The Stars, Aligned
Friday, July 25, 2008
LAS VEGAS, July 24 -- The U.S. Olympic men's basketball team convened for a meeting here earlier this week that concluded with Managing Director Jerry Colangelo, Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Kobe Bryant and a handful of players all speaking about what it meant to represent their country and the chance to win a gold medal in Beijing. Then LeBron James stood up, scanned the room of multimillionaire, superstar athletes, and made an impassioned plea for teammates not to take this opportunity for granted.
"When we're with our teams, we complain, 'I wish I had Chris Paul in the back court.' Or: 'I wish I had Dwight Howard. I want this guy, I want that guy' -- because we all want to win," James told them. "Well, everyone is in the room. Everyone is here. There's no excuses. Now we have to get the job done."
As James sat down to a stunned but approving audience, Krzyzewski interrupted the temporary silence and dismissed the players with one word. "Amen," he said.
Colangelo, the man responsible for getting everyone in the room, held back tears as he retold the story this week, knowing how complicated and exhausting it was to collect the 12 players who comprise the squad known as the "Redeem Team," which will make its long-awaited debut Friday night in an exhibition against Canada.
James is unlikely to play against Canada after suffering a mild right ankle sprain in practice this week, but he is one of three players -- Howard and Carmelo Anthony are the others -- who have spent the last three summers playing for Team USA as it attempts to end the Americans' eight-year gold medal drought in major international basketball competitions. And, with the exception of Carlos Boozer, the rest of the team participated in either the 2006 world championships or last summer's FIBA Americas tournament. Team USA will head to China on Saturday for a round of exhibitions in Macao and Shanghai, then opens Olympic competition on Aug. 10 against host China. "We are in the homestretch," Colangelo said.
For Colangelo to assemble a dozen players willing to buy into his concept of a national program, it required confidence, organization and what Colangelo considers one of his greatest strengths -- salesmanship. Two months after taking on the responsibility of restoring the United States' reputation as the best in the world in April 2005, Colangelo sought out the advice of 20 former Olympic players and coaches at a gathering in Chicago.
He began his recruitment efforts in the fall, offering the same sales pitch to almost all of the 33 the players who chose to participate, including Washington Wizards Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas. He mentioned his life story and how basketball helped him rise from nothing to eventually owning the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks; he spoke of his love for his country and his personal embarrassment with how American basketball is viewed around the world. "I wanted them to know who I was," said Colangelo, 68, who still serves as chairman and chief executive of the Suns. "No one has really done it the way I did it. But after all these years, I have a passion for this game. I love this game."
His first meeting with a prospective player was held in late November at a hotel in Washington, where he had breakfast with Anthony, whose Denver Nuggets were in town to play the Wizards. Colangelo initially didn't offer Anthony a spot, but sought an explanation for the 2004 Olympic debacle in Athens -- then-coach Larry Brown made Anthony a scapegoat for some of the shortcomings of the team -- and informed him that he was a player he wanted. After watching Anthony throughout the season, Colangelo later extended an invitation. "He gave me that clean plate," Anthony said. "He said this was a new start, not just for me, but for everybody."
Colangelo scheduled meetings around his busy travel schedule and the schedules of the players he pursued. He placed calls and met with them at hotels in Chicago (James and Michael Redd), at his office in Phoenix (Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant), when he visited his son in Toronto (Chris Bosh), on business in Oklahoma City (Paul and Tayshaun Prince) and at the NBA All-Star Game in Houston (Howard).
Jason Kidd, a 2000 gold medalist in Sydney, initially rejected Colangelo's overtures. But after watching the team finish with a disappointing bronze medal at the 2006 world championships in Japan, Kidd called to offer his experience and playmaking. Colangelo later added Utah Jazz teammates Boozer and Deron Williams (who, like Colangelo, attended the University of Illinois) after talking with them on the telephone.
Redd drove two hours after practice with the Milwaukee Bucks to meet with Colangelo at a Chicago hotel. Redd arrived in sweats, with a garment bag hanging over his shoulder. He asked to be excused and emerged from the bathroom in Colangelo's hotel room in a suit. "I wanted to treat it with a lot of respect," Redd said. "I respect him, I respect USA Basketball. At any other job in the world, you have to dress up in an interview. I wanted to do the same."
Most of his meetings, Colangelo stressed, were rather informal. Bosh said Colangelo's presence was persuasive enough. "I think it was, he was just in a position of power," Bosh said.
James, still smarting from his experience of playing sparingly in Athens, said he initially was apprehensive about meeting with Colangelo -- especially with the demand that players had to sacrifice three summers. But halfway through Colangelo's presentation, which included a promise that James would have a more prominent role, James lifted his hand to stop him and said, "I'm in."
Colangelo found that most players were open and enthusiastic about participating, but was unable to persuade every player he wanted. Kevin Garnett declined countless offers, but Colangelo was able to find mini-successes even in some of his failures. Shaquille O'Neal joined Wade for a meeting with Colangelo in Phoenix out of courtesy and nearly caved.
"Shaq said, 'I came in, I had no intention, but after hearing you, it's 50-50,' " Colangelo said, proudly. "So I had accomplished a lot."
O'Neal, of course, declined. But you won't hear the members of this team complain.