Seven scenes from the Rio Olympics that feed into one USA basketball theory
- Another Olympic gold proves that USA basketball has clearly figured out the winning formula for crafting a team of NBA players for the international game.
There may have been complications along the way, but by the end, it wasn't close. USA basketball won its third-straight gold medal on Sunday. The Rio Olympics were ultimately another reminder that order has been restored since the Team USA debacle in 2004. If anything, the gap with the rest of the world is widening. The state of the union is strong.
After spending the past few weeks in Brazil, I have a theory as to why. I also have several pages of notes from the past few weeks, so I'll explain this with stories.
Thursday, Aug. 4: Introducing the boat
Let's begin with the boat. The boat was called the Silver Cloud, a luxury cruise ship which housed players, coaches and staff for USA basketball's men's and women's teams.
The boat was noteworthy for its mystery—early on, only a handful of people had seen it—but also because it did an excellent job capturing USA basketball's relationship to the rest of the athletes in Rio. Of course, this put the team in a delicate position. While outsiders buzzed about the team's opulent living arrangements, players did their best to downplay the hype.
Over and over again, almost every player carefully hit on the same themes: it's no different than a hotel, it's nothing special, it's nice but not too nice, nothing to see here. "It's not like we're cruising around," Carmelo Anthony said. "We’re docked. We have the same amenities as if we’re staying in a hotel." Even the women's team stayed on message throughout the games, as Sue Bird took to calling it their "boat-el."
But I think my favorite boat moment came during the introductory press conference. A soft-spoken foreign reporter wanted to know more about the boat. He asked his question and looked up to 6' 11", 270-pound DeMarcus Cousins, who was perched several feet above him on stage.
"How's the boat?" Cousins answered. "BIG."
Friday, Aug. 5: Jimmy Butler does not like water
Elsewhere at the opening press conference, players explained that the most surprising revelation in Rio concerned Jimmy Butler. The following afternoon, we went straight to the source.
"Jimmy Butler doesn’t like water," DeAndre Jordan told reporters at the introductory press conference. "So we were talking about, ‘Would you jump off the boat or would you get in?’ [He says,] ‘No and don’t play with me about it.’ He definitely does not like the water at all."
Draymond Green confirmed the running joke. "He don’t want to be near the water, he doesn’t want his room facing the water. Nothing. It’s incredible to me."
Pressed for details at practice the next day, Butler scrunched his face and smiled. "I don't want to get in the water?" he asked. "Because I may or may not be able to swim? OK, so what? Tell them to stop talking about people. Stop talking about me. I'm not an Olympic swimmer, OK? What's wrong with that?”
Plenty of other Olympians across other sports had worried about the water in Rio specifically, but this was a broader issue. "Water, in general," Butler said. "I'm not big on water. I walk by the pool, I make sure I'm not walking next to any guys, just in case they get any ideas."
Tuesday, Aug. 9: USA Basketball plays football
Team USA opened the Olympics by destroying Venezuela and China. The most dramatic basketball highlight to emerge from Rio was a viral clip of Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler playing football. They discussed it the following day.
"I'm going back out there today," Butler said.
Thompson, mid-interview with a group of reporters, chimed in from 10-feet down the bench. "Burned him!"
"That was his only catch!" Butler said of the video. "Ask him how many times he caught the ball."
Klay, still mid-interview: "Burned him!"
Jimmy: "Ask him how many times he caught the ball."
Klay: "Burrrrrnnnnned him...."
Jimmy: "[The video crew] just got the one catch that he got. I had more than one catch. And I got a pick."
Later on, Klay came clean. "Alright, he beat me 3-2," he said. "But it was a barnburner. I was already out there running sprints, so I was a little tired. But man, you saw the video. You saw what I was doing. That's all you need to see."
In the middle of all this, DeAndre Jordan said he might have to take the field later that afternoon.
Jimmy: "I'll run by DJ so f**kin’ fast."
