Recapturing Gold, Restoring Pride: After Developing Successful Professional Sports Franchises, Jerry Colangelo Took on a Bigger Challenge: Rebuilding a Demoralized USA Basketball Team

By Yaeger, Don | Success, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Recapturing Gold, Restoring Pride: After Developing Successful Professional Sports Franchises, Jerry Colangelo Took on a Bigger Challenge: Rebuilding a Demoralized USA Basketball Team


Yaeger, Don, Success


As the USA Men's Basketball Team heads to London as the favorite to win gold, it's hard to believe that just a few years ago, even medaling at the Olympics seemed an uncertain prospect. A series of embarrassing setbacks, including a horrific showing in the 2004 Games, left many wondering whether the rest of the world had caught--and passed the United States in a game created in America.

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That's when longtime National Basketball Association executive Jerry Colangelo stepped up to accept the challenge. As director of USA Basketball, Colangelo's task was to rebuild the franchise that once so dominated its competition (think back to the 1992 Dream Team) that opponents lined up after games for the "honor" of photos with the superstars who had just trounced them by 50 points.

Colangelo's job was an ugly one. In the 2004 games. USA had finished a disappointing third. Worse. several players and coaches had runins with fans and the international media. The experience was so bad that many of the best U.S. players said they had no interest in playing in future Olympic Games.

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"Back in 2004, it was obvious that other teams didn't respect us as Americans, didn't respect us as athletes, didn't respect us as basketball people in particular," Colangelo says as he looks back on the challenges he faced. "We had to change that. After Athens, our own fans were booing our players. It was kind of a sad moment. So that sort of was an incentive for me when I was asked to take over the program. I saw it as, 'There's a job here to do, and what a great opportunity to turn something around to change an attitude and change a culture.'"

The task was daunting, even though Colangelo's track record as an effective leader clearly spoke for itself--as a former coach, general manager and team owner in the NBA who also held majority ownership of the Phoenix Mercury Women's National Basketball Association team, the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team and Arizona Rattlers Arena Football League team.

Colangelo identified several troublesome issues that needed to be addressed. "I noticed the strong emphasis on national pride in the other programs:' he says. "It didn't feel like some of our athletes had that same feeling. Then the talent gap had closed between us and others, and we had to show respect for that. You have to show respect to earn respect."

He also wanted to shift the focus away from choosing players based on "their marquee value rather than their contribution to a team concept of winning:" In years past, the selection process for Team USA had been by committee without clear leadership or a vision for building a cohesive team. "You can't change a culture by committee: says Colangelo, who demanded sole decision-making authority over who would make the team as a condition of taking the job.

But that didn't mean he shunned input. Quite the opposite, in fact. His first big move was to invite some of the greatest names in basket-ball to a private meeting in Chicago. He wanted to build momentum and wanted these basketball greats, from Michael Jordan to Jerry West, to help him.

In that meeting, Colangelo outlined what he hoped to accomplish with the new team--which went far beyond just winning a gold medal to building a team worthy of the world's respect. He asked for advice on selecting a coach. Members of the group offered a number of names from College and professional levels. Surveying the list, retired University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith voiced what many in the room were thinking: that the best man for the job was Smith's longtime rival, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke. "It was kind of a solemn moment," Colangelo remembers. "Maybe that's the best way to describe it. Everyone knew how big it was for Dean Smith to endorse Coach K."

There were other contenders, too, of course, but after conducting a phone interview with his finalists, something about Coach K made Colangelo know he'd found his coach. …

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