USA Basketball’s senior men’s national team enters the Rio de Janeiro Olympics as beyond-overwhelming favorites to claim gold for the third straight games. It’s remarkable to believe that Team USA looked in disarray a decade ago. Two straight poor performances at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis and the 2004 Olympics in Athens turned the dream into a nightmare, and a loss in Mike Krzyzewski first major tournament in 2006 didn’t exactly inspire confidence either.
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The Americans’ latest period of dominance has afforded the opportunity to look back on what went so wrong during that embarrassing stretch. Bill Leopold and Ben Teitelbaum have put together an oral history involving several of the era’s key members and observers for NBCOlympics.com, and they list a number of factors that went into those poor performances. But the most salient is the team’s poor fit with head coach Larry Brown:
[Chris] Sheridan: [USA head coach] Larry Brown didn’t like the team. Larry Brown liked coaching veteran players. The oldest guy on the team was 28 years old.
[Emeka] Okafor: The team kind of came together at the last minute. Everyone was trying to cater to Coach Brown’s style which is a little bit different to what they would’ve wanted. Coach Brown didn’t really like to play young guys. At all. Even I think LeBron, D-Wade and Melo didn’t play as much. We all played the least, us young guys. […]
David Stern (NBA Commissioner, 1984-2014): I would say the thing that I remember was the coach going after players in the print media, and I don’t know whether there’s anything that records my response to that, but I remember I said to myself, “David, you probably should have kept your mouth shut.” But I did take a shot at the coach because I thought that he should stop complaining about the players and either coach or not coach. […]
Sheridan: They beat [Serbia] on their home court, but something happened on that trip. Stephon Marbury came over to me and said, “You know, Coach Brown isn’t letting us play. He’s trying to make us play the ‘right way.’ He’s not letting us play, we just need to play.” That night, after that game I was having dinner with the other reporters and assistant coach [Gregg] Popovich and Coach Brown at one of the best hotels in Belgrade and we were telling them the story. And when Larry heard what Stephon had said, he got up and left. Soon after that, Pop got up and left. Then Pop came back about five minutes later and he tapped me on the shoulder and he said, “Can you tell me what Stephon said to you?” and I repeated the story. After that Larry Brown was so incensed that he went to the people running USA Basketball and said, “I want him off the team. I want Stephon Marbury off the team. Now. Put him on a plane and send him back home. Now.” […]
Stephon Marbury (2004 Olympian, USA): To me it was simple: they picked the wrong coach at the time. […]
Marbury: I really had a bad experience with Larry Brown in the Olympics. It was a team full of All-Stars and he was trying to coach the team like it was his team. Telling guys how to play the “right way,” what they should and shouldn’t do on the court, instead of just trying to win that gold medal.
[Richard] Jefferson: I think Larry Brown tried to use the USA team as a tool. It was when AND1 basketball was going on. He was trying to do something for the game of basketball and trying to put out a certain style of play and a certain style of message versus us just going out there and trying to win games and trying to accomplish things. I remember in the qualifier for the Olympics, he told Jason Kidd, “Hey Jason, I know you’re really good at the fast break, but I want you to stop at the free-throw line and throw a bounce pass to one of the wings.” And you’re sitting here talking to the second all-time leading assist guy and one of the most dominant point guards of all time. Truth be told, that’s probably why nine guys decided that they didn’t want to go do the Olympics.
Leopold and Teitelbaum highlight several other themes among the respondents, including the lack of attention paid to the construction of the 2004 roster and a failure to prepare the team to face opponents who had grown up and come to understand each other on a level that usually takes NBA teams years. The problem wasn’t just that a group of All-Stars had to learn to be a cohesive unit — it’s that they were given only a week or two to do so despite never having played together before. With only three holdovers from the 2004 Tournament of the Americas qualifiers and none from the 2002 World Championships team, this group had to learn how to share the ball and play team defense on the fly.
Brown’s decision to enforce his own style on the team appears to have only made that challenge more difficult. The Hall of Famer has been criticized for his handling of his Team USA duties before, most notably in his refusal to play LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. But he also took on the impossible task of trying to teach a conservative, rule-based system to a team that had very little time to absorb any of it. Even if Brown was right that an extremely talented team should have played this way — a highly questionable claim, to be sure — he was never going to make it work in a month.
Beyond logistics, Brown’s plan went against what the national team had come to represent. The Dream Team didn’t get its name by accident — the 1992 squad could only previously have been constructed in a fantasy world, but it was held an aspirational draw. As Richard Jefferson notes, very few people would ever ask a point guard as creative as Jason Kidd to shy away from highlights. The Olympic team serves as an opportunity to explore new basketball possibilities, not to make the most conservative play possible. Brown misunderstood that idea so thoroughly that David Stern entered into an unlikely alliance with Stephon Marbury to make the case for a more open style.
The national team has returned to that more exciting style under USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo and Coach K to great acclaim. (Rudy Tomjanovich even goes so far as to call them “American heroes” in this oral history.) Team USA is as dominant as ever, and the team is constructed with an eye towards unity. At the same time, every opponent that the Americans face in international play has played together far longer and with the same level of mutual understanding that caused George Karl and Larry Brown’s teams so much trouble in 2002 and 2004, respectively.
So what changed? The move towards a more consistent selection process and years-long commitment has certainly helped, but the team still only plays together for a few weeks at a time before entering the highest-level tournaments that FIBA has to offer. Perhaps the Americans have such superior talent that even a minor boost in focus and togetherness can lead them to gold.
However, it’s worth paying special attention to how Coach K has allowed this team to play. Like most NCAA coaches, the Duke legend has a reputation as a perfectionist. With Team USA, though, he has embraced an open style predicated on exploiting huge athleticism advantages. Coach K’s Team USA squads have all gotten out in transition at every opportunity, embraced dunks and three-pointers, and generally looked like an All-Star team. They play intuitively and without too much focus on hyper-specific offensive sets and defensive rules.
In other words, they’re a team that has fun. That’s the biggest reason why being a part of USA Basketball is cool again.
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