Jerry Colangelo’s phone rang.
It was a January morning. It was 2005. It was David Stern.
“David said, ‘Things have to change for USA Basketball. Would you be willing to take it over?’” Colangelo recalled of his conversation with the iconic NBA commissioner.
Colangelo, alongtime NBA executive and owner, informed Stern that, yes, he gladly would accept the managing director position — but under two conditions. First, he wanted full autonomy over selecting the coaches and players. Stern agreed. And secondly, as Colangelo put it, “I don’t want to hear about a budget.”
Stern didn’t like that second condition quite as much. But soon, he gave in to Colangelo’s request.
“It was done that quickly,” Colangelo said. “There was a lot of work to be done.”
That work included putting a renewed emphasis on commitment, respect and other critical concepts that form the building blocks of team culture.
“We definitely had to change the culture and start over again,” Colangelo continued. “I felt we had lost the respect of the world basketball community. The only way to earn that back was just to show respect and to go about our business.”
At the time, USA Basketball was coming off a disappointing performance at the 2004 Olympics, where the team lost three times, including a 19-point setback to Puerto Rico, and eventually settled for the bronze medal. Two years earlier, the U.S. had lost three times en route to a sixth-place showing at the FIBA World Cup.
“We had gotten off the course,” Colangelo said. “I was unhappy about how people looked at us as players and as Americans. I wanted to change it.”
The Sit-Down in Chicago
When facing a complicated, high-profile rebuild under a relatively tight time frame, where do you even begin?
For Colangelo, he decided to begin with a meeting of the minds. And not just any minds, but some of the best basketball minds in the country.
“It was a who’s who of USA Basketball,” he said, thinking back to that day in Chicago. “There had to be 35 former Olympic coaches and players — and I respected each and every one of them.”
Colangelo asked each person in the room to describe their Olympic experience and to opine on what USA Basketball needed to get back on track. Later in the meeting, the group discussed which players ought to be included on the team and, of course, who the next coach of USA Basketball should be.
In fact, it was at that meeting in Chicago that Colangelo essentially landed on Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski as the next head coach.
“I put names up on a board, and people talked about the names,” Colangelo explained. “And Dean Smith said, ‘There’s only one college guy up there that I believe can get the job done, because only he has the respect of the entire basketball community.’ He was talking about Coach K, his biggest rival.”
Teaming Up for Team USA
Looking back on Colangelo’s years overseeing the USA Basketball Men’s National Team, it’s clear that his run of success forever will be tied closely to Krzyzewski’s 11 years as the national team coach. Right from the beginning, there was a connection and a chemistry between the two.
“When you take on a new task, you get excited,” Colangelo explained. “You can’t help it. The adrenaline is flowing. You want to do well. You want to be successful. But Coach K and I teaming up was a real key.”
So, when Colangelo asked Krzyzewski to join him for dinner in Las Vegas to discuss the opportunity, he was confident that Coach K was going to say yes.
“There was no doubt in my mind that he wanted to do it,” said Colangelo, adding how he and Krzyzewski both were Chicago natives who came from immigrant families, not to mention their mirrored success in the sports world. “It was a perfect match. A very good marriage.”
Colangelo explained to Krzyzewski that he needed a national team coach, not just an Olympic coach. He was seeking a four-year commitment from Coach K. As far as Colangelo was concerned, USA Basketball’s coaching carousel finally was coming to an end.
“When he explained that, I agreed right away,” said Krzyzewski, who had coached (both as an assistant and as a head coach) on various USA Basketball squads between 1979 and 1992. “Jerry was respected by everybody, because of his knowledge of the game, because of being an owner, because of being the key person on the Board of Governors for the NBA for a long time and for being an outstanding businessperson. So, he brought all those things to that position, and all of those things were needed to create the right culture.”
One key aspect of Colangelo’s leadership, according to Krzyzewski, was his ability to build genuine relationships with USA Basketball players, coaches, executives and corporate sponsors — and even with the armed forces.
“Everyone felt included,” Coach K said. “Jerry just had a magic about him, and we developed an amazing relationship during those 11 years.”
More specifically, those 11 years saw Colangelo and Krzyzewski guide the USA Men’s National Team to a 60-1 record in official FIBA or FIBA Americas competitions, including gold medals at the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016 and at the FIBA World Cups in 2010 and 2014.
After that initial four-year commitment from Coach K, he acknowledged Colangelo had to convince him to return for his second and third quadrenniums. But, as the Duke coach acknowledged, “the longer I was with him, the more I wanted to be with him.”
