LAS VEGAS - When the late, great Chuck Daly took on coaching duties for the 1992 USA Basketball Dream Team, there was a general consensus that his toughest chores in preparing the team for international competition would be rolling out the ball racks and setting up tee times, so he could both bond and golf with his best player, Michael Jordan. This summer, Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his talented group of assistant coaches have a much tougher assignment to prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Truth be told, Coach Daly had the benefit of the entire Basketball Tournament of the Americas, held June 26-July 5, 1992 right in the dear old US of A, in Portland, Oregon before making basketball and sports history in Barcelona from July 25-August 10. Coach K enjoyed being an assistant coach on that team, learning much from the old sage Daly. Former Seton Hall head coach and '92 USA Basketball assistant PJ Carlesimo undertook the heavy lifting in Barcelona, toiling nightly with video scouting duty and not leaving anything to chance in preparation for the vaunted Dream Team's next opponent.
That scenario is now, in the metamorphosis of the game of basketball, ancient history.
It's often stated by professional and college coaches, television commentators and media pundits, "the rest of the world is catching up with the USA." That phrase is more than 16 years old and outdated. The rest of the basketball world caught up much faster than anyone is willing to admit and that process started before the '92 Games. However, the '92 Barcelona Olympics became a springboard for the acceleration of the game, globally.
Back then, similar to today, the NBA was beaming its games to 200-plus countries and territories throughout the world, and, as time passed, the league saw its rosters flooded with talented international athletes (players from outside the 50 US States and DC). Prior to the '92 season, some 23 international players dotted NBA rosters. This year there were 100. At the recent NBA Draft, 26 of the 60 players drafted were from outside the 50 States, including 14 of the 30 first round picks and six of the top 10. Ben Simmons, the top pick who hails from Australia, wasn't born until the USA was defending its '92 Olympic gold medal in Atlanta in 1996. He grew up with a truly global game of basketball.
In fact, right in Sydney, Australia, at the 2000 Summer Games, the fourth USA team with NBA pros dodged its first big scare of the modern, pro-infused Olympics, narrowly defeating Lithuania 85-83 in the semifinals. A bronze in 2004, a sixth-place finish in the 2002 Worlds and another bronze during Coach K's first assignment as national team coach in the 2006 Worlds in Japan, certainly put the words "catching up" in past tense. In fact, close games against and occasional upsets of top U.S. competition date back to 1987, when the great Oscar Schmidt put on a show for Brazil and defeated the USA at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, never mind the shenanigans that took place in 1972 in Munich, which is ancient history but still stings for any USA Olympic basketball fan.
This week, Coach K and the latest version of USA Basketball's men's senior national team will compete in a four-day training camp, often scrimmaging against a USA Select team with a roster that would be any coach's dream. The Vegas training camp might be the four most important dates of the summer for the USA, and if not, the series of five USA Basketball Showcase exhibition games surely will provide the fine-tuning this group will need to properly prepare for the competition in Rio, which begins on August 6.
What is Krzyzewski's biggest challenge going into training camp and the tour, comparing this team to his previous USA squads?
"It's the same, and that's adapting," said Krzyzewski. "How quickly will we adapt to one another, because you only have a limited amount of time? We have six guys who have never played for our staff, so we'll need the help of the six guys who have, and we need their leadership. We're a very versatile team. I'm anxious to see how we all mesh."
During camp and the five-game showcase, there is a significant amount of work to do and some intrinsic basketball values to learn. Adapting, as Coach K noted, means a lot, including adapting to each other, adapting to new and different roles and varying amounts of playing time in the shorter FIBA contests (40-minute games), a nuance quite different from the 48-minute NBA game when a player can let the game and competition come to him. Additionally, absorbing and fitting into new offensive and defensive schemes can take some time while learning the particular timing and tendencies of teammates who are usually opponents. The game rules add another twist, and let's not even mention the brand new, slippery game balls and non-experienced referees, since everyone has to play with those peripheral opponents.
From July 22 (vs. Argentina in Las Vegas), to August 1 (vs. FIBA Africa zone champion Nigeria in Houston), the USA will play five games, with stops in Los Angeles (vs. China on July 24), Oakland (vs. FIBA Asia champion China on July 26) and Chicago (vs. FIBA Americas champion Venezuela on July 29th).
Much to the players' credit, conditioning, which used to be a factor in the '70s, '80s and maybe '90s, is much less a concern for coaches now, with the fact that the world class NBA players of today are in tip-top shape and relish in the competition, endurance-testing, and physical nature of the game of basketball. But so, too are their opponents. A half-dozen teams can score an upset, especially come the medal round.
It's time for some hoops, coming soon to Rio and a USA city near you.