May 02, 2005

Colangelo In Charge

One of the most interesting stories from the 2004 summer Olympics, in my opinion, was the men's basketball tournament. I wouldn't have predicted that, since they've been almost unwatchable since 1992. That's the year that USA Basketball selected their original "Dream Team" of NBA stars to represent them. I don't object to the presence of the NBA professionals, but I never have much interest in watching a sporting event where the outcome is not in doubt.

I remember at the time having a debate with one of my roommates about just what this meant for the future of men's basketball at the Olympics. It seemed obvious that the USA would be unbeatable in 1992; my roommate (who was somewhat prone to hyperbole) asserted that they would never lose another game. Although I was fairly certain that they would lose a game someday, I never expected them to lose the gold medal just 12 years later.

Obviously, the losses and the associated controversy in Athens have initiated some soul-searching at USA Basketball. Last week they announced that Phoenix Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo will take over as the men's senior national team Program Managing Director (thanks to Ralph Hickok for putting me onto the story). The selection was backed up with the following quote from president Val Ackerman:

We can think of no one more qualified than Jerry Colangelo to lead the effort and to restore the U.S. senior men's national team program to a position of global pre-eminence.

Of course the hand-wringing is a bit of a joke. Since the introduction of the Dream Team the men's national team has gone 74-6 in international competition, and won the gold medal in 8 of 10 tournaments. Granted, the 2004 bronze medal matches their worst Olympic performance ever, but only an American could look at that situation and see a "trend toward international insignificance."

Colangelo will have final authority over player selections, replacing a committee of 10 that selected the 2004 roster. He also has some ambitious plans, which include keeping the national team assembled in some form between major competitions. That's a really good idea, but it will be interesting to see what kind of cooperation he gets from the NBA players. It seems to me that the NBA's elite have completely lost interest in the Olympics in recent years. Perhaps that will change now that some of the games are actual contests, or perhaps not. Colangelo is going to have to find a way to spur their patriotic pride.

Since 1936, when basketball first appeared on the Olympic programme, the US has made dramatic changes in the way that they approach the competition. (In many ways this is analogous to ice hockey in Canada). From 1936 through 1956, the team trials consisted of an invitational tournament including the best amateur and college teams. The national team was then selected from the best teams in the tournament; as a rule this meant that the players were drawn from two of the best amateur teams in the country, with perhaps a couple of other outstanding individuals thrown in. The winning club or college team by itself would have won the gold medal anyway; I am sure that the decision to use players from more than one team arose from a desire to give more young players an Olympic experience.

The 1960 team was the first to use a true "all-star" format, with athletes from eleven different schools. The USA continued with this format through 1988, all the while watching their dominance be eroded. As the "amateur" period came to a close, they actually lost a few games, including the infamous gold medal matchup with the USSR in 1972.

The professional era opened with the first Dream Team in 1992, after a bronze medal performance in 1988, and for a while the US men's team was again untouchable. But that didn't last for long.

It is possible that improved management can push the USA back to a dominant position, for a while, but any change Jerry Colangelo can make will be tiny compared to the changes that have come before. In the first seven summer Olympics where basketball was played, the US team went 54-0, took home all seven gold medals, and won their games by an average of 32 points. Those days are never going to return, and those of us who live in the rest of the world can be thankful for that.


Amateur said...

I shouldn't comment on my own post, but here are some very timely views from Ray Allen of the Seattle Supersonics: Sonics' Allen wants NBA Olympians paid.

Colangelo has got a battle ahead of him.

Anonymous said...

