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Red, White and Bronze: The death and rebirth of USA Basketball

An oral history of the U.S. men's basketball team at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the subsequent restructuring of USA Basketball

Part I: 24-0

24-0. That was the Olympic record of USA Basketball from 1992  – the year of the Dream Team, when NBA players were first allowed to play internationally – through the 2000 Sydney Games. There’s not much that’s perfect in this world, but for three straight Olympics, America’s best ballers came damn close.

Led by the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Jason Kidd, Team USA boasted the greatest collection of Olympians any team sport has ever known. Every four years, USA Basketball would throw together its version of the Monstars, seemingly otherworldly beings unleashed to wreak havoc on the rest of the world. 

Meanwhile, basketball was growing internationally, slowly but surely churning out NBA-level talent. Players like Serbia’s Vlade Divac and Lithuania’s Arvydas Sabonis were among the first to blaze the trail, as countries around the globe were incubating talent designed to take down the mighty Americans. At some point the United States had to lose, but when?

In Sydney, the U.S. began to show cracks. In the semifinals against Lithuania, the United States eked out a two-point victory, surviving a missed last-second three-pointer by Šarūnas Jasikevičius. It was the closest Team USA had come to defeat since the Dream Team donned the stars and stripes in Barcelona. In hindsight, that moment would serve as a clear harbinger of what would happen four years later in Athens.

 

Jason Kidd (2000, 2008 Olympian, USA): I thought in 2000, when we played Lithuania in the semis, they had a shot to beat us.

Vince Carter (2000 Olympian, USA): It was just back-and-forth, and I think more than anything we were just thinking, “Hey, let’s keep the streak alive. We can’t lose to these guys. We don’t want to be the first.” Nobody wants to be the first, and of course it’s bound to happen, but we didn’t want to be the one so we had to kick it in gear.

Šarūnas Jasikevičius (2000-12 Olympian, Lithuania): We were a young team; nobody expected a lot of things from us in Sydney. But at the same time, in that Olympics, I think people really understood that the United States were beatable.

Carter: I played against Šarūnas in college, so I knew what he could do and what he was capable of. He was just lethal with the jump shot.

Jasikevičius: It was my coming out party. I wasn’t sure myself I was capable of things like that.

Donnie Nelson (Lithuania asst. coach 1990-2004; Dallas Mavericks general manager]: We had the USA on the ropes, and they came back and ended up beating us in a last-second situation.

Chris Sheridan (ESPN basketball reporter): It really shouldn’t have come down to a final shot by Šarūnas Jasikevičius that was well defended by Jason Kidd and just missed being the biggest upset in Olympic history.

Carter: You knew he was capable of making it and he was playing with a lot of confidence already, so it was just one of those things. We had to play great defense and just hope that he misses the shot.

Jasikevičius: I believe that shot never had a chance. We lost the game in a couple situations before. The feeling in the last minute was that we gave the game away.

Darius Songaila (2000-04, ‘12 Olympian, Lithuania): The first game [against the U.S.] we lost by nine points – I think in group play – and then two points at the end. You know [Ramunas] Siskauskas makes a couple of free throws, and we don’t turn the ball over, we get a free throw rebound, it could have gone the other way.

Rudy Tomjanovich (USA basketball head coach, 1998-2000): Coming down the stretch, it was very tight and we actually fouled a good free throw shooter, and we were down 1 when we fouled him on a three pointer. And he only made 1 of the 3.

Jasikevičius: We controlled [the game] and we had three chances to close it and we didn’t.

Kidd: We all talked about it, how we would’ve felt if we had lost. You could see the world get better.

Russ Granik (USA Basketball President, 1990-2000; NBA Deputy Commissioner 1990-2006): I was sitting there with my other NBA colleagues and they started to come up with the justifications in case we lost, and how this was good for international competition. The reality was we didn’t want to lose.

Jim Tooley (USA Basketball CEO, 2001-present): We came out ahead on that one, and then the Gold Medal Game, I think we only beat France by 10. So there were signals that the world was catching up.

Carter: The game of basketball had evolved and it had gotten better.

 

Carmelo Anthony, Stephon Marbury and Richard Jefferson sit on the bench during the 2004 Olympics. Credit: Getty Images

Part II: ‘The Invincibility Was Gone’

The gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world ended up closing completely at the next major international tournament. The 2002 FIBA World Championships, held in Indianapolis, saw America lose three games and finish in sixth place.

But USA Basketball’s brass was not yet scrambling for answers. The 2002 squad was considered by many to be a “B team,” comprised of borderline All-Stars and a couple young guys who had no business being on the U.S. Men’s National Team.

All was thought to be okay just a year later, when a team full of NBA superstars like Kidd, Carter and Tracy McGrady destroyed the field on the way to an easy championship in the Tournament of the Americas. Argentina center Fabricio Oberto said, “I’ve never seen such a show of highlights in my entire life.” But that 2003 team wouldn’t stick.

 

Craig Miller (USA Basketball Chief Media/Communications Officer, 1990-present): The plan was in 2004 to take the team we had in 2003 and just return it and play in 2004. I think only one or two of those guys ended up playing for us.

Tooley: We lost nine of the 12 players that were on that ‘03 team. There were injuries; people did not want to play because there were security concerns.

Emeka Okafor (2004 Olympian, USA): That was that time about when everybody was backing out because of security concerns. So a lot of people were either dropping out or declining.

Granik: What happened was the fear of terrorism.

Mike Breen (NBC Olympics play-by-play announcer): I brought my family, my wife and children, with me on all the Olympic Games but I did not bring them to Athens. There was real heightened tension there about the possibility of something happening.

Sheridan: This was the first Olympics after 9/11. Everybody was hearing that the Greeks don’t have their act together and it was going to be dangerous.

