COLANGELO: "WE HAVE TO GET READY FOR THE 2010 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP"
Jerry Colangelo came up with a winning formula when he was named managing director for Team USA’s men’s team in 2005. He enlisted the services of numerous coaches, and gained commitments from leading players to represent the United States in international competition. Duke University’s legendary boss Mike "Coach K" Krzyzewski was appointed head coach of the men’s team and last summer, Colangelo was on hand as the USA went undefeated and captured the gold medal at the Olympics in Beijing after a thrilling title showdown with world champions Spain. Colangelo has since been made chairman of USA Basketball, and he gave this exclusive interview to Jeff Taylor on behalf of FIBA.
FIBA: Mr Colangelo, what is the immediate future of the senior national team? Tell us when the squad of players will be announced, and also when the announcement will be about the coach of that team as Mike Krzyzewski was uncertain after the Olympics if he would continue to lead the USA.
COLANGELO: First of all, everything was put on hold. The one big piece of information that has happened since the end of the Olympics is that I was serving as managing director of the men’s team. I’m now serving in the capacity as chairman of USA Basketball. That involves all of the teams: men, women, juniors. But I will continue with my direct involvement (with the senior USA men’s team), although I don’t know if I will keep the title. I don’t think we’ll have managing director. But I’ll be responsible for the men’s team because that’s the passion. Coach K and I have not even had that conversation. We plan to meet sometime probably within the next month. We do not have anything we need to do except to get ready for the (FIBA) World Championship in 2010. So there is no requirement for us in ’09 (FIBA Americas Championship) to do anything unless we choose to. So there is no immediate urgency of naming players, or coaches or anything like that. One of the things that I’m thinking about is having a trial for some of the best young players in the game here in the summer from which we’ll take maybe the top four or five and add them to our mix and see if some of them might be able to make our team, depending on how many of our veterans are interested in coming back. I think we have a good pipeline started. I think it’s a matter of servicing that pipeline.
FIBA: That’s very exciting to hear you talk about the young players. We were recently in North Carolina and interviewed one of the coaches in the USA Basketball set-up, Davidson coach Bob McKillop, along with one of his star players Stephen Curry. Are you considering adding college players to your national team squad or young players who are already in the NBA?
COLANGELO: Here is the problem. It’s not a black-and-white situation anymore about the college and pros. There was a time when individuals went to college for four years and then went pro. Today, some of them go to college just for one year and turn pro, so it’s a grey area. We’re open. The policy is, if we think there is somebody out there who has a legitimate chance to make it, a good example is (Kevin) Durant. Durant came out of high school and I had him at our (Team USA) camp. And that’s before he played in the NBA. And (Greg) Oden was invited but couldn’t perform because of his injury. So would there be young players invited and have the opportunity? If we feel they’re good enough, the answer is yes.
FIBA: You mentioned the 2010 FIBA World Championship. The winner will qualify directly for the London 2012. Otherwise, Team USA would have to go through the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship to reach the Olympics. Does that play into your strategy in terms of how significant the FIBA World Championship will be for the USA?
COLANGELO: My personal feeling is that it’s very significant. I think it’s important to win the World Championship because we haven’t done that in a long time. So I think we have an incentive to give them our best. The thing I need to do is to have discussions with a number of our players when they are here for the NBA All-Star break in Phoenix. That’s where the game will be played here this February. My plan is to meet with a number of guys in our roster to see how they’re feeling about that. I asked for a three-year commitment last time and (now) I’m willing to take two. But that means 2010 and 2012. If we get the job done in ’10, then we don’t have to worry about ’11. If a player says, "I don’t want to give you a three-year commitment, I’ll give you two", fine. I want 2010 and 2012 and shame on us if we don’t win in 2010 - that’s going to cost you a third year. But you’ve got the option to make it work.
FIBA: Everything was gold for the USA in China but even then I’m sure that you, Coach K and the players identified some areas in which the program could improve. What would that be in your opinion? Was there anything important that you think you could have done better?
COLANGELO: First of all, we concluded (after 2004) that we needed a new infrastructure. We needed a new culture. We totally fulfilled the short-term aim of turning around the program, getting people with passion who bought into the vision and we accomplished our goal and objective of winning the gold medal. Now the next piece of business is to sustain it. That’s another challenge. And so, we would hope to do everything better because you are never finished. This is a work in progress. I think the infrastructure has put in a pipeline that we now have in place. The great interest that we have in our young players who now want to be a part of Team USA - we turned around that culture, too. So, we just want to get better at what we do and not take anything for granted because I do believe the competition is getting much stronger.