well... this is exaclty the reason why certain sports -- like golf and baseball and others should not be part of the Olympic Program!!! this is brings up many interesting points... the ex-amateur or "obsolete" athlete in me says that if they want to be paid to participate in the Olympics then they should not participate at all and should take their millions and sit out the one summer every 4 years they have to give something back to the country that has made them millionaires beyond their wildest dreams... I generally dont know Ray Allen very well.. but I thought of him as one of the good guys in the NBA... as one of the guys with a bit of class -- certainly no Jordan, but not Rodman or K-Mart either... but these guys just dont get it -- the sun is setting on the NBA in the USA... the popularity is falling fast -- MLB and NFL are so much more popular here than the NBA -- most people have little or no interest in the NBA, attendence and relevance is down -- people think of the NBA as a bunch of spoiled children -- not to mention that many "fans" have a hard time relating to the players with their Tattoos, piercings, bling, bling, cornrows, poor sportsmanship, etc, etc... so the fact that they wont play (ie Shaq, Kobe) or want to be payed (Allen) will further sink the relevance of the NBA and NBA players in the eyes of the fans and sports much moneyb do these guys need anyway?
BUT, BUT, BUT::: what athlete doesnt want to cash in on the spotlight the Olympics gives them... I mean after someone in a low profile sport wins a medal -- the first thing most people ask about is who there new sponsors are going to be, or how are they cashing in on their success -- and if an Olympic medal doesnt bring a new car or an inflated back account people are surprised -- SO -- can we really fault Ray Allen for asking for it upfront?? He is correct that the NBA players of all nationalities sell tickets and merchandise regardless of results -- so maybe they should cash in beforehand???
BUT BUT BUT --n this is why we should think seriously about what sports deserve to be in the program -- and I think that any sport in which the Olympic Medal will be seen as a second class award should not be in the Olympics -- ie Tennis -- the Grand Slams will always be more important; Golf -- the "majors" will always be more important; Soccer the World Cup is more important -- some sports should eliminate events which are duplicated by more prestigious events -- Cycling should not have a road race because of the Tour de France...

Amateur said...

You've raised a lot of thoughts here and I want to respond to them all. But it's late and I will just start with a couple of things.

I agree with the basic thought that a sport that treats the Olympics as second banana doesn't need to be in the Olympics. I have made the same comment about golf and tennis before in another post.

However; basketball may not be the best example. The "I don't wanna" syndrome seems to be a uniquely American problem, in this case. I don't see the other countries having to beg their NBA stars to come home.

It's interesting to contrast with hockey. Although they have had trouble getting NHLers to the World Championships in the past, that is right in the middle of the playoffs. There have been very few NHL players who would turn down a chance to play in the Canada/World Cup during the summer, or recently the winter Olympics when the NHL season was put on pause.

Amateur said...

The more I think about this the more outraged I get.

The average NBA salary is something in the neighbourhood of $5M U.S. Ray Allen made $14.6M US in 2004-05.

I don't have any problem with athletes cashing in on their success. But the fact is that these guys owe the sport of basketbal something, whether they recognize it or not. When they were just kids playing basketball, lots of people who love basketball did things for them and got paid nothing for their trouble.

The sport of basketball in the U.S. and around the world gets an immense boost from having the world's best players play in the Olympics.

There is a very simple logic to finding the "right thing to do" in this case. It shouldn't be very difficult for Ray Allen to recognize that (1) he owes much of what he has to the sport of basketball and the people who love it, and (2) playing in the Olympics is a chance to pay some of that back for the next kid who comes along.

I get the impression that Colangelo is not going to be very tolerant of the "pay me or I won't play" philosophy. I truly do not believe that it is a winning strategy, anyway. If player motivation is the problem, there is not enough money in the world to fix it, man. A guy who normally gets paid $178K per game says to you, "Hey, I'm having a hard time getting up for this tournament, I'd rather just chill out this summer, but you throw a little money in it for me and I'll try to get excited." So how much money do you think it would take?

Amateur said...

And another thing:

I hate to relate everything to hockey, and god knows that they have their problems, but Hockey Canada has done a brilliant job motivating Canada's best hockey players to show up when they need them.

The Canadian men's teams at the World Championships play for nothing. Not only do they not get paid to play, but they donate their prize money (after team expenses) to Hockey Canada's grassroots programs for kids.

Anonymous said...

I think it is hard to relate the two sports -- I agree with you completely that throwing money at it wont help the motivation. But I think that race and prevailing socio-economic status has a part in the obvious differences in attitude between the NHL and NBA. More later...

Anonymous said...

But it is also a very american attitude -- wont work for anything but money! not pride, not sense of responsibility... just MONEY!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Amateur said...

If I was Ray Allen, I wouldn't work for the Sonics for free, either. But working for USA Basketball, which is a not-for-profit organization, is a completely different matter.

I'm still waiting for "more later" … Actually, if you would like to write a new post on this subject contact me by e-mail and I will set it up.