LONDON – USA Basketball chairman and managing director Jerry Colangelo doesn’t play the “what if” game. He refuses to even entertain it, whether it’s in regards to the program he runs, the games the teams play or the future of the game of basketball around the globe.
He is simply not interested in delving into the hypothetical world of what would, could or should have been. And when you are the architect and steward of an operation that has won 50 straight games on the world stage, it’s probably wise to deal strictly in the here and now.
So you’ll have to excuse Colangelo for not being as nervous as some were in the final minutes of the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team’s gold medal triumph over Spain Sunday at North Greenwich Arena, the 107-100 final score was the closest in an Olympic final in 40 years.
“What if Marc Gasol hadn’t gotten into foul trouble?” someone asked from deep in the back of a scrum.
“There are always a lot of what ifs,” Colangelo said. “What if Carmelo [Anthony] had hit two or three shots and a couple of other things had happened, it might have been a 20-point lead. I don’t buy any of that. People speculate all the time about that issue and others, and I would like to say we disproved it.”
Colangelo didn’t even have to say, “what if Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Derrick Rose were healthy?” He could have, but he didn’t. He didn’t need to. Colangelo has shut down all of the critics, domestic and foreign, since taking over the program.
No one was sure they’d get a buy-in from the best and brightest stars in the NBA.
No one was sure Mike Krzyzewski, a Hall of Fame college coach but a man who had never coached pros before, was the right fit.
Krzyzewski finished his tenure Sunday with a 62-1 record in international games and the rare Olympics (2008)-World Championship (2010)-Olympics (2012) trifecta.
The only real question for Colangelo, now that the core of this current group could be breaking apart with Krzyzewski, Kobe Bryant and perhaps LeBron James, Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams all departing the program: where do they go from here?
“Right now is too soon to make any decisions,” he said. “We need to decompress from this, and we will do that. Everything will come together over the next few months. I’m looking at the end of December as the time when the future will be clear.”
The talent pool will never be much of an issue, not with the next batch of U.S. stars being identified early and often and nurtured into a USA Basketball culture that has produced gold medal winners at every age level.
Colangelo’s greatest challenge is going to be identifying a successor for Kryzyewski and then praying that he can form the same sort of bond with a cast of superstars that the Duke coach has been able to do with the All-Stars that are fiercely loyal to him.
“Man, it’s going to be tough,” Kevin Durant said. “They’ve got to find somebody that can relate to the players in the right way and motivate you and push your buttons, but also respecting you like the professional you are. Coach K was great for me. And I know these other guys feel the same way.”
When Chris Paul, who played his college ball for Duke rival Wake Forest, speaks as glowingly as he does about Krzyzewski, you get a better understanding for just how revered he is by these NBA superstars.
“It’s tough for me to say it [from these] lips,” Paul said of Krzyzewski, “but I love that guy. I love him.”
Depending on what happens with the age-limit rule discussions between now and the end of December, Durant, the leading scorer and rebounder during this gold medal run, will serve as the ringleader for the U.S. Team in the coming years. And he’s right, the search for his replacement is going to be critical.
“Mike is a leader and one of the great communicators you’ll ever find at any level of sport, certainly basketball,” Colangelo said when asked to describe what made Krzyzewski the right man for the job when there were any number of coaches, college and pro, to choose from seven years ago. “He’s committed and passionate, and he bled red, white and blue. And had a military background, and on and on and on … I could go on for a half hour about all the reasons why he was the right coach for our program, and people even doubted that choice. The fact is, he’s done something no one else has ever done, the Olympics-World Championships-Olympics back-to-back-to-back, it’s a record that’s going to be hard to beat.”
The man who attempts to do it will likely have to do so with Krzyzewski looking on from a perch right next to Colangelo.
“Mike has stated he’s done and I accept that if it’s final. If not, we’ll have another pizza and a glass of wine and see what happens,” Colangelo said, a nod to the tactic he used to get Krzyzewski to convince the coach to come back for a repeat shot at gold after the win over Spain in Beijing four years ago.
“Listen, the last eight years have been the incredible, the best eight years of my life,” Colangelo said. “And I know a lot of guys feel the same way. But I’m not a pessimist about the future, I’m an optimist. And coach is going to be a part of what I do [with the program], because I want him alongside me. He’s been right there in the trenches with me since 2005. So, in terms of who [might succeed him], I don’t want to speculate on that. There have been a lot of good candidates and a lot of people I’m sure would love to have it.”
Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins and Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, both of whom were here in London as a part of NBC’s broadcast team, have been mentioned as possible successors. Any one of Krzyzewski’s current assistants with the U.S. Team — Mike D’Antoni, Nate McMillan and Jim Boeheim — could move over a few spots on the bench without any problem.
There are also a number of high-profile college coaches ( Florida’s Billy Donovan being the most notable) already working within USA Basketball’s system.
They have time to investigate all options. The next international competition for the U.S. team is the 2014 World Cup of Basketball in Spain, a tournament the U.S. automatically qualified for by winning gold here.
And while the U.S. is losing a coach, they have a talent base that will be sound in two years, which is more than you can say about the aging core of teams like Spain and Argentina, the two biggest challengers to U.S. dominance going forward.
Colangelo needs the core group of players who might be leaving the program to impart their wisdom and experiences on to those who follow, a torch passing on and off the court, a brotherhood that extends beyond NBA rivalries and professional interests.
“It probably sounds crazy to think that after winning a gold medal this is bittersweet, but it is, in that it is sweet to be able to have this gold medal around your neck but it’s tough because you don’t get this opportunity anymore,” Paul said. “While we’ve been here playing and practicing for a while, I hate that in a couple of months these guys are going to be my enemies. This is the most fun time of my life; ‘08 was all good and well but there was something about our 2012 team that was just special. I hate that this was our last game playing together. It’s something that we’ll never forget.”
Colangelo is counting on it!