Maintaining Gold Standard Remains USA Basketball’s Top Priority
If you put together a fact sheet of USA Basketball’s accomplishments at the Olympic Games, it would make virtually any team involved in dynasty chatter envious.
In 28 Olympics, 18 for men and 10 for women, U.S. teams have:
- 23 gold medals, two silvers and three bronzes (15 golds, one silver and two bronzes for the men; eight golds, one silver and one bronze for the women)
- 204 wins in 212 games (men: 138-5, women: 66-3)
- 74 consecutive wins (men: 25, women: 49)
So when it comes to defining the Olympic legacy of USA Basketball, only one thing can be said: Gold standard.
“USA Basketball takes great pride that we have an opportunity to represent our country, and we’re proud of our success on the court,” said Jim Tooley, CEO of USA Basketball since 2001 after serving as Men’s National Team director since 1993. “It's meaningful, and it has an unbelievable trickle-down effect in terms of how others in the basketball space, whether it's the international basketball community or the domestic basketball community, perceive our organization. Our success on the court and the high standards we’ve created has a lot to do with the organization’s integrity and credibility for all levels - youth, high school, college or pro.”
More history awaits at the Tokyo Olympics that will take place this summer from July 23-Aug. 8.
The USA Women’s National Team is chasing its seventh straight gold medal, anchored by a group of players who have been instrumental in elevating the women’s game to new levels domestically as well as internationally.
Already holding the women's traditional team record for consecutive Olympic golds, winning for a seventh time in a row would match the longest in Olympic history set by the U.S. men in the first seven Summer Games that included basketball (1936-68).
“Commitment, is probably most important. We have two players (Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird) trying to make this team that would be five-time Olympians,” said Carol Callan, director of USA Basketball’s Women’s National Team, noting that the first U.S. five-time Olympian in basketball was Teresa Edwards (1984-2000). “What we find with the women's team is that the best players want to play over and over and over again.
“And when that happens, while it makes it difficult for anybody to break through and be selected to the team — it's just a limited-number squad — because the best players want to play, you then have good players and they understand the older players need the younger players, and it's a culture that just is owned and respected by the players themselves.”
Taurasi and Bird have four gold medals. A fifth would put them atop the USA Basketball record books as Edwards collected four golds and one bronze medal and the men’s record is four medals (three gold and one bronze) by Carmelo Anthony.
The key to the U.S. women’s success has been the ability to rely on the core of veterans at the top of the roster while bringing in younger players who will continue to carry the torch in future Olympics when it is their time to lead.
Sensing this is likely the final run for a few USA Basketball veterans and wanting to ensure their own legacy, Taurasi and Bird spearheaded a group of eight players who committed to USA Basketball for a yearlong training program in 2019-20. Mixed in with three international tournaments, the USA women also played a handful of top college programs and put on youth clinics.
“2019-20 was a little unusual because Sue and Diana have already played in four Olympics,” Callan said. “They approached USA Basketball saying that they felt like the timing would be right to ask players if they would like to be part of a longer and expanded training program to not only prepare for the Olympics, but to increase the investment that some of the younger players would make with the national team.
“And it's sort of interesting to even say that, because somebody like Breanna Stewart started playing with us when she was 14 (on the under-16 team). So, she and others have been incredibly invested over the years, but it's an opportunity to bring all of those different parts together and really focus in on the national team and what women's basketball means in this country.”
Jerry Colangelo, the Men’s National Team managing director since 2005, noted that USA Basketball announced last February a list of 44 top NBA players as finalists for the U.S. Olympic Team
The U.S. men’s team will be going after a third straight gold medal and sixth in the last seven Olympics, a stretch that started with the 1992 “Dream Team” that included NBA players for the first time. The tight timeframe to prepare has been typical in the professional era as the NBA Finals typically don’t finish until late June and involve the game’s elite players.
But it really hasn’t cost the USA as it has gone 53-3 over the span, with all three losses coming in the 2004 Athens Olympics, in which the U.S. still earned a bronze medal.
“I think the winning speaks for itself,” Colangelo said of the USA’s Olympic success. “We are very fortunate that through the years we have had great interest and commitment from the players to represent the United States.”
Not only do Callan and Colangelo rely on great players, they know they have to have the right coaching guiding their respective teams.
The U.S. women have Dawn Staley, who has been a player or assistant coach on the last six Olympic gold medal teams in addition to winning gold as head coach at the 2018 FIBA World Cup and being coach of the 2017 NCAA champion University of South Carolina Gamecocks.
The U.S. men have Gregg Popovich, winner of five NBA titles as coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
“We're lucky in our country, we have a great feeder system of coaches as well,” Callan said. “Much like we like players to play again and again, we do bring coaches into the system at younger levels and also then continue them from perhaps several cycles with the Olympics, sometimes not so much the head coach, but assistant coaches.”
Being the big kid on the block and maintaining the role of best in the world means looking for that next edge over the competition.
“There are always challenges in sustaining competitive excellence.” Tooley said. “You have to stay humble and ahead of training and preparation. You have to keep up with what present-day athletes' mindsets are and present day-coach mindsets — and make sure you can get the coach mindset connected with the athlete mindset. That's always evolving. You can never get complacent. You always have to be willing to observe and learn, no matter how many times you've been through it.”
The challenges were a little different at the 1936 Berlin Games when basketball debuted outdoors as an Olympic sport and the U.S. team traveled by boat to Germany to find out several rules had been changed two years prior by FIBA. And while in 2021 everyone can look at an app on their phone or smart watch to see updates in real time, one thing hasn’t changed.
The U.S. is the gold standard.
“When you look within the U.S. Olympic family,” Tooley said, “I’d like to believe we're a gold standard with our commitment to integrity and success. We have a great, capable organization that does a lot of really good things on and off the field of play.”