Thursday, Aug. 11: Kevin Durant does the Olympics
Earlier in the week, a number of players had singled out Michael Phelps as the Olympian they most wanted to see, so they ventured out to watch Phelps and Katie Ledecky dominate. Two days later, after a close call with Australia, Kevin Durant talked about how his time at the pool.
"We all got our little egos," Durant said. "You know, we're professional players. But you put your ego to the side when you're watching greatness. You can appreciate greatness. Especially at this stage, being in the Olympics. You just don't get this [opportunity]. I can't just say I'm going to watch Michael Phelps. People can watch us 82 games a year."
For American players, this is what separates the Olympic experience from, say, the FIBA World Championships. When they're not playing, they're free to go see the most dominant athletes in the world. As Durant said, "I didn't care about who I was, or what I've done. It was all about those guys in their moment."
Durant's also from the same state as both Phelps and Ledecky. That added another layer of appeal. "Phelps is from Baltimore," Durant said. "Closer to Melo. But we're all from the same state. And we're over here in Rio. We gotta stick together man. Just seeing Katie, and knowing she comes from the same area I come from... I can drive to where she's from in 30 minutes. I've always been proud to be from Maryland, but they just took it to another level."
"She's beating people by four seconds," Durant added of Ledecky. "That's incredible."
Tuesday, Aug. 16: Team USA gets serious
After the close call against Australia turned into uncomfortably close three-point wins against France and Serbia, Team USA canceled planned media sessions for Saturday and Monday. On Tuesday, practice went 45 minutes longer than scheduled. Then the players talked.
When a reporter asked whether there had been frustration among players, Klay Thompson was honest. "There has been," he said. "We're competitive. We feel like we're better than these teams. But you know, give 'em credit they played great games, they have some great offenses. But we still feel like there's some things we can work out, and we're going to."
"We're still gonna have to go through what those guys do," Durant said, "schemes and all that stuff. But at the end of the day it comes down to us. Are we going to do what it takes to win?"
"All of these guys are competitors," Paul George said of the leadership process. "You're not dealing with guys that are insecure or don't know how to take it to the next level. It's kind of a joint thing. One guy speaks up, another chimes in. Melo was the first one to say, really sit everybody aside, and tell 'em, "We're fine, we're fine." At the end of the day, we take pride in who we are, being the U.S. It might not be pretty, but we know what the main goal is."
"We're dealing with talent vs. experience," George added near the end. "That's what this tournament is coming down to now."
Thursday, Aug. 18: Carmelo is the uncle, not the grandfather
Against Argentina, talent won. George helped set the tone—+28 on the night—and Durant caught fire to bury the Golden Generation. The next day, Carmelo Anthony assumed his role as veteran spokesman, eulogizing Manu Ginobili, praising Pau Gasol and talking about his own role in Rio.
"It's different," Anthony said of his role in Rio. "We're all alpha dogs in our own situation. To come into this situation, to have all the alphas looking at you for the answers... That's a different experience."
Watching Carmelo in Rio was like watching the circle of life unspool a little too quickly. I wasn't ready. In my mind he was 18 years old and winning a national title like 20 minutes ago—off to the side on Thursday, Jim Boeheim was talking to a reporter about 'Melo's first recruiting visit. But in Rio he turned into a full-fledged ambassador for this team. "I've looked up to Carmelo since I was 15 years old," Durant said. "When he talks, we listen."
Someone suggested this was Carmelo in Kobe's role.
"NO," he laughed. "No, no. Kobe was 35 when he was with us [in London]. Kobe was 35."
OK. Kobe in Beijing? "Yeah, that's more like it. 2008 Kobe. We were actually surprised that [Kobe] accepted the invitation to come play in 2008. But once he got there, it was him and Jason Kidd, and [us] looking at those guys for advice. That's what's happening here now."
Sometime this transformation seemed poetic. "I was the one that was following Kob'," he remembered of 2008. "Wanting to work out with him every day, train with him, trying to dig into his mind and see how he approached the game. So I give that experience back to these guys."