Richard Jefferson (2004 Olympian, USA): I was proud I was one of the guys that said yes. When it became the more popular decision to say no, I decided I wanted to go play for my country regardless of what the outcome was going to be, regardless of the amount of heat we were going to take. I wanted to be one of the guys that said yes to the opportunity when the popular decision was to say no at the time.

Sheridan: Different guys came up with different reasons that they couldn’t make it. At the end of the day, Vince Carter was gone. Ray Allen was gone. Jason Kidd was gone. Jermaine O’Neal was gone. Elton Brand was gone.1 Nine guys that had been on the 2003 qualifying team in San Juan were gone.

Tooley: We didn’t have the continuity and that’s a big word for us.

Granik: I think a lot of people sort of faulted the team that we put together, but we had to use the guys that said they would go no matter what the perceived risk might’ve been, and they should’ve been applauded for that. Instead we really had a second level team.

Sheridan: There wasn’t what you have now, a desire to play for the national team that was really overwhelming. There wasn’t a program in which guys had come up through the select team or maybe through the U-16 or the U-18 team, which is what USA Basketball has now. It was more of a “Let’s just pick the 12 best players we can and put them out there. Look we’re Team USA; we are going to be able to beat everybody.”

Stu Jackson (Chair, USA Basketball Senior Men’s National Team Committee, 2000-05): So as one dropped, you’d replace another one, and as another dropped, you’d replace another one and try to amass the best talent that you could under the hopes that being that they were the best players in the world – and they’re not only the best players, but some of the best players with the highest IQ – that they’d be able to figure it out along with the coaching staff.

Tooley: We probably should have foreseen that we were going to have several guys back out, decline, whatever. We should have then approached it holistically and said, “Okay, rather than just doing some patchwork – lose a player, replace a player – we should have looked at it a little bit more collectively.

Granik: We had less opportunity to say, “How did this team fit together and who would do better internationally?” It was more just, “Who’s a really good player that wants to do this?”

Jefferson: They asked 30 players – 30 different players – to just fill out a 13 or 14 man roster. Let’s be honest, of those 15 guys, how many of those guys were their top 15 picks? I probably wasn’t one of their top 10 picks. A lot of guys on that roster probably weren’t one of those top 10 picks.

Players on USA Basketball teams from 2002-2004

Jerry Colangelo (USA Basketball managing director, 2005-present): Some players who had committed backed out at the last minute. And then [USA Basketball] put four young players in their place: Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Amar’e Stoudemire. They were all young kids, they hadn’t earned it.

Miller: Literally a couple days before training camp we were still adding people. People see LeBron James, Carmelo and D-Wade on the roster and they’re like, “How could you lose?” You’ve got to remember those guys were 19 years old, 18 years old, first time they’d ever played internationally, in most of those cases. 

Jefferson: We were, I think, to date, the youngest team put together.

Sheridan: [USA head coach] Larry Brown didn’t like the team. Larry Brown liked coaching veteran players. The oldest guy on the team was 28 years old.2

Okafor: The team kind of came together at the last minute. Everyone was trying to cater to Coach Brown’s style which is a little bit different to what they would’ve wanted. Coach Brown didn’t really like to play young guys. At all. Even I think LeBron, D-Wade and Melo didn’t play as much. We all played the least, us young guys.

Jackson: Larry Brown was consulted on the team and I can remember in some specific situations, some concerns about certain players were expressed and about their addition to the team. But, I can tell you that those additions to the team would not be made without the understanding that a coach would support the team that he was given.

"To me, it was simple: They picked the wrong coach at the time."

Stephon Marbury

Sean Ford (USA Basketball Men’s National Team Director, 2001-present): The roster was put together in conjunction with the coaches, not in spite of the coaches.

Tomjanovich: I didn’t like that system. What happened with me – I don’t know how it worked with Larry – but it was just a conference call and the coach doesn’t get a vote on the players. We had a preliminary roster and I was given like three minutes, five minutes, to talk about what I thought was needed.

Jackson: It’s up to the players and the coach to find a way to work together, to be a cohesive unit and try to prepare themselves for competition.

David Stern (NBA Commissioner, 1984-2014): I would say the thing that I remember was the coach going after players in the print media, and I don’t know whether there’s anything that records my response to that, but I remember I said to myself, "David, you probably should have kept your mouth shut." But I did take a shot at the coach because I thought that he should stop complaining about the players and either coach or not coach.

Tooley: Listen, it was a tough circumstance. I would never want to throw a coach under the bus here and say, you know, it’s all on you.

Ford: Looking back on it, I think we thought it was a good roster and I think maybe, looking back on it, the team probably needed more preparation.

Okafor: These other teams – the European teams – they had played together for a while. They had some consistency and there was some familiarity with the style of play. We just didn’t have enough time to get it gelled.

Carmelo Anthony (2004-16 Olympian, USA): I remember it was kind of last minute. I had to go down to Jacksonville for training camp to get ready for Athens. Once we got the announcement it was quick, it was a quick turnaround. We only had like – if I could remember – maybe a week, week and a half to get ready for the Olympics back then and you just had to go.

Ford: We played a number of exhibition games but that was a group that probably could have needed preparation more.

Sheridan: I think the players on the team, and even the coaching staff, said, “Look we’re going to go through a learning curve. That’s why we set up such a demanding [exhibition] schedule. That’s why we’re going to Germany and we’re going to Serbia and we’re going to Turkey. We have to play a ton of games because we have a roster that hasn’t really played together. They’re going to have to learn together on the fly. And by the time we get to Athens we should have our act together.”

Anthony: We all got along from a standpoint of, we were competitors, we knew how to play the game, we competed against each other night in and night out for our own respective teams and we respected each other as individuals, but it just didn’t click for some reason back then.

