LAS VEGAS — Jerry Colangelo admits: He was done. Finished. Ready to walk off into the USA Basketball sunset with three gold medals and a legacy as the man who rebuilt a floundering men’s program back into a basketball powerhouse.
Then, he needed a new coach.
He wanted Gregg Popovich.
And Gregg Popovich wanted him.
“Pop said he would do it, but under one condition: That I stay,” Colangelo told SI.com. “At the time, I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t. But if it meant him coaching, it was an easy decision.”
Preparations for the FIBA World Cup are in full swing in Las Vegas. In some ways, it’s business as usual. Colangelo, 79, is there, tracking the 28 players invited to training camp from a seat on the sidelines. Mike Krzyzewski, the first coach Colangelo hired after taking over the team, in 2005, is there, too. Popovich—Colangelo’s second choice in ’05—is running things now, assisted by top NBA coaches like Steve Kerr and Lloyd Pierce.
Colangelo moves from interview to interview, often addressing Team USA’s most popular topic: The fact that so many top players elected not to be there. The majority of the 2016 gold medal winning Olympic team has elected not to play in the world championships—Kyle Lowry and Harrison Barnes are the only ’16 members present—leaving Colangelo to answer questions about why.
“It is what it is,” Colangelo shrugged. “You have no control over some of the variables that took place and why we had players drop out. We can’t cry in our beer about why guys aren’t here. I’m confident—more than confident—in our ability to get the job done.”
Has playing for USA Basketball lost some of its sizzle? It’s fair to wonder. There’s likely more appeal in being a member of the team that helped save USA Basketball than on one that helps maintain it. Colangelo correctly points out that the World Cup doesn’t have the same appeal in the U.S. as it has in other countries. And the World Cup—held in China—is scheduled to wrap up on September 15th, less than two weeks before NBA teams open training camps.
“There isn’t any one reason—there’s myriad reasons,” says Colangelo. “We had 30 guys here last summer—they all said they wanted to play. Things happen. I think as we move forward, the World Cup is going to played with young players. It’s going to be a training site for the OIympics.”
Besides: USA Basketball has been stripped of its top talent, but it hasn’t been gutted. Kemba Walker, an All-NBA point guard last season, is there. Donovan Mitchell, one of the NBA’s fastest rising young stars, is around, too. Myles Turner projects as a picture-perfect international game big man. Khris Middleton is an All-Star who just signed a near-max contract with Milwaukee.
The competition isn’t exactly daunting, either. The U.S. isn’t the only country that has been plagued by withdrawals. Serbia, led by Nikola Jokic, is pretty good. Spain still has one Gasol—Marc—suiting up. France is OK. Argentina … OK, can anyone explain why Argentina, an emerging power in the early aughts, was not able to build on what the Golden Generation did?
In other words: The U.S. will begin the World Cup as heavy favorites.
They will be different, of course. “Our athleticism is going to be one of our strengths,” says Colangelo.
Translation: Half-court scoring could be an issue.
“We have to move and we have to play harder,” says Barnes. “In the past USA Basketball’s one-on-one talent has been so potent that [we] could rely on Kobe [Bryant], LeBron [James], [Kevin] Durant, Carmelo [Anthony], you know, just guys who go out there and get a basket. This year the other teams are going to have experience over us.”
Popovich will be learning on the fly. Coaching USA Basketball, says Popovich, has been on his mind since Colangelo tabbed him in 2016. “It’s been thinking about two teams at the same time,” says Popovich. Whittling down the roster to 12 players will be difficult, as will developing an effective style of play. Popovich says this week has been about beginning to develop a cohesive team; scrimmages, at least the portion the media is allowed to view, have not featured much, if any, play calling.
The team, says Popovich, has to fall in love with each other, fast.
“On the court is pretty easy,” says Walker. “I think we will get that. I think off the court is what we have to figure out and spend more time with each other and communicate more and just have fun with each other. Like Pop said, just love each other because it has to translate to on the court if we want to do something special with this team.”
Standing on the practice floor this week, Colangelo said he was happy with what he was seeing. He called working with Popovich “unique” and “refreshing,” citing his preparation and commitment as most impressive. He said his passion for USA Basketball remains as strong as ever. He recalls the day as a 7-year-old when he first smelled a basketball’s leather, the beginning of a love affair that has lasted an entire lifetime.
“And it’s almost over,” Colangelo says, laughing. “So why would I change?”