It's understandable if Sonny Vaccaro is a little defensive. Remember when Team USA was no good, and everyone blamed the sorry state of American basketball development?
Many of the fingers were pointed at summer league basketball and the AAU, and a culture where highly prized players are wooed to join various traveling teams, and there's little time or focus on the hard work of skill development.
Vaccaro has long been, in many ways, the king of that world. When people criticize summer basketball, he takes it in many ways as a criticism of him.
It's not entirely a wasted point. To this day, nobody -- not even Vaccaro -- thinks AAU basketball as currently designed is the best possible environment for young players to mature into the best professionals they can be. But Vaccaro called today and one of his main points is that while USA basketball is in the sunshine today, even as a whole lot of nothing has changed about summer basketball.
When team USA was losing to teams it should have beat, people talked a lot about what's broken with American basketball. Many suggested the problem was a progression from AAU travel teams in high school, to a pit stop for a year or two of college before departing as quickly as possible to the NBA.
And yet ...
"Look at the players on this team!" says Vaccaro. "You can go down the list. The NCAA would tell you that the solution is for players to spend more time playing for a college but these great players spent very little time in college."
World championship MVP Kevin Durant took the road that has been called broken. "Kevin is the youngest of them all," says Vaccaro. "It's not like his year under Coach Barnes at Texas made him who he is. He's had these skills forever! He's the same great kid who played for some Washington AAU team a few summers ago."
The players who restored pride in Team USA did so without following the NCAA playbook. After some recruiting shenanigans and sitting out a year, Lamar Odom played one year Rhode Island. Derrick Rose was one-and-done at Memphis, complete with a simmering controversy about his SATs. Kevin Love was at UCLA for a single year, and Eric Gordon played a one year at Indiana. Tyson Chandler didn't go to college at all, while Andre Iguodala played two years at Arizona, just as Russell Westbrook played two at UCLA. Chauncey Billups played two seasons at Colorado.
In other words, Team USA has been mended, even while nothing about AAU, recruiting, summer camps and the like has changed.
"I get what David Stern is doing. He's a businessman. By forcing kids to go to college, he's delaying paychecks to them, and helping owners decide who should be drafted high," says Vaccaro. "But for the life of me, I can't figure out why the general public thinks the NCAA should have these players."
"I give Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski credit," says Vaccaro. "They're doing it the right way. They have the strength, and the financing, to get players to really work for six weeks. It made all the difference. And all that stuff that everyone was saying about how the USA teams performed in the past? Doesn't anybody realize that USA Basketball picked those coaches, and USA basketball picked those players? The problem wasn't summer basketball. The problem was that they didn't take this team seriously. They threw players together a few days before the tournament. Now they're doing it the right way, and quite honestly, these players should never be beat."