Tooley: I felt training camp was fine. I believe we were in Cologne; I thought “Okay, this is going to be tough.” Then we go to Serbia. We play Serbia in Serbia which is a very tough place to play and we won by 20.

Sheridan: They beat [Serbia] on their home court, but something happened on that trip. Stephon Marbury came over to me and said, “You know, Coach Brown isn’t letting us play. He’s trying to make us play the ‘right way.’ He’s not letting us play, we just need to play.” That night, after that game I was having dinner with the other reporters and assistant coach [Gregg] Popovich and Coach Brown at one of the best hotels in Belgrade and we were telling them the story. And when Larry heard what Stephon had said, he got up and left. Soon after that, Pop got up and left. Then Pop came back about five minutes later and he tapped me on the shoulder and he said, “Can you tell me what Stephon said to you?” and I repeated the story. After that Larry Brown was so incensed that he went to the people running USA Basketball and said, “I want him off the team. I want Stephon Marbury off the team. Now. Put him on a plane and send him back home. Now.”

Ford: You can’t cut Olympians. Once you’re an Olympian, you’re an Olympian, you know?

Sheridan: That was really the beginning of the huge disconnect between Stephon Marbury and Larry Brown.

Stephon Marbury (2004 Olympian, USA): To me it was simple: they picked the wrong coach at the time.

Jefferson: Obviously it’s well documented the Stephon Marbury-Larry Brown situation with the Knicks, and that started with the USA team. Everybody knows about Larry Brown and Allen Iverson. So there was a lot of conflict on that team.

Larry Brown coaching at the 2004 Olympics with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Richard Jefferson in the background. Credit: Getty Images

Marbury: For me, [Brown] being the coach for the Olympics and then him becoming the Knicks coach, it’s a little different because there’s three sides to a story: there’s his side, my side and there’s the truth.

Stern: There were stories about Allen Iverson and Steph Marbury here, there and the next place. I think the team needed more control and there was nobody who was reining it in off the court – and their on-court wasn’t going so well – but I thought the coaching staff or at least the head coach Larry Brown was complaining too much.

Marbury: I really had a bad experience with Larry Brown in the Olympics. It was a team full of All-Stars and he was trying to coach the team like it was his team. Telling guys how to play the “right way,” what they should and shouldn’t do on the court, instead of just trying to win that gold medal.

Jefferson: I think Larry Brown tried to use the USA team as a tool. It was when AND1 basketball was going on. He was trying to do something for the game of basketball and trying to put out a certain style of play and a certain style of message versus us just going out there and trying to win games and trying to accomplish things. I remember in the qualifier for the Olympics, he told Jason Kidd, “Hey Jason, I know you’re really good at the fast break, but I want you to stop at the free-throw line and throw a bounce pass to one of the wings.” And you’re sitting here talking to the second all-time leading assist guy and one of the most dominant point guards of all time. Truth be told, that’s probably why nine guys decided that they didn’t want to go do the Olympics.

Miller: I think Larry did the best that he could do trying to keep everyone on the same page and get through it.

Jackson: I think the mindset was that we were concerned. It’s not only the brass of USA Basketball, but as importantly, there was concern amongst the coaches and concern amongst the players as well, that we didn’t have a cohesive functioning unit entering the Games in Greece.

Breen: It was different than any other Games because it was coming off of the 2002 World Championships where they finished sixth in Indianapolis. A lot of people could not believe it, but quite frankly it had been a slow process where the rest of the world was catching up.

Miller: The invincibility was gone thanks to 2002. All of that set up to kind of make for a perfect storm.

"I think they were trying to sell jerseys, I don't know, more than putting a real team together. The team didn't fit."

Sarunas Jasikevicius

Breen: You saw clearly that they just weren’t playing well together and they weren’t gelling. It was a struggle right from the get go. That first game they played, they didn’t just lose, they got hammered. They weren’t even really competitive. That was unbelievably shocking how bad they were beaten.

Jefferson: If anything was a sign of how hard we had to work, it was probably the first Puerto Rico game.

Carlos Arroyo (2004 Olympian, Puerto Rico): I mean, nobody expected us to win that game. At half, we were up 21 points, if I’m not mistaken [Editor’s note: it was actually 22, 49-27], and we were in the locker room like total silence. We were looking at each other like, “This is not happening.”

Anthony: I remember we was, at one point, we was down 40 points – almost 40 points. I look up in the stands and all the Puerto Rican flags are in the air and they banging on the sticks and they got the horns going and they just got everything going. It was one of the most embarrassing moments for myself.

Jackson: We played a team that had an emotional vested interest in the game. They wanted to beat the U.S. They played at a very high level. They played together. They played with passion. And they played for Puerto Rico.

Granik: Arroyo had an incredible performance, nobody could stop him.

Arroyo: Well, I don’t like to take away anything from their ability to play the game, but I think they were lacking a little bit of outside shooting, so we were able to take advantage of that. So we kind of played a zone and forced them to take outside shots so we could get on the break and play our game.

Jefferson: One of our struggles was that we didn’t have enough shooting.

Tooley: It was a painful experience.

Miller: Maybe they remember Vince dunking over Frederic Weis of France and maybe it appeared too easy to them until they actually got in the competition and realized, "I’m going against grown men who are veterans of international play and have no fear in playing the USA anymore."

Anthony: The Puerto Rico game is one that to this day still touches me a little bit. You know, it kind of changed the dynamics of USA Basketball.

Arroyo: I think it changed my life. It changed my career for the best.

Jackson: Carlos was a guy that had played in the NBA, very emotional player, played very hard, he shot the ball well from the perimeter, he set up teammates. I mean, he did it all. He wasn’t an All-Star in the NBA, but he played like one that game.

