LAS VEGAS — While many countries are still trying to qualify for the Olympics, the U.S. is already lining up guys to play.
Not just next summer, but potentially five summers down the line.
Firmly perched atop the basketball world but forever mindful of how they were once knocked off, the Americans took a few days this week to begin their preparations for 2016. And 2020. And way beyond that.
“We’re trying to build something that can last forever,” LeBron James said.
The Americans didn’t exactly work hard in this city better known for fun. The practices were short and light, though it’s not like they have tons to do. Ten months before picking the team, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo already says if everyone is healthy, this will be the best U.S. squad yet.
Besides, they didn’t really come here to do drills. They came for moments like the opening of the first practice, which demonstrated what Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski have built.
The Americans posed for a team picture, five rows of about 40 players, coaches and officials representing the past, present and future of the program, from guys who have been in the program for a decade to others who are just starting their international careers.
Some won in Beijing and London. Many, such as Warriors star Stephen Curry, will have their shot in Rio de Janeiro. Others might have to wait until Tokyo in 2020, but the process for that has already begun.
“We don’t only have a pool of players, we have a pool of gold-medal winners. But you still have to bring new guys in because it’s going to keep going and even if, say a guy would not make the team next year, he potentially could be a star (later). That’s how you have to keep the culture going and thank goodness that these guys have recommitted each time,” Krzyzewski said.
The national team is 75-1 since Colangelo implemented the program following the Americans’ bronze-medal finish in Athens in 2004. He and Krzyzewski built something in which the NBA’s best not only want to play, but want to keep doing it.
James and Carmelo Anthony could become the first American four-time men’s basketball Olympians. Even Hall of Famer David Robinson, a Navy graduate and only other U.S. player to compete in three, can’t believe how much today’s players keep returning.
“It seemed like interest started to wane around 2000 and 2004. I didn’t think anybody was going to want to do it that many times, especially when you’re not getting paid,” Robinson said. “But like I said, the culture that they’ve created now, the guys take a lot of pride in it, they’re taking pride in our country and I just think it’s fantastic.”
It just briefly seemed in jeopardy of weakening last summer.
A series of player withdrawals before the Basketball World Cup, most notably Kevin Durant, and the Americans’ first serious injury with Paul George’s broken leg — Colangelo called it a tragedy — left some wondering if the international experience still mattered.
In fact, it felt like 2004. But in Colangelo’s program, stability quickly replaces uncertainty.
“Yeah, it’s come a long way,” said former NBA executive Stu Jackson, who was on the selection committee in 2004. “And I think the structure, the process with which they pick the team was a very needed change and we owe that all to Jerry Colangelo.”
Curry, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving helped the Americans win gold in Spain and could be among the players who carry the program forward once James, Anthony and Chris Paul decide they’re done.
Playing in Beijing was a no-brainer, with the U.S. reputation to repair and sneakers to sell in basketball-crazed China. Anthony said players and the companies they endorse are still trying to figure out the opportunities in the Brazilian market, but David M. Carter, principal of The Sports Business Group, said the players have an advantage with the NBA’s international reach.
“Combine this expertise with the global stage afforded NBA players during the Olympics, and each and every one of them should think long and hard prior to questioning the value of participating,” Carter said. “While risks exist, they should be deemed measured risks where the upside of participating far outweighs declining the invitation. This is particularly the case for NBA stars hoping to have high-profile and lucrative careers once their playing days are over.”
Colangelo and Krzyzewski can choose a roster from the players here this week and even potentially Kobe Bryant, who he said could be in the mix for a spot if he earns it.
The Americans are in great shape and they know it. Krzyzewski said the Americans have learned from past mistakes and understand what it takes in international play.
“Unless we screw up internally,” he said, “we should win.”