In January 2005, Jerry Colangelo was focused on … Jerry Colangelo. For the first time in a generation, Colangelo, the former NBA owner, executive and head coach, was out of work. Months earlier, Colangelo had sold his stake in the Suns, ending a successful relationship that touched five decades. In late 2004, Colangelo, then 64, underwent prostate surgery. He was recovering at home in Phoenix when his phone rang. It was David Stern. The NBA commissioner had a question: After the men notched a seventh-place finish at the 2002 World Championships and a bronze medal at the ’04 Olympics, USA Basketball was crumbling. Would Colangelo come on board to rebuild it?
He immediately accepted. “I’m an instinctive person,” says Colangelo. “I didn’t have to think about it.” But he had a couple of conditions. He wanted full autonomy. He wanted to pick the coaches and the players, and he didn’t want any oversight from the NBA. Stern agreed. And he didn’t want any pushback on the budget. Stern, as Colangelo recalls, lost it. “I let him go for a while,” says Colangelo. “And then I said, ‘David, are you finished?’ He said yes. And I said, ‘That’s still No. 2.’ ” Eventually, Stern agreed. “I just wanted his commitment,” says Colangelo. “I’d raise the money. And we did, and never looked back.”
This Olympic cycle will be Colangelo’s last, a journey he began with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and will end with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, closing the book on a 16-year run highlighted by three gold medals and the restoration of the U.S.’s place atop the basketball food chain. Team USA will never again achieve the kind of dominance it held in the 1990s, when opponents were as likely to ask for pictures with U.S. stars as play defense against them, but under Colangelo’s watch the U.S. men’s average margin of victories in the Olympics were 28 points (2008), 32.1 (2012) and 22.5 (2016), while the U.S. ripped off a 60-1 record in international competitions between 2006 and 2016. Last week, as his final team prepared to make another run at gold in Tokyo, Colangelo, 81, reflected on his USA Basketball experience in a wide-ranging interview with Sports Illustrated.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
SI: So your 16-year run with USA Basketball ends this summer. How would you sum up the experience?
Jerry Colangelo: Well, I’ve loved every minute of it. Whenever you have a chance to build something or rebuild something, it’s challenging, but if you’re competitive and you have it inside that you to want to do something like that, which is what happened with me, when I was asked to take over USA Basketball after the awful Olympics in Greece.
We set out to change the culture. I saw a lot of things with some of the programs internationally that I respected. When you look at Argentina, you look at Spain, you look at Serbia, you can look at Lithuania, whatever. There are some tremendous programs. And I respect that, and there are major differences in how they can prepare. Fundamentally, they’re pretty sound, and they learn how to shoot the ball, and they’re sophisticated in their game. And so we tried to do what we could—or I could—by getting a three-year commitment right out of the get-go and meeting with each player. Because I wanted to meet with them eyeball to eyeball, express why I was doing it. People don’t respect us as Americans, as athletes, as basketball people, and we’re going to turn it around. And I promise you, and I said this right from the get-go. I said, “If you commit and if you’re willing to do A, B, C and D, I promise you it’ll be one of the great experiences of your life.” And to a man, they would say it was.
SI: What did changing the culture mean to you? Because you hear that phrase a lot in sports.
JC: What it means is it’s not just about you individually. It’s not the “me” world. It’s going to be the “we” world. I wanted to do things and did, like the names on the jerseys being reduced, the USA on the jerseys being increased. Just an overall attitude about showing respect, that’s changing the culture, if the players are willing to buy into it. And fortunately, it happened. They were willing. And we had some alpha dogs who helped make that happen.”
SI: LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo—guys like that?
JC: Dwyane Wade coming off an injury in Miami. And I was a big Wade fan from his high school and college days, a little bit of the Chicago thing in me. So I had a special interest in him. And I kept calling Tim Grover, who was trying to get him back physically, and ask “How’s he doing?” I mean, we have to pick this team within a few weeks. And he said, “Well, he’s not there yet.” I said, “I need to see him.”
So I flew into Chicago specifically just to see him work out. And he was maybe 75%. That was true. And when it was over, I pulled Dwyane aside. I said, “Dwyane, I really have interest in you, but you’re not ready to play. What I want to know from you, and I need to hear it, is can you get ready in the next two weeks?” And he said, “I think. I think so.” I said, “Well, what I’m going to do is, I’m going to take you. I’m going to name you as one of these people. And now, I’m expecting you to.”
Well, he turned out to be maybe our best player in the ’08 Olympics. He did a terrific job. So I felt very comfortable with myself, the ability to communicate with them and talk the language and everything. We were all in the foxhole together. That’s the culture. That’s what I’m talking about. And Coach K was superb at that himself. You know that. So between the two of us, that was what we did.”
