Ten years in, Colangelo's Team USA vision realized

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Friday, August 14, 2015

LAS VEGAS -- The tenor of Team USA's push toward the 2016 Rio Olympics was set on Wednesday afternoon by the player running around the Mendenhall Center floor in a blue, No. 27 jersey.

He fit in with the rest of his teammates and completed drills along with the 30-plus other players in attendance this week as part of Team USA's minicamp. The difference is that this wasn't just any other player and this group isn't just any other team.

The man wearing the unfamiliar jersey was LeBron James, currently the greatest player on the planet.

James could have been doing any number of different things during his short summer vacation. But like the other big American NBA stars, he made it a point to come to Las Vegas and get a workout in. Simply by showing up, James gave the biggest endorsement yet of the program Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski have created over the past 10 years.

Colangelo's rise as Team USA's czar has been well documented after the national team's disappointing, third-place finish in the 2004 Athens Games, but the biggest move he made aside from hiring Hall of Fame coach Krzyzewski was creating a culture that continues to thrive.

One of his first mandates was to make sure players understood that to play for Team USA, they had to commit to the program in the future. The days of throwing together an All-Star team a few weeks before the Games began were over. Colangelo wanted players to want to play for their country again.

"What we decided to do was try to change culture, and once that developed, it began to snowball," Colangelo said during ESPN 2's telecast of Team USA's scrimmage on Thursday night. "But it's taken years. You can see, 10 years is a long time to build a culture, and we're very thankful that the players bought in and decided they did really feel [strongly] about representing their country."

Colangelo wanted the players to feel all the highs and lows that come with creating a new tradition. That meant players such as James and Carmelo Anthony had to endure the sting of not only losing in the Athens Games, but losing to Greece in the 2006 World Championships, as well. Colangelo understood that the kind of emotion Team USA needed to cultivate again had to come from within. Team USA's undefeated record since the 2006 loss to Greece shows that the original message has been taken to heart.

But as Colangelo and Krzyzewski celebrate their 10th anniversary in charge, the question is, why does the program still have so much pull for the game's elite players?

"Because the culture has been established and it's a good one," Krzyzewski said after the scrimmage. "A lot of people talk about what Jerry has done or what we as a coaching staff have done. Really, the primary reason we have a great culture is because we have great guys, and they've been committed. If the three guys who have won two gold medals -- Chris [Paul], Carmelo and LeBron -- are able to play, and want to play next year, that shows a commitment throughout most of their basketball life.

"A guy if he plays 12 to 15 years in the league, that's a good career. Well, these guys have done that for USA Basketball. [Kevin] Durant, [Russell] Westbrook, [Stephen] Curry, these guys who've played in multiple events and won two [Olympic] gold medals. They come back and they help establish that culture."

Aside from James' surprise appearance on the floor Wednesday, the week will also be remembered as the public return of Durant and Anthony after season-ending injuries curtailed their respective 2014-15 campaigns. Like James, the fact that Durant and Anthony feel compelled to show up and play only reinforces what was evident throughout the week: Wearing the Team USA uniform is still special to them. They take a lot of pride in what has been accomplished and want to continue seeing it grow.

"It's really exactly different than what I have to do at Duke now," Krzyzewski said. "We have guys that are one-and-done, which is great. They're good enough and they accomplish a lot. It used to be where [Shane] Battier and all these guys would teach the younger guys. Well, that's what it is, that's what's going on here. We don't have guys who are [here] once and then they're gone. They're in it over and over again. That's the best, and that's what other countries have. That's what other countries have, and that continuity is really important in order for us to compete at the highest level and have an opportunity to beat them."

Colangelo and Krzyzewski are proud of the loyalty that has developed over time. They've engendered a feeling among America's elite basketball talent that the Olympics is greatest platform in the world. Winning an NBA title is a dream for many players, but it is a goal that can be accomplished every season. Winning an Olympic gold medal for your country is possible only every four years and can take a player's legacy to even greater heights all over the world. Want to prove you're one of the best players in the world? Come to USA camp and prove it.

The key over the past decade isn't just that players want to prove themselves against their peers, it's that they've also become even more fond of Colangelo and Krzyzewski. It's one of the reasons Kevin Love, who wasn't able to participate in this week's camp because of a shoulder injury he sustained in the playoffs, still showed up and watched from the sideline. He's been in the USA pipeline for almost a decade. He was a member of the 2007 Junior National Select Team and helped Team USA earn a gold medal at the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics in London. That's why as he discusses how important it is for him to help the Cleveland Cavaliers win an NBA title next season, in the next breath he mentions how much of a priority it is for him to try to win another gold medal.

"Jerry and Coach K have done a lot for me," Love said earlier this week. "So to be a part of this is a big deal for me, [a] priority."

That's exactly what Colangelo envisioned when he took this role on 10 years ago. And as he sat at the podium after a successful and injury-free scrimmage on Thursday night, he wore the look of a man who is enjoying watching the fruits of his labor and planning coming to fruition. The beauty of the seeds he planted in 2005 is that Team USA isn't just set up to be good next year in the Rio Games -- a team Colangelo believes can be the most talented of all time -- but it's set up to be even better in the years to come.

"The camaraderie that has grown among the players, that's an amazing thing," Colangelo said. "The relationships during the offseason in our environment is a real draw. And another thing that's happened, if you were to track, go back and look at the players who were on our roster in '08 and '10 and '12 and '14, in the different competitions, they all were better players for the experience. They all went back and had really good seasons and the players are aware of that. They had a head start and a jump start on the rest of their team because they were in shape, they were in a good place. So because of that environment, because of all those positives, that's another thing that just attracts them. They know it's good."

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