Many of the greatest American players felt the same way. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are just some of the stars who committed to play for Colangelo’s team on multiple occasions.
“We had to develop continuity,” Krzyzewski explained. “That’s one of the things that Argentina and Spain had. We were putting out a different team each time and a different coaching staff. But Jerry was able to get players to play more than once. His vision was outstanding.”
Coach K then thought back to the first time he and Colangelo met with the USA Basketball players. In a way, that was phase one of the culture change.
“In our first meeting with the guys,” Krzyzewski said, “we told them they were not playing for the United States. They looked at us quizzically like, ‘What do you mean?’ We had a picture of the gold medal up on the screen. ‘We won’t win that,’ we said, ‘unless you are USA Basketball, unless you own it. The guys on Spain, on Serbia — they own it. We won’t win unless we own it.’
“(From that point on) guys wanted to be there. They really felt like they were United States basketball. Jerry’s vision was not just to win the gold. He had the vision to earn the respect of our country again and to earn the respect of the world. It wasn’t just winning, it was how you won, it was winning with class, dignity and humility. And our guys did that — and that’s who Jerry is.”
Pivoting to Popovich
When Coach K stepped down as coach of USA Basketball following the 2016 Olympics, his successor already had been in place for some time. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who received a large amount of support in that initial 2005 summit in Chicago, was eager to work with Colangelo to continue USA Basketball’s recent run of international success.
“Pop has had such a wonderful career. He’s so highly respected,” Colangelo said. “He said he’d do it under one condition — that I stay on. He wanted to be sure I’d stay on for his four years.”
That four-year run will conclude with this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, where the U.S. men open play on July 25 against France. And while Colangelo’s legacy was cemented years ago, he certainly would love to add another gold medal to his impressive list of career accomplishments.
“It’s been an incredible journey, and I want to finish strong,” Colangelosaid. “But first and foremost, I want this to be another gold medal for our country and for all the people associated with USA Basketball. Our coaches, our organization, our players – this means everything to me.”
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
For all of his accomplishments in sports and in life, Colangelo always will hold his success with USA Basketball near and dear to his heart.
“It’s one thing to represent a university, a team, a city or a state. It’s another thing to represent your country on the international stage,” Colangelo said, reciting a portion of the recruiting speech that he once gave to LeBron, Kobe and dozens of other USA Basketball stars over the years. “When you’re on that platform, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
And as for his favorite memory with USA Basketball?
“When we won gold in 2008 in Beijing, when ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was being played and the medals were being awarded, I couldn’t help but think how blessed I was to have this opportunity,” Colangelo said. “Very few people have a chance to have a game plan, watch it get executed perfectly and see the desired results.”
Following the Tokyo games, Colangelo officially will pass the torch to his successor, Basketball Hall of Famer and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Grant Hill. But even as Colangelo’s last official tournament awaits in the near future, there’s one word the 81-year-old still won’t use.
“Retirement is not in my vocabulary,” said Colangelo, noting how he plans to continue his involvement with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and Grand Canyon University, in addition to his real estate ventures. “My attitude is you go as long as you can, as hard as you can, until you can’t anymore. One day someone will tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘You’re done. That’s it.’ But I’ll always have a love for USA Basketball. If they would seek to have me involved in some capacity, I’d certainly consider it.”
After all, many of us have trouble saying no to family members.
“We developed a real USA Basketball family these last 16 years,” Colangelo said. “There’s a lot of precious moments, because we’ve spent so much time together. Every meeting, every practice, every game, every dinner, all the time we’ve spent together. You develop incredible relationships that will go on for a lifetime, and I cherish all of that so much. Again, I was a very fortunate man to have had this opportunity.”
Likewise, Coach K feels blessed to have spent all those years working alongside Colangelo.
“I’m glad he’s getting recognized the way he deserves,” Krzyzewski said. “In the last 25 years, I don’t think there’s been anyone close to having the impact on our game at the highest level than Jerry.”
And looking back at Colangelo’s impact on the basketball world, it appears that his work with Team USA has had an equally indelible impact on him.
“It’s meant the world to Jerry,” Krzyzewski concluded. “He’s lived it these last 16 years. He’s owned it, and it’s brought him great fulfillment. He’s had a love affair with the game his whole life — as a player, coach, owner and to have these last 16 years with the national team, it really could not be better for him. And the fulfillment of winning five championships — three Olympics, two Worlds, and hopefully another Olympics with Pop and his team, what a crowning achievement to a glorious love affair.”
Drew Silverman is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.