SI: Was there a player back then whose buy-in stands out as the most important?
JC: It was collective. It really was. First player I met with was Carmelo, only because I was going east, and I was going to be in Washington. And he was with Denver, and they had a game there, staying at the same hotel. And I had breakfast with him. And a lot of basketball people, a lot of guys in the league said no on Carmelo. They said no before I even had this meeting. And I told him that. I said, “I just want you to know that’s where you are right now, and that’s got to change. And so I just want you to know, I want to be watching you intently all year.” He called me three times. “How do you think I’m doing?” All that. So everyone has a button. You have to know how to reach someone. Some people need a pat on the back. Some need a kick. So you need to read your people.
SI: What about LeBron?
JC: I remember the meeting with LeBron. I was at the Water Tower in the Hyatt. He was at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago across the street, and we had a nine o’clock appointment at the Ritz-Carlton. And I was going to meet him right outside the elevators. One minute to 9, the door opens, and out walks LeBron. I mean, very prompt. And I was about halfway through when he said, “Look, I’m in. I’m in.” And players talk to one another. They share. And so, that was a big buy-in.
Then there was Kobe. Kobe was a guy that had never played for USA Basketball. And a few days after he had his [81-]point game, the Lakers are in Phoenix and he’s in my office, and I was going to put him on. And I said, “Kobe, what if I told you I wanted you to change your role if you were going to play with us?” He says, what do you mean? I said, “Well, maybe we want you to be a distributor rather than the scorer.” And he said, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do because I just want to be part of it.” Pretty impressive.
And then his story, of course, is he shows up at training camp three days early and he’s there working out twice a day on his own. His first workout in the morning was, like, at 5:30 or something in the weight room. And as players came in, they followed him. I don’t think any of them really had that kind of a schedule. So he showed leadership just by demonstrating it. And then the first day of scrimmage, the ball went up. Loose ball. He’s diving headfirst on the floor for the loose ball. Again, showing leadership. And if you’ve got that culture, if you’ve got that thing, working the mojo or whatever the heck it is, a lot of good stuff happens.
SI: Did you have moments in those first few years where you wondered whether everything was going to come together?
JC: You couldn’t help but wonder about that, but it was interesting. In 2010, we had the World games in Istanbul, and none of the 12 players who were on the Olympic team participated. We had 12 other players, a lot of young ones. And from that roster, I think four of them became MVPs. Russell Westbrook was there. I’ll say this about Westbrook: He was kind of a loose cannon as a player, as a young player in particular. And I’m saying that in a positive way. And so, what I saw was every morning, or every day we had a meeting, he was always the first one in the meeting room. He always sat in the same seat in the second row, very attentive. He always had eye contact. And so I fell in love with the guy because in my vernacular, I would say something like if you’re going to war, you want a guy like him in the foxhole next to you.
And that’s how I was kind of looking at things. Anyway, so we win in 2010. We beat Turkey in the championship game. And then in the media mix afterwards, somebody said, “Well, you won the Olympics with 12 other guys, and now you just won the Worlds with a different 12. Who’s going to represent USA in the games in London?” And I said, “Well, we’re going to have a scrimmage, one team versus the other and the winner goes to London.” Many of them thought I was serious.
SI: Right. Because there was a point where you stopped having to sell guys on playing for USA Basketball. When you had guys coming to you asking to play.
JC: For sure, that happened. The work that had to be done to put together a squad in 2006 was the real thing. We played in Japan in the Worlds, and we lost to Greece. And it’s so easy to say, well, that was a good thing because you learn from that kind of inexperience and to prevent it from ever happening again, et cetera. All I know is when it happened, it was a shocker. We had a lot of players, a lot of big names, and Greece had a bunch of guys who on any given night that could happen. The stars were aligned for them, for sure.
Coach K came off the floor and looked at me, and I am on the corner of the floor, and he says, “I’m sorry.” He was apologizing. I said, “Coach, stop it. So we lost, we’re going to learn from it. We will learn from this.” And it took me a year and a half before I would even look at the tape, because I knew it would just eat me up inside. But we got over it and got ready for ’08, and things worked out.
SI: When did you start thinking about stepping down?
JC: In 2016, I knew that was Coach K’s last run. I had planned to step down with him. But I also wanted to name the next [coach] before we even got to Rio and just to put it to rest. I didn’t want the focus on who’s to be next. Pop and I had somewhat of a strained relationship. We were competitive. San Antonio and Phoenix, all that. But it goes back to the selection of Coach K and not him where I said something to the effect that I didn’t really feel it when I spoke with Pop. That really was upsetting to him. He wrote me a long letter. I got back to him and I said, “I apologize.” I didn’t have any intent, except I didn’t feel it.