Arroyo: And you know what was funny? That was our first game in the Olympics and we got a bunch of letters from the governor and fans while we were there. We wish it would have been the game that gave us the gold medal, but it wasn’t.

José Calderón (2004-16 Olympian, Spain): It was just weird, everybody was expecting, “Okay, [the U.S.] are having a bad game and that’s it.” So that was something that we weren’t expecting at all before the tournament.

Okafor: I didn’t anticipate the loss, I was disappointed by the loss, but I still had gold on my mind.

Granik: And you know, Puerto Rico wasn’t even considered a real powerhouse. They had two or three NBA players. So you knew if we lost to them, there was the possibility of more to come.

 

In Game 2, the United States won a close contest over the host nation Greece, 77-71. Game 3 was a 10-point victory over Australia. Then came Lithuania, the squad that almost knocked off the U.S. in the 2000 Olympics. 

 

Jasikevičius: I thought that they would be beatable, especially after Sydney. We understood that you still have to play a great, great game against them, but I thought they had many weaknesses.

Breen: Quite honestly, going into the Games, we thought Lithuania would be a team that had a chance. It was Lithuania and Argentina. They were a tough opponent in Sydney and you knew they were going to be tough again so to me that was a game you had to worry about.

Sheridan: Basically that was a redemption game for Šarūnas Jasikevičius because he missed the three-pointer at the end of the semifinal game in Sydney that would’ve beaten the US, and he came back in this game and scored 28.

Jackson: Terrific player, and it ended up getting him a contract I think in the NBA. In 2004 he might’ve arguably been one of the top two players in the entire Olympic tournament.

Breen: Jasikevičius is not a good international player; he’s a great international player, who thrives in the biggest games.

Nelson: The international game is a very short game. It’s a 20-minute half. You blink and a half goes by. You blink again and your opponent gets on a hot streak or Jasikevičius starts hitting everything that he throws up there. Sometimes you can’t recover.

Jasikevičius: I was really feeling good about the game from the beginning.

Songaila: I guess maybe coming from a small country and just national pride of Lithuania being in that situation and representing the country, you put all those things together and I think you have enough motivation for a couple Olympics.

Jackson: Lithuania is only a country of 3 million people. The elite players in that country, it was evident to me, had played together for a very long time.

Jasikevičius: You don’t need 12 All-Stars. You need a team.

Jackson: They were highly-skilled particularly on the perimeter, and that was every player. Their bigs could play out on the floor, their guards were great pick and roll players, and we just seemingly had no answer for them offensively.

Songaila: Obviously the game against the U.S., you know, Jasikevičius hit some amazing shots; we played with a small lineup, playing high pick-and-roll with me playing as a five.

Jasikevičius: Having Timmy [Duncan] there, as great as he was all through the years, he was, for European basketball, maybe not the ideal center for the pick and roll defense.

Jackson: In the international game, our frontcourt players weren’t very adept at defending out on the floor against international players that had perimeter skills. I thought our inability to defend as a team really started to show.

Songaila: They were a bunch of guys that were just super athletes. You go down the line, you start with Dwyane Wade, Carmelo, LeBron, Stoudemire, [Carlos] Boozer, all those guys were there, but you pack in the lane, there’s only so much you can do. You make them beat you with outside shooting, with the midrange game. It wasn’t their strength at that time and it worked out for us.

Nelson: When I was coaching and trying to help them win a medal, number one I never thought in my wildest dreams would I have believed in my lifetime that we ever would’ve had the chance to win against the United States.

Jasikevičius: It was a good win, nothing else. It was a good win. I mean we didn’t take the medal. When you look over a career, the most important thing is the titles and the medals and we didn’t capitalize on that win because we lost the semifinal to Italy.

 

The United States would rebound in the following game, crushing an Angola team that would finish 12th in the tournament, 89-53. Finishing fourth in Group B, the U.S. was matched up with the top team in Group A, an undefeated Spain squad led by 24-year-old Pau Gasol.

Stephon Marbury erupted for a then-U.S. Olympic record 31 points, ushering the United States past Spain and on to the semifinals. Looking back, Gasol described it as probably one of the best games of Marbury’s career. With the medal round in sight, the United States was matched up against an Argentina team equipped with Manu Ginóbili and Luis Scola.

 

 

Fabricio Oberto (1996, 2000-04 Olympian, Argentina): We won that [quarterfinal] and as soon as we finished that game, I remember Nocioni going into the locker room and just yelling and kicking everything, like “We’re going to beat U.S. tomorrow!”

Jackson: Going into the Argentina game, as good as Puerto Rico played, as well as Lithuania played, at that time Argentina was one of the gold standards internationally. That was when they were at the height of their golden era in international basketball.

Oberto: We just kept playing and trying to put them in wrong positions to take [bad] shots or to make bad decisions. We can’t play just one quarter; we got to play 40 minutes and we played 40 minutes really good.

Andrés Nocioni (2004-16 Olympian, Argentina): In my mind, it was kind of that we controlled the game the whole game. We did it really well. I think USA never had the option to win the game.

Tooley: Even at halftime I still felt we had a shot. I thought we were going to come back.

Ford: I want to say that they scored on seven of the first 10 possessions [coming out of half]. Their offense was just really, really clicking. Pepe Sanchez, Scola was good, Ginóbili was good. They were just really good.

Nocioni: We tried to be tough, we tried to play hard defense, we tried to play our tempo of the game. We played a lot of zone defense. We gave them a lot of shots and we tried to have confidence that they’re going to miss, control the rebound and try to run.

Sheridan: Argentina schooled the U.S. with picks and rolls on the back-cuts, and that game wasn’t even competitive. Argentina kind of mopped the floor with them.

