Colangelo knows U.S. needs to pick up, roll with changes

The Baltimore Sun

Jerry Colangelo expected a celebration at the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Springfield, Mass., earlier this month.

Instead, everyone was commiserating over the demise of the U.S. team in the world championships. The team, which Colangelo put together as director of the U.S. men's international basketball efforts, won 13 of 14 games on its world tour and generally took the "ugly" out of "ugly American."

"We were well-received," Colangelo said. "People were actually cheering for the U.S. team, which hasn't happened in a long time in international competition. Our people conducted themselves the way we wanted them to."

But there was that loss to Greece - "a Greek tragedy," Colangelo calls it - and a bronze medal in the tournament.

Colangelo, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and chairman of the Phoenix Suns, said he's still distraught over the loss, and it was clear to his friends that weekend in Springfield. After all, this was his baby.

"Most guys were pretty good," Colangelo recalled last week. "They were saying we did a great job, we got the thinking back on track. Everyone is trying to lift you.

"So before the induction, some elderly gentleman and a woman come up to me. The guy had to be 85.

"'I'm Rocco, and I'm an Italian-American from Brooklyn, and I want you to know I love you and I'm proud of you and what you did for Italians. You guys did a great job in the world championships. This is my daughter.'

"She had to be 65, and she looks at me and says, 'What happened with the pick-and-roll?' That's all I wanted to hear. How often can I answer that question?"

Probably for at least another year. A series of pick-and-rolls by Greece - the basic NBA play - was met without much resistance as the United States lost in the semifinals, looking like confused grade-schoolers.

It was the third consecutive finish of third place or lower for U.S. teams with NBA players in international competition.

So why can't Johnny play basketball anymore? Colangelo is optimistic and somewhat in disbelief that the U.S. team failed to win gold, especially after beating defending Olympic champion Argentina for the bronze in what most expected would be the gold-medal game.

"I believe we would beat Greece 99 out of 100 times," Colangelo said. "But it doesn't matter because we lost. We're focusing on what happened and why from a standpoint of how to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Colangelo remains confident the experience will be the medicine that cures last summer's ills and that the structure now is in place for ultimate success. Several players were hurt and missed the tournament, so there will be some changes in personnel. Don't be surprised to see a more experienced, tougher backcourt with Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups.

But it's not so much a question of whether the U.S. still has the best basketball players, but whether the NBA plays the best game. LeBron James is a great basketball player. He just doesn't know how to play basketball.

It wasn't only James, but also the U.S. team that failed Basketball 101.

"We invented the game and went out and taught [the world] the game," Colangelo said. "And then our game changed and we started playing above the rim, more high-wire and flashy dunking. ... It's an exciting brand of basketball. Those who play below the rim can't play up there. So they play the fundamentals of the game."

Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and James are wonderful players, the future of the NBA. But so many of the top players these days lack a fundamental base. Under pressure, they revert to what they know, sort of a slash and burn. They slash to the basket and get burned on the defensive end.

It's the major weakness of NBA players, and it was on display in the loss to Greece. Talent doesn't always trump knowledge.

"There are no guarantees anymore," Colangelo said. "Which is good for basketball. The gap has closed. We can take pride in the missionary work we've done, but by the same token the competition is that much greater, and we have to be ready for the challenge. And we will be."

Sam Smith writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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