ISTANBUL -- Putting together a team of NBA players in the offseason, even one that is going to compete for something as grand-sounding as The National Team on a stage as grand-sounding as The World Championship, is a challenge for USA Basketball, a complex jigsaw that requires endless reevaluation and compromise. And so it was for this year's team, which -- on a memorable Sunday night in a Turkish city agog over its own national team and aflame with a national election -- won the FIBA world title for the first time since 1994, an automatic bid for the 2012 Olympics in London and the hearts and minds of everyone who watched them play. Well, maybe not the Turkey fans.
The 12 players who finished unbeaten in the FIBA World Championship with an 81-64 victory over host Turkey on Sunday night -- a victory achieved in the most hostile of environments against a good team but one chockfull of thespians who spent almost as much time pleading with the refs as playing -- were not necessarily the ones who were supposed to be here. The fact that the U.S. was able to not only carve out an identity, but also win it all speaks volumes about the manner in which USA Basketball responded to the clarion call for action that came after an embarrassing performance in the 2004 Olympics.
"I said from the beginning that if we were able to win with a team we put together with a total turnover of personnel, it would an incredible story," said Jerry Colangelo, chairman of USA Basketball. "This is huge for USA Basketball. It puts us over the hump." During the tournament, Colangelo, long an NBA powerbroker, decided that it wasn't being covered like an "incredible story." So he did what jefes do. After the U.S. began racking up victories, he called up ESPN and insulted them into sending a live crew to Istanbul instead of broadcasting the U.S. games from a studio in Bristol, Conn. Come the World Wide Leader did, and they got a great story.
When the U.S. began gearing up the Worlds, there was every possibility that the '10 team would look a lot like the '08 gold-medal Olympic team, a star-studded aggregation of basketball royalty led by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. But, one by one, they dropped off for matters personal and professional, entirely reasonable given the length of the NBA season, the necessity to recover from injuries and the energy required to engineer a full-scale, we-are-the-world free-agent campaign. (Pat Riley will recognize this as the obligatory dig at his Three Amigos.)
Then it looked like the U.S. would have a powerful inside-oriented team, with visions of Amar'e Stoudemire dunking over mere mortals, David Lee scoring on pick-and-rolls and Brook Lopez beating a few people up. But contractual issues (for Stoudemire) and injuries (for the other two) eliminated those big guys.
Then it looked like maybe ascendant superstar Rajon Rondo would ride in to save the day, but his shaky shooting proved to be a liability and -- clang! -- next thing you know he was gone, having voluntarily withdrawn (before he was cut) during the team's pre-championship trip to Europe.
So make no mistake about it: Despite that the U.S. was considered -- fairly -- the FIBA favorite, insiders had their doubts, expressed mostly in the U.S., where they were called "the B team," referencing previous championship incarnations of Dream Team and Redeem Team.
"You better believe getting called the 'B Team' motivated us," said tournament MVP Kevin Durant. "We never forgot that."
Still, it remained for the team to find its identity in the heat of battle, something it did gradually throughout the tournament, reaching fruition in this noisy final. From the moment 15,000 fans thundered the Turkish national anthem, then hooted and jeered every time a U.S. player touched the ball, the Americans had to respond to pressure. The Turks did everything they could to inflame the crowd -- at least four times in the opening minutes the officials had to direct coach Bogdan Tanjevic and most of his bench players to stop charging onto the court to protest calls -- but superior talent and athleticism, and, surprisingly, composure, enabled the U.S. to pull away by midway through the third period.
"From the time Turkey won last night [he meant its semifinal victory over Serbia] we've been talking about what we were going to face in this arena," said Eric Gordon, who played well throughout the tournament as a backup point guard and sharpshooter. "We decided we had to lay it out from the beginning and be aggressive. But at the same time, we had to stay together. There were issues with the noise, play-calling and that kind of thing, so we encouraged each other all the time to keep talking. And stay together. Stay together."
And one other important thing: Get the ball to Durant.
Indeed, amid the personnel uncertainty, one thing became clear in the early stages of gestation for this team: Durant would be the offensive focus. He would get the ball whenever he wanted it, wherever he wanted it, he would shoot it and he would play a lot of minutes. The 21-year-old finished with an average of 22.8 points -- he scored 28 in the final against Turkey and almost single-handedly kept the U.S. in the game in the first half by shooting over and finding spots between the relentless Turkish zone -- and rarely left the court. "If there's one thing I've learned in my years of coaching," said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, "it's how to ride a horse."
