An era ended for U.S. men’s basketball on Saturday, when the U.S. won the gold by holding off France, 87-82, at Saitama Super Arena.
Jerry Colangelo has stepped down as managing director, to be replaced by Grant Hill, and Gregg Popovich is not expected to be back as head coach after winning his first Olympic gold to go along with five NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs.
Kevin Durant, as he has throughout the tournament, led all scorers with 29 points. Jayson Tatum came off the bench again to score 19.
Colangelo took over a ravaged program after the bronze-medal debacle in the 2004 Summer Olympics, and the teams he built won the gold medal four times in a row. The U.S. has now taken 16 gold medals in all, winning 30 of its last 31 Olympic games. The lone loss was in the first tilt of the preliminary round to France, which gave the U.S. its two toughest games of these Olympics.
Assembling a roster this year was more difficult, considering the last two seasons were compacted and altered by the coronavirus and the NBA Finals ended only a few days before the Olympic tournament started. But Durant stepped out of the void and carried the U.S. on his shoulders to win his third gold medal. At the London and Rio Olympics, Durant scored 30 points in each of the deciding games, and missed that mark by one point in Tokyo.
“Well, it’s winning time,” Durant explained about his big performances during an interview immediately after the game, echoing the great Magic Johnson. “I mean, it’s one game, and you go home. It’s no series. I’ve got to give my all every second I’m out there. “
Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns and Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks literally hopped off a plane and on to the court at a virtually empty arena, after the Bucks outlasted the Suns in six games to win their first NBA title in 50 years. The Olympic Games were played in a bubble as Japanese COVID-19 cases crept above 1 million and the vaccination rate to 28.8% as the two weeks of competition wound down. Holiday and Middleton now have the honor of winning an NBA championship and a gold medal during a span of 17 days.
“We played through a lot of adversity,” Durant added. “We had some unusual circumstances with COVID, guys playing in the Finals and coming in late, and we just walked through everything. We’ve been away from our families for two-and-a-half weeks, basically living in the bubble. It’s most definitely different. I’m just glad we finished the job.”
Colangelo is 81 and told Sportico he was moving on because of “Father Time.” He helped build and later owned the Phoenix Suns, leading them to their first two of three losing appearances in the Finals. His foresight led to the construction of the downtown Phoenix arena now called Footprint Center in 1992 for $89 million and is undergoing a $230 million refurbishment under current owner Robert Sarver.
Colangelo rebuilt USA men’s basketball by generating long-term commitments from players, a process he was not able to replicate this year.
He told reporters in Tokyo during a 35-minute group session this week he doesn’t anticipate the process getting any easier moving forward.
“I think we rode the crest early on with commitments from players, top players who bought into everything we were selling at the time, and the reality is we live in a different world than it was 15 or 16 years ago,” Colangelo said. “Players, whether it’s admitted or not, money and careers and things like that are of the utmost importance—even more so today than then.
“Looking at the list of people who aren’t here, there’s a story behind each one of them,” he said, “some of which we can talk about and some of which you really shouldn’t talk about because that’s their private business. So all we can do is make the opportunity available.”
Most recently, the U.S. finished an unheard-of seventh in the 2019 FIBA basketball World Cup under Popovich, including a loss to France. The team then dropped its first two exhibition games during a two-week training period in early July in Las Vegas, and then was shocked in its first game of pool play again by the French.
In that game, the U.S. led by seven with 3:51 to play and never hit another shot, missing their last nine from mostly long range. The French finished them off with a 16-2 run. Again in the medal game, France started to come back back from a 10-point deficit with 3:25 left, but this time the U.S. held on.
To be sure, the U.S. had five players on its final Olympic roster who didn’t participate in the Vegas camp. In the days that followed the opening loss, the Americans gained cohesion as Durant stepped up his game, surpassing Carmelo Anthony as the highest scorer in U.S. Olympic history.
The U.S. proceeded to win the next four games, the final two in the knockout round, by a total of 122 points, including 19 points over Australia in the semifinal. The only unresolved question was what would happen in the rerun against France.
“We wanted them again,” Durant said. “This time we were able to finish this game off. Everybody just sacrificed from Day 1, put the team first, and we were able to come out here and get the gold.”
Colangelo said the performance was commendable considering players like Steph Curry, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and James Harden stayed home because of injury, fatigue or both. Other players on the roster changed NBA teams via trades or free agency as the games were being played, causing further instability. In the end, the U.S. was able to grasp success out of what could have been chaos.
“There were a few players whose teams just didn’t want them to play,” Colangelo said. “They were looking at it from their own perspective, their team perspective. I get it. I understand that. So that eliminated some of those people. Contracts played a role. All those things played a role, but that’s not any excuse. I’d say to you we’re still blessed with an awful lot of talent in this country, just like this roster has an awful lot of talent.”