It was in a Chicago hotel room three years ago that the architect of America’s Olympic basketball team realized that things had begun to change.
Athens 2004 had been a disaster. Many of America’s best players had declined to play and the team cobbled together at the last minute lost three times on the way to a bronze medal.
The “Dream Team” years were over, it seemed.
Yet there was All-Star Michael Redd, driving several hours to talk to the managing director of the men’s national team, Jerry Colangelo, in his Chicago hotel room. Redd arrived in sweats, disappeared into the bathroom, and emerged in a suit.
“I wanted to respect why he was coming,” said Redd at a pre-Olympic media event. “I truly viewed it as an interview.”
It is a snapshot of what has again made America the dominating force in men’s Olympic basketball: pride, dedication, respect. This is the “Redeem Team.”
One British oddsmaker has listed them as 80-to-1 favorites to win gold.
The journey from Athens began with the humility of realizing that the United States could no longer win gold merely by showing up. Every achievement has built from that moment – from seminars to understand the mysteries of international refereeing to a willingness to play a defense so unrelentingly fierce that opponents have so far found no solution to it.
To many here, including the players, the Redeem Team is about recovering the gold medal. Yet for Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the team is something more: the redemption, in some degree, of US professional basketball itself.
At a time when salary and ego sometimes threaten to overwhelm the technique and teamwork upon which basketball at its most sublime is founded, this team represents an attempt to bring today’s game back to the fundamentals.
“We have a unique opportunity right now to set a standard of how this game should be played in our own country,” said Krzyzewski at a May media event in Chicago. “The commitment, the teamwork, the enthusiasm, the attention to detail. Hopefully, this will inspire the kids that are coming up.”
The basketball played by the US so far could not help but inspire. Other teams in the tournament are much better 3-point shooters, but the US has so far negated this by turning its greatest strength – athleticism – into a 40-minute assault.
It does not have a single player in the top 8 scorers or rebounders of the tournament. Yet it has scored 11.6 more points per game than the second highest scoring team, Australia. More tellingly, it has 18 more steals than Australia – the No. 2 team in steals – and it is tied for the tournament lead in blocked shots with China, even though China has two players at least seven feet tall and the US none.
Colangelo met with players across the country, like Redd, to tell them “this was not about them,” he said. “This was about representing their country with the pride that other Olympians have represented their country.”
The primary downfall of the 2004 team was how it was built. Until then, US men’s Olympic teams had been collections of all-stars assembled before the Games – and this had been sufficient. It no longer was.
Basketball is now a world sport second only to soccer and nations such as Spain, Greece, and Argentina have built strong national teams through years of training. A team of US all-stars, no matter how good, could no longer consistently beat such teams. Their cohesiveness began to trump pure skill.
The solution was to establish a true national team, which trained together at various times throughout the year in Las Vegas. In 2006, for instance, the members of the US team spent 42 days training together, Colangelo estimates.
“In 2004, they didn’t have much time to prepare,” said Krzyzewski at the pre-Olympics press conference. “What we tried to do is give this team time to prepare.”
For Carlos Boozer, who played on both teams, the difference is total. Three weeks before the Athens Games, he did not know he would be going. “This team has been together for three years,” he said before the Olympics began. “The guys know each other and [playing together] is instinctual.”