Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski helped revitalize USA basketball, winning Olympic gold in 2008.
I realize there are many college hoops fans who have no interest in the pro game, and while I don't understand you lot -- it's really good basketball, promise! -- such a stance does mean you likely take no solace in the mere presence of the NBA playoffs. But we can all get behind Olympic basketball, right? The collection of the world's best players, wearing the Stars and Stripes, vying for a gold medal -- it's a thrilling experience made all the more exciting by the continued global evolution of the game.
Though it may feel like it, it wasn't always this way. Just twelve years ago, USA Basketball appeared to be on something like a permanent decline. The 2004 Olympic team failed to capture gold at the Games, losing to Argentina 89-81 in the semifinals, and the recriminations were long and loud and thoroughly embarrassing to coach Larry Brown and his players (most notably Allen Iverson), who were seen as emblematic of the NBA's supposed me-first culture. The international game was on the rise -- less selfish, less brash, more fundamental -- and the United States, dominant basketball superpower, was on the way out.
That didn't happen, and we have two men to thank.
One is USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, who revamped the men's national team with the establishment of a player pool designed to give the organization more structure and continuity. Colangelo's general vision has been the driving force behind the idea of USA Basketball as a program, not as an isolated, once-in-four-years affair.
The other is the man Colangelo hired to oversee the team, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who today announced this summer's 2012 Olympics would most likely be his last on the job. Under Coach K, USA Basketball became something less like a lark -- hey, sure, let's go win gold and travel, should be fun -- and something more like a consistent, dedicated annual effort. In 2008, Coach K selected an amazing team built on the league's best talent, with players who were not only better than their competition but adjusted their styles to the international game (a frequent criticism of past teams) and played selfless, ego-free basketball. Coach K got Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul and Dwight Howard and you-name-it to play together. (Watch footage of Bryant's defense in that tournament. It was breathtaking.) When Spain's talented team tested the Americans in the 2008 gold medal game, they were ready. The 2004 team would have been run off the floor.
Then, in 2010, Coach K won again, this time in the FIBA World Championships with a group of players effectively dubbed the "B Team" -- young, emerging stars like Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Andre Igoudala, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. (The list goes on: Eric Gordon, Stephen Curry, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger ...). Nearly every player on that team came back from the 2010 FIBAs and went on to be a star on the league, Durant and Rose most notably. And is it a coincidence that Lamar Odom was sixth man of the year in 2011, or that Tyson Chandler anchored the Dallas Mavericks to an NBA title?
We can argue the developmental benefits of USA Basketball under Coach K. What we can't argue is the massive evolution the team has undergone since that nightmare in 2004. A fractured, bloodied entity is long since behind us: The 2012 men's Olympic team will come in as the obvious favorite, and none of the questions of the past -- Can the personalities work together? Can the U.S. play the international style? -- will linger over the proceedings. Coach K is an old-fashioned patriotic type. Whether you agree with his politics or not, his ability to imbue his star-studded, millionaire-loaded national teams with that spirit -- country first, team second, individual last -- has to be considered among the finest accomplishments of his career.
It would be too much to say Colangelo and Coach K "saved" USA Basketball. The players are far too good for that. Even as the game globalizes, the rest of the world still has a long way to go to catch up. And the personalities of the 2008 stars, specifically Bryant, went a long way toward ensuring a level of focus and dedication not seen in 2004.
Still, eight years ago, USA Basketball was in crisis. Today, it's as strong as it's ever been. It isn't always hard to coach the best players in the world, but it isn't always easy, either. And Coach K was the perfect man for the job.