U.S. has a new star in Durant, and a rare summer off
ISTANBUL – Mike Krzyzewski wore the gold medal that he first chased two decades earlier in the world championship.
Jerry Colangelo’s accessory wasn’t as flashy, but certainly as meaningful: Part of the net his players had cut down at the Sinan Erdem Dome was hung around his neck.
And sometime while the men most responsible for U.S. basketball’s renaissance celebrated, they also shared a moment of relief.
“One of the first things Coach K said to me was, ‘We don’t have to do anything next summer,”‘ Colangelo said, laughing like a man who believed he was getting away with something. “I’m with him on that.”
The Americans became the first team qualified for the 2012 Olympics with their 81-64 victory over Turkey on Sunday, winning their first world championship in 16 years.
To show how far U.S. basketball had fallen, next year will be the first time since 1995 that the United States won’t have to play in the summer preceding the Olympics. The Americans had an automatic entrance into the Atlanta Games as the host country, but then had to advance through regional qualifying in 1999, 2003 and ’07 after failing to secure the spot that goes to the world champion.
But in just five years since Colangelo took over USA Basketball and hired Krzyzewski as the national team coach, the Americans have reclaimed their place in the world.
First came the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, followed by gold in Turkey with an entirely new cast of players. The U.S. has also regained the No. 1 spot in FIBA’s world rankings from Argentina.
The world championship was a triumph for the U.S. program. The Americans were able to survive the absences of all the Olympic gold medalists by simply picking from a pool of players that had been selected earlier in the year.
Colangelo credited “the structure of USA Basketball, that we could turn over so many players as we have, over 30 since ’06, the last world championships, and be as successful as we’ve been.”
“It’s a tribute to the players, the quality of players we’ve had,” he added. “Mike Krzyzewski deserves tremendous, tremendous praise for the job he’s done.”
Krzyzewski had fallen short in his first two attempts, third-place finishes in 1990 and 2006, before finally adding the world title to the national championship he won this season at Duke.
It’s largely due to Kevin Durant, who won MVP honors after the greatest tournament ever by an American player. He shattered U.S. records for points in a game and a tournament, making seven 3-pointers in the gold-medal game and scoring 20 of his 28 points in the first half to help quiet a raucous crowd.
Durant will be going to London in two years if he chooses. “There’s a good chance he’ll be on the Olympic team. It’s like breaking news,” Krzyzewski joked.
The question Colangelo and Krzyzewski will ponder during their time off is how to determine the 11 that will go with him.
All the ’08 Olympians committed to be part of the national team pool for 2010-12. Team officials thought at least a few of them would be in Turkey, but once some began pulling out, Colangelo told them all could stay home without jeopardizing their status for London.
In the meantime, Durant solidified himself as a force in the international game – could LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony find himself as Durant’s backup if they return? – and a number of other players made cases for invites.
“They earned equity,” Krzyzewski said, echoing a favorite Colangelo phrase. “We now have a deeper pool.”
Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook impressed team officials with their athleticism and could join holdovers Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the mix at point guard.
Lamar Odom played out of position as a center, leaving the arena Sunday with a bandage on his face after taking a hit under the basket, and he and Chauncey Billups were trusted veterans on a team loaded with youngsters. Andre Iguodala locked down the opposing team’s top scorer.
All will surely want to come back. Odom, who played in 2004 and has said he wants another shot so his kids can see him compete in the Olympics, likely spoke for all the world champs when he said Sunday that “hopefully we can go to the Olympics and experience the same thing.”
But even if the Americans brought back only those half-dozen players, that’s still too many if James, Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Paul and Williams all sought to return. Anthony and Paul reiterated their commitment while watching a U.S. scrimmage in New York last month.
“That’s a good problem, is to choose amongst a lot of really good players,” Krzyzewski said.
And a new great one. Already an NBA scoring champion, Durant’s status rose after leading the U.S. to a much bigger title.
“I’ve said, without asking me who the other guys are, he’s one of the top five players in the NBA,” Colangelo said. “And he’s 21 years of age. And he’s the whole package. So just think of what lies ahead for Kevin Durant, because he’s got this, he’s got great talent, and he’s just an amazing guy.”