FIBA: We saw a focused Team USA at the Beijing Games every time the players ran onto the floor. It seemed a lot of that was down to the leadership of players like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. LeBron was particularly charismatic, especially in the press conference after the gold- medal game. Do you have ready-made leaders to step in if this trio decides to take a break from international basketball?
COLANGELO: First of all, leaders aren’t just made. They emerge. The read that I got from our roster is that most of the guys wanted to play and do it again. Now, that may have been an immediate and emotional response. I wanted to give everyone some time away from it. That’s why here in February, when we kind of convene here in Phoenix, we’re just going to talk things through. I’ll have a much better feel of the lay of the land. But I feel very comfortable that we’ll have many players to pick from and to keep the thing rolling.
FIBA: You have mentioned that a lot of players now want to be a part of Team USA and that there is a pipeline. Do you believe that USA Basketball was successful in winning back a public that perhaps wasn’t as supportive in Sydney and Athens? Do you believe that everyone is right behind USA Basketball now and is very excited?
COLANGELO: Certainly. I think we turned it. I really do. Bear in mind that when I took on the responsibility in ’05, I was selling my vision for what we could become. There was a lot of buying into that along the way in terms of sponsorships, so on and so forth, so we had to go out and get the job done. And I think the way the players conducted themselves on and off the court, what we accomplished on the court, the way we were involved in the community in terms of supporting other teams of the United States at the Olympics, the public perception of USA Basketball took a quantum leap and so we’re pleased about that. It’s important to keep that going in the right direction.
FIBA: How does the national team have a positive influence on the players and the NBA as a whole?
COLANGELO: I think the NBA sees it as a tremendous value to have their players not only win, but rise in popularity, name recognition, etc, etc. That’s from a league perspective. I think the individual teams whose players were involved have a winning attitude. Those are now better players who have brought the experience back to their respective teams in the USA. So the teams benefitted individually as did the teams overall.
FIBA: Do you think that playing for pride gets more out of the players than playing for money?
COLANGELO: We have players who have played for money who were willing to play without pay, and were willing to perform for pride in their country, pride in the game of basketball. It just goes to show that money can’t buy everything. What this experience offers is a very unique opportunity that is not in the color green.
FIBA: You have been involved in so many big games throughout your career. What was going through your mind during the gold medal game in Beijing when Spain played brilliantly and the USA had to give everything to win?
COLANGELO: I recognized first how much was at stake and how much effort and work we had put in. I was hopeful and prayerful that we would have a good conclusion to the whole thing. I will only tell you that at the moment the Star Spangled Banner was being played, when the flag was being raised and the medals were being draped around the players, there was a moment of total fulfillment.
FIBA: There has been an incredible growth in international basketball the past couple of decades. Where do you see basketball globally in 10 years? Which countries will be the major players that can challenge the USA?
COLANGELO: There is no question the game is a global one. We have some outstanding teams representing different countries. Our competitors will now continue to get better and better. You look at Spain, they do a tremendous job and they have a lot of players. Argentina is another country with a great pipeline of players who love the game. But I think the bar has been raised all over the world. I think out of Africa will come one or two very, very good teams in the next decade -I truly believe that. And, teams in Europe -Croatia, Serbia, the perennials- they will continue to get better and better. So, I’m hopeful that the game improves in England, that France has an opportunity to become pretty good. I think in Asia - China with its incredible interest in basketball. I say this all the time: there are 300 million people living in the United States, there are 300 million people playing basketball in China. Just by sheer numbers, you know that they are going to come up with more and more players. The game will become more and more global, and more and more competitive. And I think that is exciting for basketball.
FIBA: With respect to the FIBA rule changes that will come into effect in 2010, do you believe the international game will still be different to the NBA game and if so, what will those major differences be?
COLANGELO: We can only speculate on what these changes are going to mean and what impact they will have. We can talk about how the games were different in the past. Basically, we were playing with a different ball under different rules and different types of officiating for American players. So these rules are getting closer to the American game. You might have to say that the adjustment must come from the rest of the world to the new rules because the rules are becoming more like ours.
FIBA: What would you like to achieve as chairman of USA Basketball?
COLANGELO: Raise the bar for amateur basketball in this country. We want to help develop young people, not only in the game of basketball but in the game of life. We’re working on a new campus for USA Basketball in Glendale, Arizona, which will serve as kind of the clearing house for all amateur basketball. We want to develop the kind of program that has continuity through that infrastructure and pipeline that will give us very competitive teams on a worldwide basis. We just want to get better, and better, and better.
FIBA: Thanks very much for your time, Mr Colangelo.