Commentary

Team USA update: Colangelo prepping steadily for Olympics

Originally Published: February 18, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- We'd go ahead and spice this story up with a little local flavor, bestowing the nickname "Mr. Big Uneasy" upon Jerry Colangelo, if only it were befitting.

Problem is, it isn't.

"I'm not nervous. I'm excited. There is no apprehension at all," Colangelo, the managing director of Team USA, told ESPN.com Sunday in an hour-long interview focused on the Beijing Olympics. "If we are in the right frame of mind, if we respect the opposition, then we've got a great opportunity to accomplish our goal."

That goal, of course, is to win the gold medal in men's basketball at this summer's Olympics. Colangelo is cautiously optimistic, believing he has brought the correct fundamental changes to the national team program while assembling a roster strong enough to end the American gold medal drought in international competition, now entering its eighth year.

Certainly, there are reasons for Colangelo to be apprehensive.

[+] EnlargeJerry Colangelo
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesBryant's pinkie raises doubts about his availability this summer, but he has said he'll be good to go.
If Team USA does not win gold in Beijing, that drought will reach a decade by the time the 2010 World Championship in Turkey rolls around. (The Americans haven't won that tournament, by the way, since 1994.)

Kobe Bryant, perhaps Colangelo's best player, has decided to put off surgery on his right pinkie finger, which means Bryant might be less than 100 percent physically when the Olympics roll around.

His sixth man, Dwyane Wade, is "more injured than he leads people to believe," Colangelo said, and his point guard, Jason Kidd, is going through the emotional rollercoaster of spending the season so far in career limbo, uncertain if he'll be rejoining the New Jersey Nets or moving on to the Dallas Mavericks.

Colangelo has spent the weekend socializing, networking, courting potential sponsors and trying to nail down exhibition game opponents for a pre-Olympic tour that will begin in Las Vegas and move on to Macao and Shanghai, and possibly Taiwan, before the team arrives in Beijing. Part of his job is generating enough income to cover the cost of national team expenses, some of which (such as the charter flight for the trip back home) have tripled since the last Olympics in 2004.

In June will come one of the most difficult decisions of Colangelo's tenure, when he and coach Mike Krzyzewski must decide which 12 players (and three alternates) they plan to take across the Pacific.

"In the past, it was always a question of who the U.S. was going to get for the team. Now, it's a question of how are you going to get down to 12," said Colangelo, who expects 17 or 18 players to attend when Team USA convenes for mini-camp in Las Vegas, June 27-30. The 12-man roster will be formally announced June 30, although changes can be made (technically, they must be because of injury) until an Aug. 8 Olympic technical committee meeting, two days before the first game.

All 12 players from last summer's roster (Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, Kidd, Deron Williams, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Mike Miller, Michael Redd and Tyson Chandler) are expected back, as are three players who could not compete last summer because of injuries -- Wade, Chris Bosh and Chris Paul.

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade and LeBron James
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty ImagesLeBron (right) should be ready for the Olympics, but D-Wade's injuries make him a question mark.

Recognizing that Team USA needs another player who can score in the low post, Colangelo is planning to have Carlos Boozer in camp. Shawn Marion is a possibility, too, as is Kevin Durant, and Brandon Roy could enter the mix if injuries take one or two of the above-mentioned players out of the mix.

Colangelo did not wish to handicap any particular player's chances of making the final roster, but he made it clear that the toughest decision will be deciding whether the team should carry a third point guard, an extra shooter or an extra big man.

The hunch here is that bringing an extra big man is the direction in which he's leaning. And if made to predict the 12-man roster, I'd say: Kidd, Bryant, James, Anthony, Howard, Stoudemire, Redd, Paul, Prince, Chandler and Boozer, with Wade's health dictating whether he or Bosh goes.

Though he hadn't yet -- as of noon Sunday -- had a chance to sit down with Bryant, Colangelo has been touching base with as many players as possible. Bryant did tell USA Basketball executive Sean Ford, according to Colangelo, "Don't worry about it. I'm committed to playing."

"I'm really encouraged by the references the players have been making to honoring their commitments and how much they're looking forward to this summer," Colangelo said. "All you can do is prepare and bring the right people together. If you look at where we were two summers ago, then look at last summer, I think we've progressed. It's teed up, and if we don't have any issues between now and this summer, we'll be where we want to be."

Where they ultimately expect to be, of course, is atop the medal podium on the night of Aug. 25, and anything less than a gold medal will be ultimately be judged as a failure back in the United States.

"We're hearing the gold medal game is the hottest ticket for the Olympics, and we're having trouble getting tickets ourselves," Colangelo said.

Team USA will enter the Olympics as the favorite, but the field already includes four teams -- Argentina, Spain, Russia, Lithuania -- that can be considered legitimate threats to defeat the United States, and a fifth -- Greece -- is expected to be one of three teams to emerge from a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament to be held in July in Athens.

The Americans will face Canada in an exhibition game in Las Vegas before flying to Asia, and they are still working to finalize agreements to play exhibitions against Russia, Lithuania and possibly Australia when they play in Macao and Shanghai. (Plans for an exhibition against Team China have been scrapped at the request of the Chinese federation, Colangelo said.)

Promoters in Taiwan are trying to entice the Americans to play there, too, but Colangelo is worried about the logistical complications of playing there because the team would not be able to fly directly to China, instead having to transit through Hong Kong before flying to Shanghai.

"When we land in Beijing on Aug. 6, I don't want the guys tired because of an extra side trip. It's not worth the extra dollars. I'd rather raise the extra money by getting a sponsorship deal done here," Colangelo said.

By the time the gold medal game is played, the Americans will have been on the road for 36 consecutive days, and sheer physical exhaustion will be as important a factor to the Americans as mental exhaustion. The combination of the two has contributed to the Americans' undoing in their losses at the 2002 and 2006 World Championships and the 2004 Olympics.

"To me, it's a matter of pushing to the finish however you need to and keeping the focus on the ultimate goal," Colangelo said. "I take nothing for granted. I saw Manu Ginobili go off for 46 points last week. I've seen him go for 50 against the Suns, and all it takes is one game where one guy can take you down."

Colangelo is proud to have changed the culture of USA Basketball during his two and a half years at the helm, but a large part of his legacy ultimately will be determined by the level of success achieved by Team USA on his watch.

It would therefore stand to reason that Colangelo would have at least a small knot in his belly as he looks ahead to the climax of his three-year project. Instead, it's anticipation that seems to define his mindset.

We'll see in a few months whether his nerves start to get the better of him, but more important will be the nerves and psyches of the 12 players who don Team USA jerseys this summer. Because as much as they looked like a second Dream Team last summer, the ultimate judgment will come six months from now, half a world away from the The Big Easy.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.