Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Jerry Colangelo eager to guide USA Basketball into foreign territory

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, left, must replace coach Mike Krzyzewski, right, after the 2016 Olympics. Krzyzewski plans to step down from his post.
USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, left, must replace coach Mike Krzyzewski, right, after the 2016 Olympics. Krzyzewski plans to step down from his post. Associated Press file, 2010

Jerry Colangelo is well past the average retirement age, yet at 75 the man who has transformed USA Basketball into a global power plant has every intention of sticking around for the next act.

And the next act figures to be a doozy. Significant changes in international basketball are expected after the 2016 Olympics, including a major scheduling adjustment, possible player age limits for major competitions and a strong philosophical push by the governing body (FIBA) to elevate the stature of the World Cup above the Olympics.

Good luck with that last part. True, the rest of the world spits fire over the World Games. The atmosphere at FIBA World Cups – formerly known as the World Championships – is a passion play of partisan flag-waving and screaming fans regaled in their country’s colors. In some facilities, players on both benches sit in front of clear plastic shields to protect them from flying coins, bottles, keys and other projectiles.

But in America, and for NBA superstars, the Olympics are No. 1. The World Cup is regarded as a dress rehearsal, with rosters featuring mostly younger players attempting to improve their chances for future Olympics teams.

“People in FIBA, I think their intention is to make the World Cup the focus and the Olympics to be toned down, basically like soccer,” Colangelo said before Thursday’s Team USA scrimmage at the Thomas & Mack Center. “If they were to be straightforward, I think that’s their intention. So that’s a huge conversation for the next few years. It’s going to be a whole new deal, a whole new hand to play. It’s a challenge.”

Largely to avoid a conflict with the 2018 soccer World Cup, basketball’s next World Cup has been pushed back a year, to 12 months before the 2020 Tokyo Games. The schedule crunch already has USA Basketball officials – mindful of the conflicting levels of interest among players, while also feeling pressure from several NBA owners who discourage participation because of possible injuries – discussing age limits for some of the competitions, though which ones are uncertain.

People in FIBA, I think their intention is to make the World Cup the focus and the Olympics to be toned down, basically like soccer. … So that’s a huge conversation for the next few years. It’s going to be a whole new deal, a whole new hand to play. It’s a challenge.

Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball managing director

Again, the conundrum is this: The world cares about the World Games, the Americans care about the Olympics. And neither perception likely will be altered.

“I don’t have an answer,” Colangelo said. “First of all, you have to think about the other countries. Do any of them have the depth to do this (restricting eligibility to those 25- or 22-and-under)? We’re venturing into new territory with this new format, and I can’t predict what is going to happen.”

Perhaps not, but fortunately for USA Basketball, Colangelo will continue his stewardship of the wildly successful national program. Since Colangelo was hired as managing director in 2005 and months later selected Mike Krzyzewski as his head coach, Team USA is 52-1 in official competitions, the sole defeat coming against Greece.

Colangelo’s most difficult task will be choosing Krzyzewski’s successor. Speculation hit the gym this week, with Gregg Popovich the obvious and overwhelming choice if he’s still interested, willing to participate in the marketing/promotional aspect of the job, and recovered from his acute disappointment after losing out to Krzyzewski in 2005.

Per Colangelo’s preference for players and coaches who have “built equity” with the program, other possibilities are current or former USA assistants Tom Thibodeau, Nate McMillan and Monty Williams, though any list surely includes Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and emerging stars Steve Kerr and Jason Kidd.

While tabling the coaching discussion until after the 2016 Olympics, Colangelo mentions changes already under way, among them the expanded use of analytics and the likelihood of using the upcoming NBA season as a critical “look-see” tool to evaluate the final 12-man roster for Rio de Janeiro.

“It doesn’t matter how many championships or gold medals you have,” he said. “It’s the constant quest to get better. Once you lose your desire to improve, to stay ahead, then it’s time to get out. This is still a passion for me, a way to stay connected at the highest level. ”

Colangelo is one of the most approachable, accommodating executives in professional sports. Even in his most trying moments, occasions when he reads or hears something that irritates, he speaks his mind and then forges ahead. Initially reticent about Magic Johnson’s inclusion on the original Dream Team after the Lakers legend’s HIV diagnosis, for instance, he later apologized, saying he misspoke before being “educated” about the disease by then NBA Commissioner David Stern.

And he appears almost incapable of holding a grudge. A recent case in point: After publicly scolding the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins following the center’s shaky inaugural practice three summers ago with the Select Team, Colangelo encouraged the second-year pro to stick with the program and continued nurturing a relationship that has accelerated the All-Star’s development and enhanced his prospects for the 2016 Olympic team.

So, for a closing scene, perhaps a curtain call, Colangelo isn’t saying, mainly because he has no interest in slipping behind the scenes.

“We’ve had 10 years now that we can look back and say, ‘We have a culture that sustains itself,’” he concluded, while Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and most of the other 34 minicamp invitees participated in light shooting drills earlier in the week. “As evidence of that, here we are.”

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