The USA Basketball Men’s National Team is opening its camp in Las Vegas on July 4 and will travel to the Tokyo Olympics 15 days later. As of now, there is no roster nor any commitments. The powers that be are evaluating 57 NBA players, Jerry Colangelo, the team’s managing director, told Sportico in an exclusive interview.
The coronavirus and the way it’s affected the NBA during the past two seasons has made this a procedure unlike any other. The Olympics themselves, delayed already for a year because of the pandemic, is still under siege because of the spread of the disease and the low rate of vaccination in Japan, 2.7% of the population as of the beginning of June.
“This is such a unique year and unique circumstances that a lot of this stuff is out of our control,” said Colangelo, now 81, who will retire and be replaced by Grant Hill after these Olympics. “We believe from everything we know the Olympics are going to take place. It’s going to be under different circumstances.”
No entourages, no spouses. “There won’t be any Americans sitting in the seats. No foreign visitors,” he said.
Like last year’s NBA playoffs in Orlando, it will be another basketball bubble for the 16-day tournament—everyone relegated to the hotel, practice facility and games.
“That’s the extent of our stay in Tokyo,” Colangelo said. “To show you how tight things are, we couldn’t even get Grant Hill a credential to get there. So, he’ll be in Vegas with me.”
Hill, a former NBA All-Star who’s now a TV analyst and business leader, said upon his appointment that “it’s just an incredible opportunity, an incredible challenge.”
LeBron James won’t be in Tokyo, either. One of the NBA’s top superstars made that clear after his Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
He’ll be trying to rehab his season-long ankle injury while working on an upcoming film.
“No, I think I’m going to play for the Toon Squad this summer instead of the Olympics,” said James, who’s played in the Olympics three times—including gold medal teams under Colangelo in 2008 and 2012. “I think that’s what I’ll focus on.”
His Lakers teammate Anthony Davis is also a no-go, recovering from knee and groin injuries. Stephen Curry, the Golden States Warrior star, is an obvious choice since his club was eliminated in a pair of play-in games and is sitting out the postseason. Although Curry has never played in the Olympics, reports say he’s “50-50.”
It’s not the way Colangelo figured he’d go out. The schedule is so tight, the selection of players is going to be problematic.
It was bad enough that the Lakers won last year’s NBA title over the Miami Heat in six games on Oct. 11 and had to get ready for a season, shortened to 72 games by the pandemic, that began on Dec. 22.
The NBA Finals could conclude as late as July 22 this year, with the Olympic basketball tournament opening in Tokyo on July 24 and lasting until Aug. 8. Camps for a regulation 82-game season should begin as usual in October.
That would seem to preclude any players from the four teams that ascend to the upcoming Conference Finals, let alone the two vying for the championship.
Colangelo, also a basketball Hall of Famer, said his group remains undaunted. The former owner of the Suns and baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks took over USA basketball in 2005 and resurrected the program, which hadn’t won a gold medal of any kind since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Before COVID-19, he sought years-long commitments from players, starting with the FIBA World Cup through the Olympic Games, to give the team necessary continuity.
With that program in mind, USA men’s basketball under Colangelo won gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics, and at the World Cup in 2007, 2010 and 2014. The U.S. finished a devastating seventh in the 2019 World Cup, the first international competition where San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich replaced Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who’s set to retire from his college post after the 2021-22 season.
This year, that process for selecting a team under Colangelo and Popovich is different.
“COVID did a number on a lot of things, including our preparation for the Olympics,” Colangelo said. “Because of the length of the playoffs we have little time in between. There are players under duress because of injuries, some contract situations. That’s why we have a list of 57 names from which we’re going to pick a roster. We’re monitoring all the players we have interest in, monitoring all the games….
“Like this week, a lot of the players are finished,” he said. “There will be more. There are available names, but we have a strategy about the selection and even the timing of how that takes place.”
Announcement of the squad could be piecemeal, he said, stressing that the Vegas camp will not be a “tryout” session, that there will be a full squad plus a few extra players in camp with the sole purpose of getting ready for the Games. There will be five exhibition games against other Olympic teams from countries like Australia, Argentina, Spain and Nigeria.
But again, thus far there are no player commitments.
“We have a lot of people who say they want to play,” Colangelo said. “But we haven’t extended any invitations yet, more importantly. We’ve had all year to look at the players. We know who they are, who can play and who can’t.”
Colangelo took over the program as managing director 16 years ago and later became the chairman of USA Basketball’s Board of Directors, a term that’s already ended.
At his age, he says he’s leaving because of “Father Time.”
“I think it’s time to step down,” Colangelo said. “You have to realize you don’t go on forever. I’m very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish. We put infrastructure in that will carry us forward for a long time. You need to give somebody else an opportunity, and I couldn’t think of any better person to do that, but Grant Hill….
“I mean, this is an easy transition,” he said. “He’s a very bright guy. He’s very well-respected. You can give him the keys and walk away and feel very, very good about it.”