Stung by the third-place finish of the U.S. men's basketball team at the Athens Olympics, executives of USA Basketball on Wednesday appointed former Phoenix Sun owner Jerry Colangelo to restructure and direct the process for selecting players and coaches for the Olympics and world championships.
Colangelo, chairman of the NBA's Board of Governors, said his priority as USA Basketball's managing director is restoring the luster of a program that last year failed to attract many of the elite NBA players it hoped to bring to Athens. Seven of the original nine invitees withdrew, and others declined to be considered for reasons that varied.
As a result the U.S. sent a young and flawed team that struggled with international rules and flailed on defense. That added up to a 92-73 loss to Puerto Rico -- the first Olympic loss for a U.S. men's basketball team made up of professional players -- a 94-90 loss to a Lithuanian team that had nearly upset the U.S. in 2000, and an 89-81 semifinal loss to eventual champion Argentina.
Colangelo acknowledged that the gap had closed between the once-dominant U.S. and other basketball-playing nations but said the U.S. can regain its supremacy. "I feel we can do it the right way and change the perception the world had of our Olympic effort ... which left a lot to be desired," he said during a conference call with reporters.
"We want to get back to being the No. 1 basketball country in the world, and anything short of that would not be acceptable."
Toward that end, Colangelo said he would ask players to make commitments of two to three years to participate in practices and qualifying tournaments leading up to the world championships and Olympics. It's too late, however, to implement that plan before the Tournament of the Americas, to be played Aug. 24 to Sept. 4 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The top four finishers and Olympic gold medalist Argentina will qualify for the 2006 World Basketball Championships.
The Tournament of the Americas team will be made up of players who play in Europe and players from the Continental Basketball Assn. and the National Basketball Development League.
USA Basketball had difficulty securing commitments from NBA players to compete in Athens. Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby and Jermaine O'Neal were among those who declined to play or pulled out after agreeing, citing fatigue, family matters or concern about security. They were replaced by such youngsters as Carmelo Anthony, Shawn Marion, LeBron James, Emeka Okafor and Dwyane Wade. Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Richard Jefferson were the only Olympians who had played for the U.S. in the Tournament of the Americas in 2003.
"They're going to have to accept that this is about them having the same kind of commitment and passion I do," Colangelo said of Olympic candidates. "It's about getting the right people who are willing to sacrifice. ... How we conduct ourselves off the court is as important as on the court."
Val Ackerman, president of USA Basketball, said the consistent availability of a group of players would promote teamwork and teaching a system. The Olympic team had 15 practices and six exhibition games before the Athens tournament.
She also said that Colangelo's comment about off-court conduct did not refer to a specific incident in Athens but related to the "likability" of the team and restoring respect for U.S. teams.
"We have to begin to replicate what other countries do, in having the team stick together and available to train on a multiyear basis," said Ackerman, who was president of the WNBA before joining USA Basketball a month ago. "The lack of continuity, the having to start from scratch -- that's what wasn't working."
Colangelo said he envisioned holding national-team tryouts and choosing role players "who can shoot the ball and have a concept of how to play the international game."
He also said he planned to establish an advisory committee and would invite Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to participate. USA Basketball's executive committee, headed by Ackerman, has the ultimate oversight on coach and player selection.
Selecting a coach "is a little early," Colangelo said. "I have some candidates in mind. Those who have an international background and understand the nuances of the international game certainly have an advantage."
Stu Jackson, USA Basketball's vice president for senior men, said he left Athens convinced a new plan was necessary. "We were at a crossroads as relates to the rest of the world," he said, "at a point where we could no longer take a team to minimal days of training camp and go to an international competition and be sure of winning. If we're going to reestablish a level of excellence USA Basketball is accustomed to, things had to change."
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Key dates for USA Basketball:
*--* 2005 * Aug. 24-Sept. 4 -- Tournament of the Americas (world championship qualifying) at Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. 2006 * Aug. 19-Sept. 3 -- Men's FIBA World Championships at Saitama, Japan. * Sept. 12-23 -- Women's FIBA World Championships in Brazil. 2007 * July 13-29 -- Pan American Games at Rio de Janeiro. 2008 * Aug. 8-24 -- Olympic Games in Beijing.