Jackson: We got beat by a better team. We were better individuals, but we got beat by a better team.

Breen: The game is still played at its best when five players are working together, and the United States just didn’t have enough of those moments, where Argentina it was like five guys on a string.

Jefferson: Teams with the most talent do not always win. It’s the team that plays together.

Ford: We played Argentina about as hard as we could. They were a really good team.

Jefferson: That’s B.S. We didn’t put together our best team, we didn’t put together our second best team, we didn’t put together probably one of our top-five teams. Go back and look at it, we played that exact same Argentina team in the tournament of Americas nine months before and we were up by 40 points at halftime. The exact same team. Fast forward nine months, they show up with the same team, we show up with nine different guys – some of which had never met each other – that’s a recipe for disaster.

Breen: There’s no question that they didn’t have their best team. Whether it’s Jason Kidd didn’t play, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Shaq didn’t play, Vince Carter didn’t play, Kobe didn’t play. You’re talking about the premier players in the game. The roster made all the difference – there were a lot of key guys that were out – but that takes nothing away from how well Argentina played together.

Oberto: It’s different when you get to go to the national team and build a solid unit. Like Manu [Ginóbili] sometimes was taking two shots a game and he was the happiest man. Maybe I didn’t take a shot all game and I was happy. We just enjoyed being with each other.

Luis Scola (2004-16 Olympian, Argentina): We were playing together since we were 15, 16 years old. And we moved through the ladder and we get through the stages and we end up winning the gold medal. To be honest, if you asked me or anybody around the world in ‘99 that five years after, we were going to do what we did, everybody would laugh at you.

Oberto: I don’t think even the most positive, optimistic guy would think it was going to be a gold medal.

Sean Marks (2000-04 Olympian, New Zealand; Brooklyn Nets general manager): I think its human nature that you root for the underdog a little bit. I think it was good for the sport to just see some fresh blood, some new people.

Nocioni: It was a big shock. When you see a loss with NBA players on the court, always it’s a shock. USA is the best country for basketball. They control all the world. So every time USA loses, it’s a shock for basketball and FIBA.

Anthony: I just remember losing that game on the court and just the articles that was coming out in that point in time. It was just damaging to me, to the players and to the U.S. as a whole.

Okafor: I just feel like we didn’t play our best. The gold medal was definitely well within reach and we just didn’t put our best foot forward. Not anywhere near it.

Jefferson: I met LeBron for the first time, I met Amar’e for the first time, I met D-Wade for the first time a few weeks before we were going off to the Olympics. They were meeting Larry Brown for the first time. What team, what formula does that work for? Yeah it might have worked in ‘92 with the Dream Team, but it doesn’t work in 2004 when you have the Argentinians and Spain playing every year together.

Stern: Whenever you don’t win it is a failure, but I was admiring Argentina. It was actually quite moving to see them singing and dancing, kissing. It was just basketball exuberance for a group of players who was playing together since they were 12 years old.

Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni embrace after beating the U.S. in the 2004 Olympic semifinal. Credit: Getty Images

Sheridan: Well the vibe was, “This is a disaster.” After the loss to Argentina in the semis, there were a lot of people within the team that said, “This has been a fiasco from day one.”

Okafor: For the Bronze Medal Game it was like, “We have to win this bronze medal.” There was no recourse. We had to walk away with at least a bronze.

Anthony: Yeah, we knew we had to get a medal. That was a goal. We had to get a medal and go from there.

 

The United States went on to beat Lithuania 104-96 to earn the bronze medal. The United States needed three good games in as many days; they played two. They returned home with the bronze, but more importantly, they returned home with the experience of not winning gold. The U.S. went to Athens with a flawed roster and they paid the price in gold.

 

Jefferson: Anything other than 100 percent complete success is a failure. A silver is a failure, a bronze is a failure.

Tooley: As tough as that whole experience was, having a medal versus no medal is a way different narrative than not medaling in the Olympic Games. Everyone expects gold, including ourselves, but we couldn’t get over that hump. Coming away with a medal was big.

Jackson: I mean it was a mild consolation, certainly, because success to us only meant winning the gold medal. But playing in the Bronze Medal Game, and winning, was some minor consolation. But not nearly did it meet our expectations.

Breen: It was nice that they bounced back because I remember them walking off the floor after the loss to Argentina and you could just see the look of devastation, like “Wow the gold medal is gone.

Ford: That team still, to me, no one wants to talk about it, but the team deserves some credit for going through what we went through, both putting the team together, training the team, Jim Lampley calling us a huge disappointment and an embarrassment. All of that to the bronze medal is an accomplishment.

Miller: Still, we won the bronze medal, but we lost three times where we hadn’t lost three times total since the Olympics started in 1936. Each one of those players felt that weight. No one wants to be the guy that loses the streak.

Jefferson: Let’s be 100% honest, I don’t think anybody felt 100% comfortable – coaches, players, me, younger guys – with how everything went down that year, but we did our best and we fought for it.

Jackson: It was tough to see our team not play up to its capabilities, offensively and defensively, against teams that seemed to be more inspired, more galvanized, more fluid offensively. We were better than that but we weren’t showing it.

Jasikevičius: I don’t know whether it’s the fact about how they got along, but for sure they didn’t take the tournament seriously. I think they were trying to sell jerseys, I don’t know, more than putting a real team together. The team didn’t fit.

Marks: I’m not going to say they didn’t take it seriously, because they certainly did, but it’s a team sport.

Sheridan: The people in the federation were mad at the players. They were mad at the coaching staff. People on the coaching staff were mad at the federation and mad at the players. The players were kind of sick of the coaching staff. It was dysfunction all around and it was one of the reasons why things got so bad that USA Basketball said, “We have to put this in the hands of somebody who can blow it up, start all over again and get us back where we belong.”

