As the USA Men’s Basketball Team heads to London as the favorite to win gold, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, even medaling at the Olympics seemed an uncertain prospect. A series of embarrassing setbacks, including a horrific showing in the 2004 Games, left many wondering whether the rest of the world had caught—and passed—the United States in a game created in America.
That’s when longtime National Basketball Association executive Jerry Colangelo stepped up to accept the challenge. As director of USA Basketball, Colangelo’s task was to rebuild the franchise that once so dominated its competition (think back to the 1992 Dream Team) that opponents lined up after games for the “honor” of photos with the superstars who had just trounced them by 50 points.
Colangelo’s job was an ugly one. In the 2004 games, USA had finished a disappointing third. Worse, several players and coaches had run-ins with fans and the international media. The experience was so bad that many of the best U.S. players said they had no interest in playing in future Olympic Games.
“Back in 2004, it was obvious that other teams didn’t respect us as Americans, didn’t respect us as athletes, didn’t respect us as basketball people in particular,” Colangelo says as he looks back on the challenges he faced. “We had to change that. After Athens, our own fans were booing our players. It was kind of a sad moment. So that sort of was an incentive for me when I was asked to take over the program. I saw it as, ‘There’s a job here to do, and what a great opportunity to turn something around to change an attitude and change a culture.’ ”
The task was daunting, even though Colangelo’s track record as an effective leader clearly spoke for itself—as a former coach, general manager and team owner in the NBA who also held majority ownership of the Phoenix Mercury Women’s National Basketball Association team, the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team and Arizona Rattlers Arena Football League team.
Colangelo identified several troublesome issues that needed to be addressed. “I noticed the strong emphasis on national pride in the other programs,” he says. “It didn’t feel like some of our athletes had that same feeling. Then the talent gap had closed between us and others, and we had to show respect for that. You have to show respect to earn respect.”
He also wanted to shift the focus away from choosing players based on “their marquee value rather than their contribution to a team concept of winning.” In years past, the selection process for Team USA had been by committee without clear leadership or a vision for building a cohesive team. “You can’t change a culture by committee,” says Colangelo, who demanded sole decision-making authority over who would make the team as a condition of taking the job.
But that didn’t mean he shunned input. Quite the opposite, in fact. His first big move was to invite some of the greatest names in basketball to a private meeting in Chicago. He wanted to build momentum and wanted these basketball greats, from Michael Jordan to Jerry West, to help him.
In that meeting, Colangelo outlined what he hoped to accomplish with the new team—which went far beyond just winning a gold medal to building a team worthy of the world’s respect. He asked for advice on selecting a coach. Members of the group offered a number of names from college and professional levels. Surveying the list, retired University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith voiced what many in the room were thinking: that the best man for the job was Smith’s longtime rival, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke. “It was kind of a solemn moment,” Colangelo remembers. “Maybe that’s the best way to describe it. Everyone knew how big it was for Dean Smith to endorse Coach K.”
There were other contenders, too, of course, but after conducting a phone interview with his finalists, something about Coach K made Colangelo know he’d found his coach. “His enthusiasm in receiving the call—I could feel it through the phone. This was something he thought would never happen. He thought his time had passed for the opportunity to coach USA Basketball. He was so excited about it.”
That enthusiasm was important, since bragging rights were the only salary the job offered, both to its coach and its players. Colangelo understood it might be a tough sell for some athletes to sign on for three years to an additional job that covered only travel-related expenses and would require a lot of additional training and time on the road. Not to mention that if Team USA failed to bring home the gold again, the players were sure to be lambasted in the press. Knowing this, he made sure to be upfront about everything the job would entail.
“When I met with the players, I didn’t take anything for granted,” Colangelo says. “I wanted them to know a little bit more about me and my background because I wanted them to feel my passion. I started out talking about my meager beginnings and what basketball did for me in the way of scholarships and being involved with the NBA, and how my interest was in giving back. Only then could I ask them to do the same.”
But he didn’t want anyone who wasn’t willing to take the job seriously. As the list narrowed, Colangelo sat down with roughly 25 potential players and had what he called “an eye-to-eye meeting.” He wanted to make sure that the players on his team were united by a common desire to restore national pride in the sport on the world scene, and to be a part of something great. “This is why I’m doing this,” he told each prospective player, “because I care, and I’m looking for people who want to be part of what could be one of the great moments of your life. Not everyone gets the opportunity to represent their country. Not everyone gets the opportunity to change a culture. And if you do what you’re asked to do and if you commit the way I’m asking you to commit, I think it will prove to be one of the great moments of your life. Now if you can’t handle any of what I’ve said, then you’re not for me, and I’ll find people who do believe the thing I believe and who are willing to commit.”
Colangelo made sure to respect the players’ individual commitments and professional contracts. “I’m coming out of the NBA and I know how valuable the players are as assets to their teams and to the league, and [we made sure] they would never be overworked or overplayed,” he says.
Colangelo points to the records of his Team USA players following the 2008 Olympics as proof of his promise kept; many of them had their best statistical year ever. “They were off the charts!” he says with a laugh.
But for Colangelo, the real payoff was witnessing a revived excitement about Team USA and its prospects. Americans once again seemed proud of the men selected to represent them on the court, and those players reciprocated with pride. Throughout its first seven games, Team USA took command, with victories including a 37-point humiliation over reigning world champion Spain. The gold-medal game, also against Spain, proved much more difficult, however. With under 2½ minutes left in that game, Team USA led by just 4 points until Dwyane Wade hit a 3-pointer to provide breathing room. Then, after Spain was called for technical fouls, the Americans made several free throws to win 118-107.
Although the Americans were dominant and aggressive, they were also good sportsmen and gracious winners. And when those 20 men and their coach mounted the podium in Beijing to receive their gold medals, it was clear that Colangelo’s strategy had worked. America had not only recaptured the gold, but it had rediscovered its pride in Team USA.
After the Beijing Olympics, Colangelo and Coach K agreed to stay in their roles through this summer’s games. “Our goal is to have the turnaround far enough along and the systems in place that USA Basketball won’t ever find itself fighting for third place again,” Colangelo says. “I believe we’re well on our way.”
Heading into London, the suspense is high, of course, but Colangelo is confident that the Americans again will wow the world. “Yes, it’s true that many national teams are waiting to show that they can beat us,” Colangelo says. “But that’s exactly what the Olympics are all about. Let the Games begin!”
In this video from Roadtrip Nation, students interview Jerry Colangelo about fear of failure, how to succeed in sports management and how to overcome obstacles.