And so it was a strained relationship, but when it was time, who would be the next guy, Pop was the guy I wanted. And I called him and it was a little strained at first, but it worked out O.K. in terms of the conversation. And then he told me he was going to be in Carmel for a retreat with his staff. And I had a home right down the street from the place he was going to be staying at. And I said, “Well, why don’t we get together and have lunch?” And we did. By the time lunch was over, everything had been put to bed. Everything was buried.
He told me, “I’m inclined to do it, but I want to just sleep on it. I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.” I said, “That’s fine.” So he called me and he said, “Jerry, I will do it, but I have one condition.” I said, “What’s that?” He said that you stay. And that’s the reason I stayed. I’m glad I did. I want to see this through. I think it’s important to a lot of people to win. It’s all about winning the gold medal. And it’s hard to put into words what it really means to someone who truly believes that to represent your country in this crazy world means something.
SI: Grant Hill is set to replace you. He comes from a completely different basketball background. Why is Grant the right guy?
JC: Well, when Coach K and I started, we kind of made a pledge to each other that when we’re finished, we want to make sure that there’s infrastructure in place that’s going to last a long time after we’re gone. It’s a different time. It’s a different place. There’s a different need. Players are totally different today than they were back then. I think the money has had a big impact on decisions that are made. Back then, they saw the opportunity to get exposure. They were selling shoes. They were doing other things. Now, the money is so big. The salaries themselves have to be three or four times what it was back then.
So no, no one could have replaced me with me. It’s going to be somebody else who has attributes and maybe some not-so-many-great attributes, who knows, but you do the best you can. And he seemed to be a guy because of his presence and the respect players have for him. We’ve spoken in the past about a lot of things. But he’s not going to try to replicate me. He’s watching and seeing and being told what I did, but that was me. The jury’s out until he’s had a couple of runs. Let’s see how he does. I’m pulling for him. And I’m available to help.
SI: Any regrets?
JC: I guess some people might say there should have been a player or two that could have been on a roster and weren’t, but the proof is in the pudding. The proof is in the results. And if you win, I had to be doing something right. Maybe not perfect. I’m not perfect. But I’m proud of the record and I’m proud of how we represented the country.
SI: You took over a team that finished seventh in the World Championships in 2002 and won a bronze medal at the ’04 Olympics. As you finish, the U.S. finished seventh in the World Championships in ’18 and right now, as we go into the Olympics, the roster is in a bit of disarray. Do you feel like you are leaving this program in a good place?
JC: I’ll use that expression: You have to deal with the cards dealt you. I mean, COVID, it’s so much. It’s impacted so many people. And of course we were affected big time. I mean, the compactness of the two NBA seasons on top of each other, injuries, COVID, guys a little nervous about playing and so on and so forth. Under all these circumstances, we did the best we could do. And so we’ve got a great coaching staff. We have a lot of talent. The only question is how much time? Do we have enough time to really get it together? Three of our players [Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday] who will be a big part of our team [weren’t] even here, and we had to replace some players. So that’s five players at the last minute. And so we’ll deal with it. And I feel confident that we can get the job done.”
SI: It feels like to me the success of the team has almost become a curse. In a way, you helped make playing for USA Basketball cool again. But after winning three in a row, maybe it isn’t as appealing to some guys. It’s almost like you need to lose to get the A-listers back. To make Redeem Team 2.0.
JC: Well, part of the job was making it cool back then, but once you’re there and in my case where I’m finishing, I’m not interested in making it cool for someone else to start all over again. I’m interested in winning for all the people who have committed now. So I hear you, but I’m not buying it.
SI: Was this the most significant accomplishment of your professional career?
JC: I did say this, and I’ll make it official again. It is one thing to represent your city, your state. It’s another thing to represent your country on the international stage. So it doesn’t get any bigger than that.
SI: Is there another project in your future?
JC: I love the role as chairman of the Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s like a family. It’s like a fraternity, and I just love being a part of it. [Grand Canyon University], the university in Phoenix, they named the business school in my honor. I helped pick the two coaches they’ve ever had, Dan Majerle and Bryce Drew. I’m very close to the basketball program. I’ll help him any way I can. I enjoy being around young people. You know what I do at my age? I tell stories. And somebody says, you tell stories? I said, I can’t remember the facts, but I sure can remember stories.
So I enjoy the GCU connection very much, and the president kind of leans on me. I’m always available to give him advice. And then I’m very heavily involved in real estate around the country, but in particular in Arizona. So that’s enough. That’s enough to keep me busy. It always has been. But I am someone who needs to be busy. I’m not one to stop. When you talk about retirement, that’s not in my vocabulary. I think you’d go as long as you can, as hard as you can until you can’t. And you’ll know, you’ll get that proverbial tap on the shoulder, you’re done. You’re done. But for now, just keep going.