The Olympics of 2004 and 2016 have had some similarities with Team USA.
Their predecessors for years had dominated the international competition with relative ease to win gold. The expectations were this team would do the same. Yet when double digits of key players backed out of the games, the USA was forced to send largely a “B-Team” to the Olympics.
The 2004 USA team lost three games and eventually took home bronze.
The 2016 USA team is undefeated and one win away from gold.
What changed is not the competition — the 2016 team has faced better — but rather it was there being a USA basketball structure was in place. This time the Americans had the continuity to handle it.
That is what Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski were brought in to build — a real culture of USA Basketball. They are one win away from the ultimate proof of that goal.
People forget what happened in 2004 in Athens — something Bill Leopold and Ben Teitelbaum broke down beautifully in an oral history for NBCOlympics.com. The USA had come in sixth in the World Championships two years earlier in Indianapolis but had won the qualifying tournament in 2003 with a much better team. Except those guys didn’t want to go to Athens for the 2004 games — Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, and others all in their prime, begged out.
Part of the reason was there wasn’t the same instilled pride of playing for the USA built into the system. Some of it was security concerns — this was the first Olympics post 9/11 and there were concerns about whether Greece had its act together. But the biggest issue was the coach — Larry Brown. He treated the NBA players like high schoolers who knew nothing — according to one story he told Jason Kidd he didn’t know how to run a proper fast break. Jason Kidd. Guys decided not to go.
The issue was there was no structure in place for replacements, so it became catch-as-catch-can. While that team eventually had numerous future NBA stars — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and so on — they were 19 or 20, and the coach didn’t trust them. This was a thrown together team with little to no regard for the chemistry.
The USA sent that B-team to Athens that lost to Puerto Rico in the opener, and later on was just destroyed by eventual gold medal winner Argentia. The Americans escaped with a bronze.
The Rio Olympics had the potential for the same issues.
Players backed out again in 2016 — not because of the coach, but due to a combination of injuries, contract concerns, and worries about Zika virus and security in Rio. Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, James Harden, John Wall, and others all backed out.
But this time around the USA had a structure in place — guys played their way up through the system and were proud of it. They understood what Colangelo and Krzyzewski meant to the USA Basketball, and they wanted to be a part of it.
“Thinking about the storyline of (Krzyzewski) and Jerry Colangelo taking over USA Basketball and what they did just to shape American basketball in general, and the honor of playing for USA Basketball,” Kyrie Irving told NBCSports during USA training camp in Las Vegas. “We were all reminded when they took over. It was a prestige honor before, but once they came in and built up a culture, it totally changed into a different dynamic. Every generation that is coming up has to come through USA Basketball if you’re, quote/unquote, a top player in the country.
“I enjoy that it’s now a generational shift. Constantly, constantly, we’re getting kids coming in and playing a part of USA Basketball. I myself played when I was 17 years old going into Duke. I end up going (to college) for one year, then I end up playing on the select team that I’m playing against today (the NBA rookies and young stars that the USA scrimmages against). I get a chance to, every summer, get better with USA basketball.”
That structure, getting guys to buy in and want to play in the system, meant when guys backed out in 2016 the next man up was ready and willing to step in. That team has gone undefeated into a gold medal game against Serbia that will not be easy, but is one they certainly can win (they beat Serbia in pool play).
That gold would be the ultimate validation of Colangelo and Krzyzewski. The Rio Olympics had the potential for an Athens repeat, but the USA had the structure in place this time.
After these Olympics, Krzyzewski is stepping down as coach and Gregg Popovich will take over. Little will change, this is a military exchange from the former West Point grad to the former Air Force man. Both are focused on the big picture.
Which should mean more gold for the USA for years to come. Because the structure is in place.