Bruce Weber Has Stellar First Turn as USA Basketball Head Coach
Bruce Weber certainly has seen and experienced a lot around the game of basketball.
But, the Kansas State men’s basketball coach’s responsibility this summer was unlike anything he previously had felt, including coaching in the NCAA Tournament: his first head coaching assignment for USA Basketball.
“It's a big challenge, and I don't think I realized how stressful it was until you go through it,” said Weber, who guided the 2019 USA Basketball Men’s U19 World Cup Team. “Not only learning the players, but getting that group together in a short period of time, knowing that everyone (in the world) is trying to beat you.”
Weber and the U.S. men came through with flying colors, winning the FIBA U19 World Cup for the third time in the last four events, beating Mali 93-79 in the gold-medal game in Greece. That feat earned Weber USA Basketball’s 2019 Co-National Coach of the Year honor, an award he shares with Jeff Walz, who guided the USA U19 women’s team to the corresponding title in Thailand.
“Just coaching a team for USA Basketball is a special honor in of itself — to just represent your country — and to win a gold medal like we did, made it even more special,” Weber said. “To throw another honor on to it, there aren’t even words to describe my emotions. It’s a special recognition that I’m very proud of. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to coach the U19 team and can’t thank the players and my assistants enough for their hard work and commitment to winning the gold medal.”
It was Weber’s first head coaching assignment with USA Basketball. He previously had been an assistant coach, a court coach and member of the Men’s Junior National Team committee from 2009-12.
“It was a lot harder of an experience than I anticipated to build a team to compete at a FIBA U19 World Cup,” Weber said. “First, you have to help put a team together. You have to select and cut guys in a short period of time. Second, when you make that decision, you have to figure out roles and buy-in from the players. A lot of these players have never been through a process where they can be cut and some have never come off the bench.
“It’s a new experience for all of them. I was really happy with how they bought in and how they really wanted to win the gold medal. To see their faces when they received their gold medals on the podium was just a very rewarding experience and a special moment for them. Even when I have run into them this summer in recruiting or the college guys during the year, their faces light up talking about the experience and to be a part of that is special.”
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an awkward moment or two along the way. During the selection process, the USA Basketball Junior National Team Committee had to cut one of Weber’s Kansas State recruits who was one of the 32 players invited to try out.
“He still gives me grief over that,” Weber said with a laugh.
Unlike most coaching duties, Weber did not guide USA Basketball’s U18 team the previous summer, but he said the amount of roster turnover did not make it an issue. The U19 team faced one bit of adversity in prepping for the FIBA U19 World Cup. During an exhibition against Serbia in Greece, the U.S. blew an 18-point lead before recovering to win 92-88.
“We kind of had a meltdown,” Weber said. “We sat in the locker room after for quite a while and talked. And then the next day, the best thing we did, we went to the beach. We got to go tubing and jet skiing and just having fun and got to know the guys. And it seemed like from that really difficult day, then we became kind of a unit together, developed some chemistry.”
It wasn’t just the players he ran into while out recruiting that related. Coaches who have had the honor of being in Weber’s position or on a USA Basketball staff made sure to take time to chat with him about the experience.
“In the NCAA — to get to the Final Four, and I have been very blessed to have that opportunity, too — this is USA (Basketball), this might be your one time that you get it. I thought was really cool after we won it and went out on the road recruiting, all the guys that had coached USA, it was almost like you have a special bond with them.”