Jefferson: You’ll get some slack for losing in the Olympics or not doing well, definitely. That’s a stain that will always stay with you because we created the game of basketball and we should be the most dominant team.

Tomjanovich: Every American is expected to win in basketball. You can’t lose, or else it’s the most terrible thing in your life. And the players aren’t going to talk about it, but it’s in the back of their minds, because nobody had lost from an NBA level up until that time.

Tooley: Whether you’re on the team or not, even if you’re not tied to USA Basketball or the NBA, you’re embarrassed as an American of how it went. We’ll never forget that.

Anthony: We knew that we kind of had to destroy and rebuild after that for USA Basketball.

 

Left to right: Jerry Colangelo, Mike Krzyzewski, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade at the roster announcement for the 2008 Olympics. Credit: Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports

Part III: 'We created a culture'

In the aftermath of failing to win gold at the Athens Games, it was clear to USA Basketball that the program was flawed. The world had caught up. The United States could no longer throw 12 All-Stars together and hope they would emerge victorious. But it was more than just the product on the court; the perception of the team had diminished both at home and abroad.

Team USA had lost its prestige. The aura of the Dream Team had worn off. USA Basketball had struggled to find players who wanted to represent their country in Athens. They knew there was work to do if the United States hoped to reclaim its place atop the basketball world.

 

Stern: We were coming from a culture that almost looked down at representing your country and we were determined to do something that made playing for your national team something that was really cool.

Jackson: Everything was under the microscope after the Olympic Games in Greece. Everything was open for evaluation: selection, training, type of player that we needed that would be imperative to attain a level of success internationally and sustain it.

Stern: I’ll tell you how Jerry [Colangelo] got to be named after the 2004 Games. We decided that since the backlash was so bad against the NBA that we might as well do something about it.

Granik: We proposed to the USAB people that instead of having the team selected by committee, as it had been since ‘92, that we really try to find someone, and put someone really in charge who the coaches would see as kind of their general manager with full authority over the team and who would have the main voice at least in picking the players.

Tooley: We talked about bringing in a general manager. I recall the analogy being like Canada hockey had Wayne Gretzky come in and oversee their hockey program - similar type of thing here.

Stern: We thought that the perfect person to head USA Basketball would be the Jerry Colangelo.

Tooley: So everybody had a comfort level with Jerry and everybody felt like Jerry has a rapport, reputation with the pro folks obviously, the college folks and he’s just highly regarded from high school ranks all the way up.

Stern: Jerry is a person that commands respect across the spectrum of the basketball community.

Nelson: I had the pleasure of working with Jerry for three years in Phoenix and I can tell you he’s the standard in terms of sports executives. When he ended up taking the reins, it was, I think, a relief to a lot of people.

Jackson: Jerry is an iconic NBA figure - a very, very good leader, very smart, innovative and passionate about United States basketball.

Stern: I called him up and said, “Hey Jerry, I got a great idea. What do you think?” I don’t remember whether he said yes immediately or “I’ll get back to you,” but if he said he was going to get back to me, I knew he was bluffing because this was a job that was made for him.

Ford: We were looking for him and indirectly, he didn’t know it, but he was kind of looking for us.

Colangelo: David took the lead and called me. He said, “Look we’ve got to re-do our whole USA Basketball program, would you take it over?” And my response was “David, I’ll do it, but I have a few conditions.” The first condition was full autonomy at the time. That was to select the coaches, select the players, and he said, “Done. What’s number two?” And I said, “I don’t want to hear about a budget.”

Ford: March of ‘05, Jim Tooley and I went down to Phoenix to Jerry’s office. We spent all day with him. He wanted to know what is USA Basketball. How do you put the team together? What does this mean, what does that mean? What went right, what went wrong? What was the experience like? He just wanted to learn.

Colangelo: Basically it was pretty clear to me from my experience in pro sports that we needed to kind of start over, change the culture.

Tooley: We had no culture. What we had done since ‘92 we assembled All-Star teams and anointed guys to the team. There was no national team program, there was no continuity, there was no culture. Jerry came in and we created a culture.

Ford: He wanted to have a USA Basketball meeting with all the former Olympic coaches, Olympic players, everyone. He wanted to get together and talk to them about USA Basketball and learn from people and hear what people thought. That’s when I realized who we were dealing with. Jerry thinks big and acts big; you get big results.

Colangelo: I called a meeting in Chicago of former Olympic coaches going back to 1960; only two were unable to make it. So we had a great array of former coaches and Olympian basketball players going way back and current, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Jerry West, I could go on and on.

Tooley: Michael Jordan was there, Dean Smith, John Thompson, Lenny Wilkins, Larry Bird was there as a player, [Clyde] Drexler, Chris Mullin.

Ford: Jerry West spoke very emotionally about how important [USA Basketball was to him]. He said, “The only jersey that gets hung in my house is my USA jersey. I couldn’t wait to go over and play the Russians.” His brother was in the military and that when he was an Olympian, that’s what he thinks about.

"It's representing our country and trying to represent it the right way."

Kobe Bryant

Colangelo: I had each of them talk about their experience with being part of the Olympics, give their opinion on what they saw, a lay of the land, what needed to be done. We talked about coaches, we talked about players.

Tooley: We talked about what we need to do, how we needed to play, who were the coaching candidates and Coach K’s [Mike Krzyzewski] name came up.

Colangelo: A surreal moment was when Dean Smith said the following – he was a former Olympic coach – he said, “Look, there’s only one college coach up there who can get the job done and that has the respect, that’s Coach K.” That was his biggest rival.