Second, it would be a defensive-oriented team. Andre Iguodala and Lamar Odom would try to hold their own on the big people, which they did again on Sunday night. Everyone would be active. Full-court pressure would be employed from time to time. Assistant coach Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone would mix it up once in a while, but otherwise there would be double-teaming and aggression and all-out lockdown or don't bother showing up.
Third, there would be a round-robin point-guard system, and that's not including Chauncey Billups, who, early on, was deemed a shooting guard. If you thought you should be the guy ... tough. At the end of the tournament Derrick Rose (24 minutes against Turkey), Russell Westbrook (23 minutes) and Gordon (13 minutes) all logged significant playing time.
And, fourth, Billups and Odom would handle the leadership duties. You mucked up, you answered to them. "It was just a great mix," said Colangelo. "Watching how Chauncey and Lamar led the team yet integrated themselves with the younger players was one of the joys of this experience for me."
A few other scattered observations from two weeks in Turkey, where the weather is great, the meat is nicely grilled, the politicians are loudly booed (as they were during the medal ceremonies on Sunday) and smoking is still the national pastime.
• Besides Durant, the other U.S. player to make a quantum leap in this tournament was Westbrook. I wrote previously that Krzyzewski called him "one of the elite athletes in the world," which can sometimes be a veiled criticism, i.e., that he's all talent, no fundamentals. Not the case with Westbrook, who, besides Durant, was the only one who looked comfortable attacking zones throughout the tournament. The possibility exists that, as time goes on, he and Rose will have a Chris Paul-Deron Williams kind of rivalry going on. But right now? I'd have to pick Westbrook ... and I love Rose's game, his uncertain outside touch notwithstanding.
Pencil Westbrook in for the 2012 Olympic team, by the way, since Colangelo, who never sits back on personnel selection, singled the Oklahoma City Thunder guard out for praise after the game. "For a young player with his skill level, what he's going to be in the future is unbelievable," said Colangelo.
• Watching Iguodala in this tournament -- batting balls out of his opponents' hands, grabbing tough rebounds, showing restrained shot selection, becoming a team leader -- makes it all the more clear what he is: A great complementary player. He has trouble when he has to be The Guy, as has been the case in Philadelphia. With Evan Turner now in town, perhaps we'll see Iguodala bloom.
• We know that the U.S.'s weakness in international play is its dearth of knock-down shooters, of which most European teams seem to have a surplus. But there's something else involved, too. Our guards obviously know how to drive-and-kick to the wing. But the top European point guards, such as Serbia's Milos Teodosic, drive hard to the hoop and somehow find a teammate two or three skip-passes away. They know that a shooter is going to be there because the physics of the court mandate that he's there. It's my humble opinion that the U.S. has to get much better at discovering where those less-obvious spots might be. And, then, well, it would be nice if the shooter converted, too.
• FIBA has long hoped that the NBA would modify its rules to more closely conform to those played in most international venues. Patrick Baumann, secretary general of the organization, said during a media session over here that he hopes the FIBA rule that allows players to knock away a ball on the rim without a goal-tending call will be adopted by the NBA.
That will happen when Barack Obama and John Boehner skip hand-in-hand down Pennsylvania Avenue in matching leotards. In fact, FIBA is moving more toward NBA rules by changing its lane from a trapezoid to a rectangle and moving back its three-point line to a foot short of the NBA distance.
But Stu Jackson, the NBA's rules czar, is in love with one thing that FIBA does, and I agree wholeheartedly.
"A minute goes up on the clock for a timeout," said Jackson, "and that's what you have. I love the way they keep the game moving." Also, a FIBA game is four 10-minute quarters (instead of 12), so every game doesn't seem like Long Day's Journey Into Night, as is the case in the NBA.
Alas, as Jackson knows, streamlining the timeouts won't happen.
"Television," he said. Indeed. It's during those timeouts that networks local and national make their money.
• This world tournament is still largely a mystery back home. Ask even a sports fan what FIBA is and he might guess that it's an organic beverage from Switzerland. Colangelo hopes that this victory makes a difference. "Hopefully, this gold medal will sell it," he said. "And the idea that we now have too many guys who are national team players? That's not how I look at it. Utopia for me is to have a group of 30 or 35 players, and for each competition, we pick the best 12 players that can represent us at that moment. There should be turnover. There should be competition. This team came out of that system."