Colangelo looking for a few good patriots

USA Basketball director faces task of restoring team's international pride


August 29, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The eyes have it.

They will be Jerry Colangelo's litmus test, as he fronts the push to return the United States to the top of international basketball.

The longtime chief executive of the Phoenix Suns is the first managing director of USA Basketball's men's senior program, aka the Olympic team, which a year ago in Athens had its worst performance ever. Roster decisions that used to be made by committee now rest with Colan- gelo, who will rely on a patriotic pitch to get NBA players to volunteer for what could turn into a three-summer tour of duty.

It would stretch from the 2006 world championship in Japan to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. After a majority backed out of the team that went to Athens, Colangelo must gauge the sincerity of men who already deal with a long NBA season. He'll ask Olympic prospects a few direct questions and take a hard look into their eyes.

"How they respond," Colan- gelo said, "will determine whether they're in or out. My gut feeling is that we're going to get the players who have a desire to represent their country."

It's all a response to the latest Olympic crisis for U.S. basketball.

The Mid-Atlantic has its 17-year locust, the Americans a plague at the Games every 16.

In 1972, it was a first-ever loss, to the Soviet Union in the gold-medal game. Three-time coach Henry Iba had stayed on one Olympics too many, but North Carolina's Dean Smith restored order four years later with a roster that included seven Atlantic Coast Conference players.

In 1988, a semifinal loss to the Soviets contributed to Olympic basketball's lifting its prohibition on NBA players, leading to the original Dream Team.

Last year's bronze medal, put to bed a year ago yesterday, boiled down to two factors.

The same globalization that led the American soccer team to outlast Argentina and Italy in the 2002 World Cup put those nations in last year's Olympic basketball final.

The medal stand was a contrast in continuity. Argentina's gold medalists had been together for a decade, the United States for five weeks. Whereas Manu Ginobili and Pepe Sanchez began representing their country at the 1994 world junior championships, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were late-summer replacements to a roster that suffered numerous defections from the group that had rolled through Olympic qualifying in 2003.

"Athens showed how we've lost pride in representing our country," said Colangelo, who does not want an NBA All-Star team. "We're not looking for a team of superstars; we're truly looking at the makeup of what a team is. We're going to give more thought to the composition of the team, rather than going after a bunch of guys who can just run, jump and shoot."

Winning formula

Chemistry will be even more of a concern than it was in 1984, when coach Bob Knight had no use for Charles Barkley, or last summer, when the attitude of North Carolina's Rashad McCants kept him off the U.S. junior national team.

Anthony, a Baltimore native who is entering his third season with the Denver Nuggets, pouted about a lack of playing time in Athens but has said he would like to play in Beijing.

"He has expressed interest to us, about wanting to be included in 2008," said Jim Tooley, executive director of USA Basketball.

"Everyone's starting with a clean slate," Colangelo said. "The immaturity that came out of certain guys is yesterday's news."

Anthony will have five NBA seasons under his belt when the Beijing Games roll around and he will still be only 24. He'll have both experience and fresh legs, a balance Colangelo will weigh even in a coach. Not counting exhibitions, Larry Brown worked 105 games for the Detroit Pistons during the 2003-04 season, then coached the Americans in Athens. That grind could lead Colangelo to pick Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, a West Point grad, to run the U.S. team.

"The length of the NBA season is one of the negatives of a successful pro coach," Colangelo said. "The positive is their ability to relate to the pro player. The college guy doesn't have that knowledge of dealing with the pros, but I think the line between amateur and pro has blurred."

What USA Basketball has labeled its "competition plan" was in place in April, but the specter of a lockout that hung over the NBA into June kept the plan from being implemented in time for the Tournament of Americas, a qualifier for the 2006 world championships being conducted in the Dominican Republic.

Potpourri of players

Using players from the Continental Basketball Association, European and Korean leagues, the United States went 2-2 in group play, which eliminated only two of the 10 teams. Second-round play begins today, with semifinalists moving on to Japan. The United States has never failed to qualify for an international event, and Tooley foresees no scenario in which it will not be in the 24-nation field next summer.

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