Mike Krzyzewski (USA Basketball head coach, 2005-present): Well you know I never considered, Dean Smith [a rival] – well, I did early in my career – but later in my career, Dean Smith was a great, great friend and Michael Jordan a great, great friend. The fact that without me being there, to give that level of support is the best that could happen for anybody in any profession. Where they endorse you, like they believe in you. Any time a person believes in you like that, that's great.

Stern: Coach K is a person who is just without peer in terms of his reputation in both the international basketball community, the U.S. basketball community. We thought many of our players would want to play for him.

Krzyzewski: When Jerry Colangelo asked me, I know I should've asked my wife first, but you can’t have a bigger honor. So for him to trust me, and for him to say, "We're going to work side by side in building this," and for him to follow up with that has been a great experience for me.

Colangelo: I looked at best practices around the world and some of the national governing bodies like Argentina, Spain, for example. They have some good policies in place like a national team roster rather than just picking an All-Star group like we had fallen into.

Tooley: Initially Jerry talked about, before we got into specific names, that we need a pool of players. It’ll be fluid. We’ll have players come and go. Some guys may drop off because he’s unavailable or has an injury or whatever. We just want to make it fluid.

Tomjanovich: After I had done the two stints with USA Basketball I let all my friends in basketball know how hard it was gonna be and you just can’t take anybody over there. You have to have a real team.

Jackson: Selection of the players was based upon their likelihood that they could perform in an international game. I can’t overemphasize that enough, that we had players that could play the pick-and-roll defensively out on the floor, that we had players that could shoot the ball from the perimeter, three-point shooting, that we had good pick-and-roll players, that we had players that could protect the rim.

Jasikevičius: I think they understood which players will fit in European basketball or international basketball, which players would struggle in international basketball. I think they’re starting to gear themselves towards that competition versus “OK, let’s put the best 12 All-Stars there."

Colangelo: The next piece of work was meeting with each player eyeball-to-eyeball and explaining what I was doing, why I was doing that and what I needed from them in terms of commitment, and all that kind of snowballed in a very positive way. That’s how we got off.

Anthony: I remember talking to Jerry. We were playing the Wizards in DC and he came and flew down. He met me at the hotel and we talked about just the plan and talked about the guys playing and getting everyone together, kind of starting this USA Basketball thing all over again.

Kidd: He gave me his plan of what he saw and what he thought my role would be on the team, and I think one thing about Jerry is that he shoots straight, you can trust him, and he follows through on what he says.

Miller: I think that’s a credit to Jerry that he would meet with the players and that he was able to sell the players: “This is what you’re involved in and has to be if you’re going to be part of our program.” When you have the ability to speak to the guy that’s in charge, you feel like you have some ownership.

Tomjanovich: The system changed when Jerry Colangelo took over, and there’s so much more communication. Jerry with all the players during the year, staying connected with a lot of guys, and the coaches have a say, they all get to talk and communicate, and that’s so much better now.

Anthony: I think the way the team was put together, the process, Jerry Colangelo did a hell of a job with just taking his time and putting everything together.

Kidd: I think when you look at Colangelo and the things he’s done, he’s a competitor and so his spirit had taken over when they brought him on board. I think being stable, continuity, being able to have a system where they also brought on Coach K to be the coach not just one time, but there was going to be some consistency there, I just thought that showed a lot of trust, getting a system where guys could understand what was being asked of them.

Breen: I think what Jerry Colangelo did was make it where when you made a commitment and you made a commitment with other star players that that Olympic gold medal meant as much to the U.S. players as it did to the rest of the world.

Sheridan: [Colangelo] came in with a little bit of chutzpah. He said, “We’re going to go over to Japan, win the world championship, qualify for the Olympics and get us back to where we need to be.” As we all know, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Anthony: In 2006, we lost in the world championships, so that was another kind of jab and stab to us as USA Basketball players.

Tooley: One of the most vivid memories of all my time with USA Basketball, after we lost the game against Greece in that semifinal, we’re back in that locker room and Carmelo Anthony is walking back and he’s going, “Aw man. We gotta go to Venezuela now.”3 That’s where the Olympic Qualifying Tournament was to get into ‘08 [Beijing Olympics]. What that said to me, when he said that, when he knew that, that showed me that everyone on this trip knew what they were a part of.

Sheridan: That was a humbling loss for Jerry. A humbling loss for Coach K as well. And to their credit, they learned from it. They took a step back, looked themselves in the mirror and said, “You know what, this really is going to be a whole lot tougher than we thought. And let’s learn from this and let’s build from this."

Tomjanovich: You almost have to learn by experiencing it, and they did. It really turned out being a positive for the program.

Miller: Even though we didn’t win a gold medal [at the FIBA World Championship], I think players that came back the following year already knew what the culture was going to be like.

Stern: Let’s make it clear that if you play with the flag on your back that you should be very proud to do that. That wasn’t the state of USA basketball, and I don’t think there was nothing as stark as the teams from Argentina or from Spain, from Brazil, that showed the difference in approach. Whether or not they won the gold medal, I thought it was more important to get them to feel good about playing for their country.

Nelson: There was a period of time when we were showing up in international waters and kind of flaunting our NBA-ness, and it wasn’t well received. There was a, I’d call it a cockiness factor.

Tooley: We didn’t do a very good job of teaching the etiquette of the game to our team during that time, meaning how to be an ambassador, how to respect our opponents, preparing appropriately… We need to make sure the people, the country is rooting for us.

Miller: The line I always loved was we want to change our culture on the court and off the court and Jerry and Coach K absolutely did that.

Ford: Coach K is a culture expert. He really is great at building culture and getting people to believe in what they’re doing and know why they’re doing it. He was the one who thought, let’s bring in the military piece.

