Mike Fratello Back on the Sidelines With USA Men’s AmeriCup Qualifying Team
The longtime coach turned broadcaster will be making his USA Basketball coaching debut.
Mike Fratello is a well-known face among basketball fans due to his work as an NBA analyst on TV. But as the years go by, fewer and fewer realize he is one of the best coaches of his time.
Since last coaching the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2006-07 season, Fratello has had only one noteworthy coaching experience — with the Ukraine national team from 2011-14. But while he has carved out a terrific broadcasting career, in his heart, Fratello yearns to be on the sideline, directing the action.
So when he got the call from USA Basketball to see if he was interested in coaching the Men’s AmeriCup Qualifying Team, he didn’t have to think too hard.
“I was very surprised and very happy. It's an honor,” Fratello said. “I coached that team in the Ukraine, but this is your own country now. To be able to do that and work with USA Basketball is great.”
While the 2020 Olympic Games have yet to be staged in Tokyo, the FIBA AmeriCup Qualifying games are the first step in determining the field for the 2024 Paris Olympics. This month, the U.S. faces Puerto Rico in a home-and-home series, with the Feb. 20 game in San Juan and the Feb. 23 game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C. (for )The Bahamas and Mexico also are in the U.S. group, with two games in November and two in February 2021. The top three teams in each group from the qualifying tournament advance to the 2021 AmeriCup.
Fratello has international experience through his time coaching Ukraine, including the country’s first trip to the FIBA World Cup in 2014. His challenge there was going from a veteran roster to focusing on the younger players and building the next generation of players.
With the AmeriCup Qualifying team, Fratello and his staff will be bringing together a group consisting primarily of G League players for five practices and a scrimmage before the first game against Puerto Rico. Fratello and others with USA Basketball have been scouting the G League to determine which players will be the best fit for these two games.
In preparing for this role, Fratello has had numerous conversations with Jeff Van Gundy, who led the USA to gold in the last AmeriCup (2017) and who directed the USA through the FIBA World Cup Qualifying in which the Americans finished 10-2 and qualified for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
“Jeff was absolutely great,” Fratello said. “Not only did he spend a lot of time on the phone with me, but then we — the staff, myself, Sean (Ford, USA Basketball's Men's National Team director), our support group — we actually flew to Houston and met with Jeff for the day. And it's one of those things where there's so many unknowns. Jeff can only tell you so much, because you don't know who your players are. Jeff was great in preparing us for that and then giving us thoughts and ideas.”
Before he became known as “The Czar of the Telestrator” as a TV broadcaster, Fratello was a wunderkind of the coaching ranks. At age 31, he got his first NBA job on Hubie Brown’s staff with the Atlanta Hawks in the 1979-80 season, then became head coach of the Hawks in the 1983-84 season. Some of his best teams during his 17 seasons as head coach were the Dominique Wilkins-led Hawks.
Also making NBA head coaching stops with the Cleveland Cavaliers (1993-99) and the Memphis Grizzlies (2004-07), as an NBA head coach for 17 seasons he posted a 667-548 career record, led his teams to the NBA Playoffs 11 times and was NBA Coach of the Year in 1985-86.
Now 72 and more than a decade removed from his last NBA job, he knows another call is unlikely to come.
“I'm kind of at the point right in life right now that if something comes up and somebody calls you and talks to you, you make a decision at that point,” Fratello said. “A lot of the GMs now are the newer group, the younger generation that probably don't remember anything that I did when I was coaching in the league.”
So, Fratello is relishing this opportunity to coach again.
“I was very flattered to get the call from Sean Ford and USA Basketball and the fact that they would even consider me, I was very humbled,” Fratello said. “When they came back in a couple weeks and said, ‘We would like to offer you the opportunity,’ I took it immediately. I understand that this is a very special opportunity and special situation to be with USA Basketball and the national team program and having a chance to represent our country.”