Other times—like the several times Kyrie Irving interrupted these same Melo's answers to screw with him—it was funnier. After the interruptions continued for a few minutes, Melo finally turned and shook his head: "You don't have no respect, man. Put some respect on my name. Ol', 23 year-old..."
Kyrie: "I'm 24."
Sunday, Aug. 21: DeAndre Jordan practices kung fu on the sidelines
This team may have inspired doubts along the way, but there was no question by the end. On Sunday Team USA throttled Serbia, 96–66, and the previous week's three-point win turned into this week's 30-point gold medal game blowout. The definitive sequence was a Kevin Durant drive-and-dunk, punctuated by DeAndre Jordan pantomiming kung-fu on the sidelines.
This is a good opportunity to note that over the course of two weeks, DeAndre Jordan replaced DeMarcus Cousins in the starting lineup and became one of the most valuable players on Team USA. "I'm gonna be DeAndre," he said early on. "Dunk, rebound, laugh, scream. Just be myself."
Off the court, two weeks in Rio also made it clear that everyone on the team enjoys him. Did you know he has a longstanding friendship with Kevin Durant? Before Rio, I didn't. "That's my guy," Jordan said of Durant. "We met when I was a junior in high school. He was going to Texas and they were trying recruit me. We ended up talking and hanging out, and we've been boys since then. Over the past couple years, we've grown super-duper close. That's my brother"
When Jordan wasn't celebrating old friends, he was making new ones. "Jimmy, Draymond, obviously Carmelo," he said. "We've been together for two months just hanging out every day. You grow close to people like that. I'll be friends with these guys long after basketball."
When Jimmy Butler was asked which teammate surprised him most, Jordan was his first answer. "I really didn't know DJ," he said. "Even though we're both from Texas. He was so much better than I was in Texas [in high school]. But now, as a person, just to meet him? Man, really good dude. I never knew DJ like that."
They have plans to meet during the year, too. "He'll probably make me pay in L.A.," Jordan said of Butler. "I'll get him back in Chicago."
Everyone has a different way to explain how Team USA's been revitalized, but this is the best explanation that I have: Over the past eight years, USA basketball has turned into what looks like the best summer camp on earth. There are endless jokes, all kinds of stupid competitions and group outings. Lessons are learned, and friendships are forged. There are first-timers, there are veterans. This year it all happened on a luxury boat.
"It feels like vacation," Klay Thompson said early on. "But you're getting better at the same time. It's the best of the both worlds."
"It's just fun, in general," Kyle Lowry explained. "Even if it's your second or third [time]. Melo's probably having the most fun out of everybody. It's just that type of group. It's that type of moment. [If] they want me to come back? I'm coming back. No question."
This summer's team wasn't perfect, but with superstars like Durant and overqualified role players like DeAndre and Lowry, they had too much talent to ever truly be in danger. That's what's different in the new era. Without dancing any more on Larry Brown's grave after the 2004 debacle—or George Karl in 2002, or a frustrated Lenny Wilkens in 1996—the goal for today's Team USA is different. This team isn't about controlling stars, but empowering them, and promoting them. This helps when it's time to recruit them.
When America lost in 2004 the popular refrain was that Team USA didn't understand what it takes to build a team for the international game. But the people in charge of this team never reclaimed supremacy by tailoring this program to FIBA. They did it by heeding the dominant lesson of the modern NBA. The best players in the world want to play for smart teams that can market them, coaches who'll trust them, in environments they'll enjoy. Once America internalized this lesson and shifted power from coaches like Brown to players like Carmelo, it was over for the rest of the world.
As USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo explained it, "If you create an environment where guys feel happy, they enjoy each other... It's fun. It's not a job. The more you can create this feeling, the better it is. And it perpetuates itself. Players talk about it. You know, 'Hey man, that was unbelievable. That time we had in Rio. Or that time we had in Beijing, or London.'"
On that note, see you in Tokyo.