Sound familiar?

As a result of the massive outcry from the Athens debacle, Jerry Colangelo modified USA Basketball and decided to pull in from their summer vacay the best NBA players. But first, they had to give a 3 year commitment. Colangelo saw that as a way to keep stars from saying no thank you. He had another pressing issue. After the Dream Team, playing in the Olympics was decidedly not cool, particularly when tired bodies wanted to chill on the jet ski in South Beach. But the bronze medal shook everyone’s nationalistic pride way up. That 2004 team was vilified because, even if they had a lot of offensive holes, they didn’t seem to care that they lost. They displayed zero patriotism. LeBron and Wade acted their age. Iverson tried to be the savior when he wasn’t feuding with Brown. Marbury was good enough but he wasn’t an A-lister.

Colangelo wanted to change that by having players who were serious about representing their country. And were willing to sacrifice part of three summers. First stop was a phone interview. Then a personal interview. And then Colangelo decided who was in and who was out.

Because it was suddenly an exclusive group with Colangelo as USA Basketball’s dictator, the glamour was back in. Do you want to be the savior? A hero on the Redeem Team? The best were all in and represented themselves in the interview.

The 2008 Olympics was in China and it was the first test of USA Basketball. The 2004 team debacle was suddenly history as Kobe and LeBron and Wade and Jason Kidd put their name on the yes list. Mike Krzyzewski was the coach.  The Redeem Team had a nation on pins and needles. You better not f**k this up. We invented basketball. The rest of the world is supposed to come in second.

A gold medal in 2008, 2012, 2016 reminded the earth that when A-talent NBA stars compete, they are unbeatable. But the Olympics and only the Olympics is what the iconic of the sport is going to sign up for.  The FIBA World Cup? Not so much. But the Olympics?

We will send Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and James Harden and Draymond Green and Anthony Davis.  Plus others. Players are willing to sacrifice because of the glory of the gold medal, the positive coverage, and the Olympic experience. The FIBA World Cup loss and those who refused to sacrifice for it will be a distant memory despite Jerry Colangelo implying he will remember who said no to the World Cup. Right. Like he’s going to turn down elite talent. Then he will be the one blamed for holding a petty grudge.

Colangelo is smarting from the defeat because USA Basketball incentivizes the 1% and there is really nothing he can do about the failures that are built into the system. Is it problematic that USA Basketball needs Steph Curry and Anthony Davis more than Steph and AD need USA Basketball? Yes.

But despite the bitter taste, the humiliation of the quarterfinal World Cup loss is a one day story. No one really cares because the Olympics is in 10 months and the superstars will be back. Then the unfair fight truly begins.