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Colangelo's word was as good as gold for USA Basketball
13/08/2021
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Colangelo's word was as good as gold for USA Basketball

TOKYO (Japan) - With two FIBA Basketball World Cup titles and four consecutive Olympic gold medals under his watch, Jerry Colangelo now retires from his post as managing director of the USA Men's National Team. He will be succeeded by Grant Hill.

Everybody knows the 81-year-old Colangelo as the architect of USA Basketball's last four Olympic teams, a task he took on in 2005 at the behest of then-NBA commissioner, the late David Stern after the Americans, now featuring NBA players since 1992, finished third in the Athens 2004 Men's Olympic Basketball Tournament. 

As tough a negotiator as Stern was, Colangelo, who had just relinquished ownership of the Phoenix Suns, might have been better, giving him two conditions. The first being the former general manager (1968-95) of the Suns would have total control over roster selection and picking the coaching staff for the men's senior national teams for all events. Secondly, Colangelo didn't want to hear any gripes from the commissioner or anyone else about a budget for the effort.

The latter stipulation stopped Stern for a moment, but he acquiesced, and the USA men would go on a 104-7 run under Colangelo's watch, which just ended with the gold medal win over France at Tokyo 2020. He also had served as the chairman of USA Basketball for eight years, until 2016.

Jerry Colangelo’s involvement with USA Basketball began on April 27, 2005, when he was announced as the Managing Director of the then newly organized USA Basketball Men’s Senior National Team program. Under Colangelo, the USA men went on to win the Beijing 2008 Olympics (pictured), 2010 FIBA World Championship, London 2012 Olympics, 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup and the Rio 2016 Olympics. ( Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Lost in the passage of time to most, though, is just how much of Colangelo's fingerprints are on the game. A guard for the University of Illinois, he was a two-time honorable mention for All-Big 10 teams where he wore the number 23 before it was cool. When he made it to the NBA in 1966, Colangelo was  the marketing director, scout, and assistant to the Chicago Bull's president. Front offices were small and lean in those days.

He left his hometown team for the desert and the expansion Phoenix Suns who made him the youngest general manager ever in 1968 at age 28. Two years later, in 1970 he took on the coaching role as well, winning 24 of 40 games and taking the Suns to the playoffs. He would hit the bench again for the 1972-73 season, though with less success (35-40). In 1987, he put together the ownership group that took control of the team yet remained in the GM role until 1995.

Back to the beginning in 2005. The failure in Athens to win gold, something that had only happened twice before – 1972 and 1988 - to the Americans in an Olympics in which they participated, was a clarion call for change.

"We definitely had to change the culture and start over again," Colangelo said. "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."

We had gotten off the course. I was unhappy about how people looked at us as players and as Americans. I wanted to change it.

Even with the demands he made of Stern, Colangelo wanted advice and a consensus on the direction USA Basketball would take. So, he convened a not small group of individuals he considered to be 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."

And every one of them was given the chance to weigh in on what was needed, who the players should be as well as the coach.

When it came to the coach, a list of names was put up on a board to be discussed. That's when the 1976 U.S. Olympic coach stood up for a colleague who also happened to be his fiercest competitor.

Colangelo recalled: "And Dean Smith (the late University of North Carolina and FIBA Hall of Fame coach) 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."

Colangelo (left) with then-USA Basketball President Val Ackerman (right of Krzyzewski) and the 1992 Olympic Team USA  head coach Chuck Daly (far right) pose for a photo with a USA jersey after Coach K was announced on October 26, 2005, as head coach of the 2006-08 USA National Team. (Photo by Terrence P. Vaccaro/NBAE)

What he wanted most was consistency so when he acted on Smith's advice, Colangelo told Mike Krzyzewski that he needed a four-year commitment.

"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."

The four years became eleven.

Colangelo sharing a moment with Olympic and World Cup gold medalist Kyrie Irving. (Photo: Andrew Bernstein/NBAE)

When it came to the culture, Colangelo told Sports Illustrated, "What it means is it's not just about you individually. It's not the "me" world. It's going to be the "we" world. I wanted to do things and did, like the names on the jerseys being reduced, the USA on the jerseys being increased. Just an overall attitude about showing respect, that's changing the culture, if the players are willing to buy into it. And fortunately, it happened. They were willing. And we had some alpha dogs who helped make that happen."

One of whom was the late Kobe Bryant, who sat with Colangelo in his Phoenix office a few days after scoring 81 points against the Raptors in 2006.

"And I said, “Kobe, what if I told you I wanted you to change your role if you were going to play with us?” He says, what do you mean? I said, “Well, maybe we want you to be a distributor rather than the scorer.” And he said, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do because I just want to be part of it.” Pretty impressive."

Colangelo and Kobe Bryant chat during a Team USA Basketball media tour in 2008 at Rockefeller Center in New York City (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

This last Olympic run turned out to be the toughest, due to a pandemic that delayed the games for a year, an extended NBA season, and rival teams that also featured top-level NBA talent. The Americans lost their first Olympic game ever under Colangelo's tenure in the opener to France, who they would later beat in the final by five points after winning all other games by double figures.

"We were all in the foxhole together. That's the culture. That's what I'm talking about."

Colangelo's word, and his work, turned out to be good as gold.

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