Stern: Coach K and Jerry had the players meet with military recruits for a comparison. We wanted to know what it’s like to represent your country. Those guys represent their country, they are at war, you guys have an opportunity to represent us in a really good way and I think that was very effective.

Miller: People say all the time, "Oh I love the USA on my jersey," but they don’t really understand it until we went to army bases in Korea and you saw how excited the military was. I think it helped the players understand what the commitment by the military was to our country and they embraced it a little bit.

Jackson: That was a real pillar of Jerry’s philosophy that was executed marvelously by Coach K. The passion that really drove him was steeped in representing the United States, how important that was to him and how important he thought that should be for the players that played on the team.

Breen: I thought USA Basketball did a fantastic job of making it important again, making it where guys really wanted to play, where guys really wanted to be a part of it. I thought the best thing USA did was change the mindset on how important it was to come and play for the country now.

Tomjanovich: I think [Coach K and Colangelo], and don’t think I’m overstating, I think they’re like American heroes.

 

USA basketball players celebrate winning the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. Left to Right: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Credit: USA Today Sports

Part IV: "It felt like we redeemed ourselves"

Colangelo and Coach K built a system in which it was a privilege to be a part of Team USA, and the 2008 Beijing Olympic team was stocked with the NBA’s very best.

Four players were holdovers from the 2004 squad: Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carlos Boozer, who had all blossomed into All-Star caliber talents. Jason Kidd was back for his second Olympics, after missing Athens with a knee injury. Chris Paul, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard, all in their primes, joined the team. But by far the biggest addition was Kobe Bryant.

Team USA breezed through the group stage and the knockout round, winning games by an average of 30.2 points, before meeting Spain in the Gold Medal Game.

 

Sheridan: Redemption was needed and redemption was what they were seeking.

Tooley: One of the best basketball games I’ve ever seen live was USA-Spain, the Gold Medal Game and it was just phenomenal.

Pau Gasol (2004-16 Olympian, Spain): It was very competitive game, it was back and forth a lot. They were throwing punches, but we were not backing down. It was really a fun game to play in until the last few minutes of the game and Kobe took over.

Miller: I think part of the legacy for the 2008 team is built on the fact that they had a really, really good game with Spain in the Gold Medal Game, probably the best Gold Medal Game ever, in terms of being competitive. Great plays were made by great players. I remember a couple Kobe plays and a couple LeBron plays, D-Wade plays that were just phenomenal plays and the same on Spain’s end. Almost play-for-play was matched.

Gasol: I don’t think 2004 was their main guys, they weren’t the top guys in the league (NBA). In 2008 and 2012, they brought their A roster. That was a big difference.

Tooley: Everybody knew this was big and somehow we got labeled the “Redeem Team.” When we won and beat Spain, it was the first time that I felt joy versus relief.

Miller: I think [the nickname] was a perfect fit for them. No more or less perfect than Dream Team.

Kidd: I thought the “Redeem Team” was a great name for us because we wanted to show the world that we could play as a team and play at a very high level.

Breen: There was a great camaraderie and I think they really bonded in the fact that “we’re here to reclaim our rightful place as the best in the world” and I think that really brought them together.

Miller: I really felt that in 2008, coming off that 2004 team, that there was just a much stronger bond, there was a much stronger play, there was much more seriousness – and again, I don’t think 2004 was un-serious, but I think these guys were just a little bit more driven to get the job done this time.

Kidd: I think for what took place four years earlier, we wanted to play the game at a high level. But we wanted to play the game the right way and show that we’re not just built around one guy, that we were a team.

Sheridan: For these guys it was just such a sense of relief and happiness and the genuineness of their pride and their celebration. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Ford: It truly, truly meant something to them.

Anthony: When you put a team together like we had in 2008, you’re excited to be around everyone that was on that team because everybody brings something different and you figure out a way to kind of learn guys’ strengths, learn guys’ weaknesses.

Kobe Bryant (2008-12 Olympian, USA): I think it’s the understanding of us as a team that’s much, much more important and significant than a gold medal. It’s representing our country and trying to represent it the right way. It was a beautiful experience, because we had so many young players, so many young guys. I think Coach K and Colangelo did an amazing job bringing that culture.

Breen: I think they set the standard now in terms of the best players in the world, the top NBA players were on that team, and they all sacrificed their individual games to make them play like a team and not just stars who were trying to outclass their opponent with talent.

Kidd: I think it starts with Coach K. I think it just trickled down from day one that we were going to be a team, we weren’t just going to be built on one guy, we were going to cheer for one another and have fun.

Tooley: The team was amazing – amazing team – and we had a great run.

Ford: It was magical for those guys because they had really committed everything they had.

Anthony: It felt like we redeemed ourselves. You know, because we were at the bottom when it comes to USA Basketball on the international stage. The rest of the world felt like they caught up to us, so for us to go out and win in 2008, the way we won, it felt like we redeemed ourselves.

 

Again led by Bryant, Anthony and James, the United States defended its Olympic title in London in 2012. USA Basketball has not lost a game since the 2006 World Championships. This year in Rio, Anthony – the last holdover from Athens 2004 – seeks to become the most decorated U.S. basketball player in Olympic history, as America sets its sights on a third straight gold medal. 

 

Editor's note: Some of the above passages have been edited or condensed for clarity

 

1. In the summer of 2004, Vince Carter got married, Ray Allen said he wanted to spend time with his pregnant fiancee and Jason Kidd had microfracture surgery on his knee. Back to article

2. Larry Brown, Shawn Marion, Carlos Boozer, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson did not answer repeated interview requests made through their representatives. Amar'e Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James declined multiple interview requests for this story. Back to article

3. FIBA moved the 2007 Tournament of the Americas because Venezuela was not in good standing with the organization. The Olympic qualification tournament was instead held in Las Vegas. Back to article

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