A man with a plan helps U.S. men's hoops team regain gold

Monday, August 25, 2008

BEIJING -- There was always going to be one game where character counted. There had to be, because the rest of the world simply had gotten that much better.

That's why Jerry Colangelo drew up a three-year plan. That's why he wanted players who would have each other's backs, know their roles and not panic when that game finally came.

It did Sunday at the Wukesong basketball arena when Spain did everything but kidnap Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in a valiant effort to win the Olympic gold. The Spaniards played with passion and a hint of desperation that comes from not wanting to let their countrymen down.

That kind of desire wins games against better talent. It's precisely why the usual collection of American superstars wasn't standing at the top of the medals stand at the last Olympics.

Only this time the Americans wanted it just as bad.

Four of them were on the team that practically had to sneak out of town after imploding in Athens. In solidarity, the rest carried that grudge with them, too.

The gold couldn't be settled until they got on the court in Beijing. But the plan had to be hatched years in advance.

That's where the guy with the graying hair in the suit and tie came in. And that's why Dwyane Wade had Colangelo in a bearhug moments after the biggest win of his life, only because he was the first to get to him.

The other players had to wait to take their turn.

"I think this is a testament to the system that Mr. Colangelo put in place," Bryant said. "What you saw today was a team. Everybody wants to talk about NBA players being selfish, being arrogant, being individuals. Well, what you saw today was a team bonding together, facing adversity and coming out of here with a big win."

The stat sheets will show that Wade led the U.S. to its biggest international win in eight years. Anyone who watched the game knows that Bryant's four-point play and eight points in the final minutes made sure Spain wouldn't pull a huge upset.

But it was Colangelo who sold this group of multimillionaires on the idea that they could check their egos at the door, bond with their fellow multimillionaires and look for them to come through when it really mattered.

It was Colangelo who persuaded them to give up their summers for three years so that when they went to Beijing they wouldn't have to introduce themselves to each other.

None of that really mattered for seven games as the U.S. took apart teams with tenacious defense and romped to lopsided wins. They did seem to genuinely like each other, and it was nice to see them show up in groups to cheer on Michael Phelps or watch the U.S. women chase their own gold medal.

But when Spain cut the lead to two points in the fourth quarter, it suddenly mattered a lot.

That's when the team Colangelo hand-picked for just this moment stiffened and showed its resolve. Their first big test was their only test, but somehow it made the gold medal all the more meaningful

"From day one, we've been together. It's been a bond for the last three years," Chris Paul said. "This team has come a long way and we had a lot of blowouts those first few games. So it was fitting that this one would be a close one. It really tested us to see what we were all about, and in the end we showed we're the best in the world."

On the medals stand the U.S. players playfully bit on their gold medals to make sure they were real. They laughed and traded hugs with an unvarnished joy, the kind that even winning an NBA championship can't bring.

For Wade, James, Carmelo Anthony and Carlos Boozer it was even sweeter because they were on the team four years ago that barely managed to pick up a bronze in Athens.

So now the bar has been set and set high. Colangelo's three-year plan worked perfectly to restore the U.S. to its spot on top of the basketball world.

Impressive work, indeed. But this was only one year, one Olympic gold.

Now, the question becomes: Who's got next?

"The good news is, unsolicited, five or six of these guys said they want to be part of this going forward," Colangelo said.

That's the good news. The bad news is that apparently none of those players is named Kobe or LeBron.

That could change.

This was Bryant's first team and, though he'll be 34 at the next Olympics, he seemed to thrive in his new role of being a team player and even a cheerleader when he needed to be. And James seemed to relish the moment even more. He walked into the post-game news conference with an American flag draped over his shoulders and a smile so wide that playing four years from now in London can't be far from his thoughts.

Winning a gold medal will do that. So will playing on a team with a plan.

"I think this right here will be contagious and it will rub off on a lot of people," Paul said. "I think guys will see how much fun we had and be like, 'Man, I want to be a part of that.'"

Indeed, the players will come. They'll buy into the plan.

The man with graying hair in the suit and tie will make sure of that.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: