It hit a couple of icebergs, and it nearly sank at the last FIBA World Championship at Indianapolis, but the good ship USA Basketball is headed in the right direction. That is the impression you get when speaking to Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the men's USA Senior National Team headed to Japan this summer to compete in the 2006 Worlds.
One of USA Basketball's main enemies has been plain old hubris -- excessive confidence. But ugly defeats in the last four years seem to have cured that particular ill among team management. Colangelo has studied the best practices of other countries.
"Successful countries in international basketball have built up a lasting and stable infrastructure, with a team that stays together for a generation," he said. "The U.S. has simply selected who was available and interested for a tournament, with no continuity and no pipeline."
Argentina has the same playbook for all its international teams, regardless of age. In that sense, the players come and go, but the scheme remains and is understood by all. This system makes transitions easier and promotes cohesiveness.
The United States has changed coaches repeatedly, and even now, what Mike Krzyzewski looks for in this team has little to do with what Lorenzo Romar demanded as the head coach of the under-18 team that just won the 2006 FIBA Americas Championship in San Antonio. Few of Romar's kids will spend a decade of their careers playing for the U.S. team, as is commonplace in Argentina and Lithuania.
"In the U.S., our system is still somewhat disjointed, which makes schemes tougher to assimilate," Colangelo said. "The head coach of the men's senior team will set his style of play."
At least the timeline has been addressed. Players and staff make a three-year commitment, which will take them through the 2006 Worlds and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. In most countries, following the soccer model, the head coach and team are together for a four-year cycle, after which team managers evaluate the program's performance and make changes as needed. Once you hire a coach, you leave him alone until he can win in a major competition or until he proves he is woefully inadequate.
Would an eight-year commitment be preferable?
"Of course," Colangelo said, "but given what we are demanding, three years is a reasonable horizon for the type of talent we are talking about. The fact that we are going with youth is a sign that we hope to have a solid foundation by the time the Olympics end in 2008."
Players like Greg Oden, Chris Paul, Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, Adam Morrison and LeBron James are at the core of this effort. By the 2010 Worlds and the 2012 Olympics, barring injury, these players will be the core of a veteran, internationally savvy U.S. team.
Colangelo wants USA Basketball not only to win tournaments again but also to change how these tournaments are won.
"In the past, we put together a team by faxing or sending letters to players and their agents. This time, I have met personally with every candidate, not just to let them know how things have changed and what values we pursue, but also to gauge their passion for the challenge ahead," Colangelo said.
Lukewarm about trying out? See you later. Not visibly passionate about wearing team colors? Don't bother. Any outlandish requests or questions? Good seeing you. Don't really like practices, including two-a-days? Buh-bye. If you want to know why some players are off the roster, remember those questions.
Colangelo dwelled on values.
"We need to address the reigning anti- American sentiment in international competitions," he said. "How you win is important. I want to see a team, not a collection of individualities. I want to see them show their patriotism through their effort and behavior. I want the team to show respect for the opponent in every way. I need to feel comfortable with persons I will share a foxhole [with] for three years."
USA Basketball is looking to create chemistry on this team, but it will not happen without sacrifice.
"We may establish certain players as go-to guys on offense, complemented by role players, shooters and some defensive shut-down specialists," Colangelo said. "The sooner players understand their role, the quicker we will achieve success. That implies that some players will have to adjust their mind-set and their roles in order to fit in."
So we will find out if players like James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and others react constructively when told they may come off the bench for a given game, or when called upon to pass up shots to direct the flow of the offense elsewhere.
In the past, USA Basketball took opponents lightly, scouting them minimally. Remember how most national squads are organized, with a steady core of players and a set scheme set by the same coach you will see down the road.
It was interesting that during the 2005 FIBA Americas Championship held in the Dominican Republic, not even four months after Colangelo took over, USA Basketball was unaware that some of the games were being televised for taping back in the States. The U.S. missed a chance to get to know teams like Brazil, Panama and Puerto Rico better and to see Argentina's new coach, Sergio Hernandez, and his subtle changes to the Argentine playbook. Colangelo visited Santo Domingo but left after the first few days of competition.
Colangelo insists scouting will be improved.
"We were not as ready as we needed to be in this department in the past," he said. "Now we have Rudy Tomjanovich heading our scouting, and he has put together an extensive scouting structure. NBA teams have offered help, and we will rely on them for further scouting insights."
Let's say Krzyzewski needs some insight on stopping Manu Ginobili. According to Colangelo, he would then call Ginobili's coach, Gregg Popovich of the Spurs, for his insight. That may not sit well with some of the Argentine coaches Popovich has developed relationships with over the years. What if Julio Lamas (Argentina's former national team head coach and a friend of Popovich) calls on behalf of his national team to find out how to deal with Elton Brand?
There is no rule that forces an NBA head coach to provide insights or observations on players, American or otherwise. But the internationalization of the NBA will present situations like these more often. What is Maurizio Gherardini, the Toronto Raptors' Italian assistant general manager, supposed to do if Mike Krzyzewski calls inquiring about an Italian player or coaching strategy (the U.S. faces Group D rival Italy on Aug. 23)?
Another area of attitudinal adjustment is the refereeing. Americans are baffled by what is and is not a foul in international play and by the rules for traveling. The lack of homogeneity between NBA rules and FIBA rules never seemed to matter when the disparity in talent was so huge in international competition. Now, though, ignorance or the misapplication of FIBA rules can cost the U.S. a World Championship.
"We are looking for players with high basketball IQ," Colangelo said. "Officials will be officials; players need to adjust. We will bring FIBA officials to Las Vegas to referee our scrimmages and get us ready."
A small step, perhaps, but yet another indication that USA Basketball is executing fundamentals. It remains to be seen if King James understands the difference between steps in the NBA and traveling in FIBA. He did not in Athens, for tragicomic effect.
One trend that favors USA Basketball is that other basketball powers are beginning to be infected with the same disease Colangelo is trying to cure. Serbia and Montenegro will miss star players who cannot be bothered to play under tough discipline. Spain's Pau Gasol recently said his team deserves a medal, months before the tournament's start.
Even Argentina, a close-knit, tough team, is showing signs of overconfidence. Coach Hernandez felt that taking a tour of Chicago, Detroit and San Antonio -- as well as European cities where his team members live and play -- was a wise move in order to gather their "input." Former Argentine head coach Ruben Magnano was much less consultative. Andres Nocioni and Ginobili have both stated that the team should medal, and perhaps win the Worlds.
Questions remain about USA Basketball. Does it need to hire a coach full-time to supervise not just the men's Senior National team, but the entire basketball program? Should the team use the same schemes at all levels? Should it groom the core of a team through a decade of learning and hoped-for success? Is the scouting good enough? Are the offensive and defensive schemes appropriate, given the opposition? Has the U.S. internalized the right attitude and values with which to face the challenge?
Colangelo and USA Basketball are trying to change a culture of complacency and arrogance. It will take time to figure out what it takes to win consistently at this new level of basketball competitiveness. Colangelo has not yet been able to institute all the changes he desires, but the new tone has been set. This August in Japan, we will have a chance to see if the program is on the right track.
Álvaro Martín is the lead play-by-play announcer for NBA and NFL broadcasts, as well as a few MLB games, on all of ESPN's Spanish-language networks. He also calls FIBA basketball games in Spanish, including the last Euroleague Final Four. He occasionally contributes to ESPN's English-language media platforms.