The attempted reconstruction of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball program began this summer over rigatoni and meatballs, pasta with Italian sausage and peppers and fried calamari. Some of the NBA's biggest stars unceremoniously ducked last year when Olympic team invitations went out, but on a Monday night this past June, many of the game's legends showed up on short notice for a brainstorming session designed to help fix the mess.
Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin and a host of other high-profile ex-players and coaches flocked to the third floor of Chicago's National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame to jump-start an overhaul of the U.S. men's senior national team program. The meeting came nine months after the U.S. team struggled to a bronze medal in Athens and fewer than three years after another roster of NBA players staggered to sixth place at the 2002 world championship in Indianapolis, completing a slide from dominant to dominated in a decade.
"This whole concept of a Dream Team, that's over and done with," said Phoenix Suns Chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo, the newly named architect of the reconstruction who organized the June dinner. "The theme going forward is more about respecting the world basketball community, and it's also about redemption. We have a lot to come back from."
The more than two dozen in attendance agreed that the U.S. program's biggest problems — besides the dramatic improvement of other nations — are a lack of continuity of rosters and commitment from players, some of whom consider participating in the Olympics, and lesser tournaments such as the world championships, a burden rather than an honor.
Yet the group that included Jerry West, Dean Smith, John Thompson, Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens nonetheless agreed the solution was not asking less of the NBA's best Olympic prospects, or sweetening the sales pitch for the 2008 Games in Beijing, but, rather, demanding much, much more — and then determining which players voluntarily raised their hands, and with how much enthusiasm they did it.
"If you're going to have to beg them to play, it's not going to work," Daly said.
Colangelo, given ultimate authority over the program when he was appointed by USA Basketball's executive committee in April, won't be begging, he said. He will ask. Just once.
By the end of the year, he said, he hopes to have reached what would be an unprecedented agreement with 25 NBA players. All, he said, will be required to commit to playing international basketball for the next three years, beginning with next year's world championship tournament in Saitama, Japan. They won't receive a cent — but they will earn the respect of Jordan, Bird and company.
"Players will have one opportunity to say 'yes' or 'no,' " Colangelo said. "This is eyeball to eyeball. And just to show how strongly people feel, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have all said, 'You need help? I'll be right there with you.' "
As for players such as Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, who have said they should be compensated for giving up their sparse summers for the Olympics?
"That was not a good thing to say," Colangelo said. "That doesn't fit the prototype, if you know what I mean."
At the start of the June dinner meeting, Colangelo said, he put the names of 50 of the NBA's top players on a projection screen and asked everyone in attendance to tick off their top 25, factoring in everything from athleticism to age to attitude. Though picks differed, there was consensus on the necessity of building the team around the league's young stars. Think Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Amare Stoudamire, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and other up-and-comers. If they are willing, some could become the anchors of the team.
That, of course, is the question. Will they be willing?
"There were some concerns [in the room], but I'm a little different," Bird said. "I think we will get a commitment out of our best young players. And the guys that are young now won't be so young by the time [the 2008 Summer Games] comes."
Said New Jersey Nets President Rod Thorn, a member of Colangelo's advisory committee, "If they aren't interested in being involved, then we will get the people that are."
Though Colangelo has armed himself with plenty of advisers, he doesn't have to answer to anyone. The executive committee of USA Basketball decided to turn the Olympic operation over to Colangelo. USA Basketball officials decided the former selection process, in which a nominating committee made the Olympic appointments on what became an as-needed basis, had become unwieldy and ineffective.
"If things didn't go well [before], the blame kind of fell in a vacuum," USA Basketball Executive Director Jim Tooley said. "We wanted to put someone directly responsible for the management. . . . Everybody in our organization is very comfortable having Jerry as that person."
Colangelo, whose official title is managing director of the USA men's senior program, was not in Athens but he has been to three Olympics. He was the NBA's executive of the year four times during his 37-year tenure in Phoenix, where he has been general manager, coach and president.
"I was asked by USA Basketball and the NBA whether I would be interested in taking the lead," he said. "I really didn't hesitate . . . [but] it's a daunting responsibility."
Colangelo said he wants to have a senior men's national team coach — he is considering Mike Krzyzewski and two NBA candidates, he said — in place before he begins interviewing players (possibly with Jordan, Bird or Johnson in tow). Colangelo and USA Basketball also will have to ensure that the U.S. Olympic Committee approves their new Olympic team selection criteria.
Daly, who coached the most famous Dream Team at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, said he is eager to see the process unfold. The challenges, he pointed out, won't end with players' commitments. Whoever ends up coaching the team will have the considerable task of managing minutes and egos.
And then there is the matter of simply being good enough to beat the new powers in international basketball.
"There are a lot of questions that are going to have to be answered," Daly said. "I think it's going to be kind of fun, entertaining and interesting to watch."