In a podcast yesterday on BasketballNews.com, Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo opened up about the possibilities surrounding Team USA for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, which nobody is certain will happen because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The folks at USA Basketball are meeting weekly on this subject, and Colangelo is in close contact with people at the NBA and FIBA, monitoring the daily turn of events.
This is Colangelo’s 16th and final year running Team USA, and he has built the program into an internationally respected powerhouse – although his decade-long run going undefeated (58 consecutive games) ended in 2019 at the World Cup in China, where Team USA suffered back-to-back losses to France and Serbia before defeating Poland for seventh place.
If the Olympics are held, LeBron James could be among the participants (as he has expressed interest in playing). Invitations have been extended to 60 American NBA players, and the timing of the NBA playoffs will be a complicating factor because there could be a very quick turnaround from the time the NBA Finals end and the time Team USA gets on a charter flight from Las Vegas to Tokyo.
Again, this is only relevant if the Olympics actually happen. And that will remain a question mark over the next several weeks as the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Organizing Committee monitor the global health situation as it relates to the pandemic.
Here is a transcript of my interview with Colangelo:
Chris Sheridan: There was some news this week. The Times of London first reported that it looks like the Olympics are not going to be held, and then the very next day, Friday, in the New York Times, Victor Mather reported that, no, the IOC is going forward. The IOC is pushing on and trying to this happen. What are you hearing from the folks you're talking to at the IOC, the USOC and the NBA as to the likelihood of there being an Olympics this summer?
Jerry Colangelo: You know it seems crazy, Chris, to hear conflicting reports about something so important to plan for. But the reality is, it’s a changing scene every day. It really is. We have no choice but to proceed on the basis that the Olympics will be played, and so that’s basically what we are doing. We are preparing in every way possible until we hear otherwise, officially. I would guess, from what I’ve been told, it’s a go -- unless they cancel because some other thing has developed regarding the pandemic, [like a] new strain, depending on how things go in Japan and Tokyo, in particular. So, I’m assuming we’re going to be there.
The Japanese news agency NHK recently polled the Japanese public and 77 percent of the people in Japan said that they don’t want the Olympics there anymore. They’re afraid of people coming in from all over the world, some of whom may have the virus. Japan has recently gone into a lockdown and there are a lot of fear-based decisions being made. Who is the person -- whether it’s an IOC person or a USOC person, a Japanese official -- who says to everyone, "Listen, here’s how we’re going to do this, and here’s how we’re going to keep everybody safe." And that includes athletes, spectators, officials, judges, competitors, you name it. Who is that person?
Colangelo: You know that’s a good question, Chris, because I can’t answer it. On paper, you would say the International Olympic Committee along with the Tokyo Japan committee itself, who are putting on the Games, who will make that decision predicated on what the health situation is and how they’re going to deal with the issues. That’s above my paygrade. All I have to do is follow instructions. It’s a go until I’m told it’s not. And so we’re preparing. We’re preparing to participate in the Olympics, and quite honestly, would I be surprised if the rug is pulled out from underneath us? No, not really. Because of the uncertainty in the world, and with what this terrible, terrible virus has caused in the way of damage.
As far as the American roster goes, let’s assume there’s going to be an Olympics. You’ve got a ton of guys on the roster, including pretty much every All-Star in the NBA who is an American. You’ve got a lot of guys from the Brooklyn Nets; Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Kevin Durant. You told me the last time I had you on the show that LeBron James has expressed interest in playing again. He’s certainly been through his share of Olympics and he’d like to go one more time. What’s the latest that you’ve been hearing from different athletes around the NBA who have a USA Basketball pedigree and who have been with you in the past?
Colangelo: Chris, I would say, with rare exception, everyone has indicated that they would participate. Now, what does that really mean? It’s easy to say, "Yes, count me in," at this particular point in time, but until we get much closer to the summer months, we’re not going to know officially. But I will tell you, one way we’ve protected ourselves -- I think we had like 42 on our national team roster to give ourselves good coverage -- we’re actually increasing that number to close to 60; and it’s just to be sure that everyone is following protocol as far as the mandate from the Olympic group that they have to be in the drug program, they have to pass certain standards, so we have a large pool to select from. But the official acceptance won’t be made until we really ask for a final commitment. Once we do that, then we’ll know. But it may not be until July 1-ish until we know who’s going to be participating.
Everybody has to think on the fly and everyone has to change their plans every day.
That’s kind of what we’ve learned in 2020, and 2021 is not looking any different. What are you hearing from the coaches? Gregg Popovich, with Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce and Jay Wright as your assistants. But Pop especially, what are his feelings on this and what is he telling you in terms of his willingness to go through with this?
Colangelo: Once he committed to me, when he committed, he was in. You know him as well as anybody, and know that he’s not going to go back on something that he said he was going to do and follow through with. And it was important to him. He really does consider it an honor to represent this country, and he wanted to take on this responsibility. We had a conference call this past week with our entire staff, and we went through all of the names; we had discussions about how certain people are playing, some of the newcomers we wanted to at least consider talking about, and so we have periodic conversations like this. It’s like monitoring the NBA season. Who’s going well, who isn’t? What are the issues? Any health issues, etc. So there’s a lot of communication regarding the staff, and Pop, you can count on him. He’s anxious to get the job done, and I think everyone is committed on our staff. It’s a heck of a staff, by the way, it really is, and we’re excited about getting on that plane.
There are a few changes I want to talk to you about that are going to be somewhat different, and it’s not official, but there’s a good chance that here is what will take place. When we'd go to training camp in the past, it was in Las Vegas and it was about a week and we would play a game -- one of the friendly games if you will -- and then we take off to play another four games elsewhere. And we’ve played them everywhere in the world. Because of COVID, because of the circumstances, what we’re playing with and toying with and what we’ll probably end up doing is staying in Vegas for the entire length of time. So it could be a three-week stay in Las Vegas, and we have the other countries come to us, and we play all the games in Las Vegas. So we limit the number of plane rides in different countries, etc. We’ll get on a plane and take off for Tokyo at the appropriate time, which is in the third week of July, and take it from there. So that’s a big change for us.
Here’s the other big change: because of COVID again, the NBA season last year, the season this year, when the playoffs begin and when they end have an impact on us -- because the NBA Finals, assuming that goes seven games, whoever is involved, that’s just a couple of days before opening ceremonies in Tokyo. So we’re talking about options. What if there are a couple of guys that are really important that we want on that roster? Are they willing to jump on a plane within 48 hours, 72 hours and come to Tokyo? It’s a big question mark. It depends on who they are, and it depends on which teams are going to be in the Finals. Then again, some of it may take care of itself if there’s a sweep. We just don’t know. It’s certainly a consideration this time where it’s never been a consideration in the past.
The International Olympic Committee, the IOC, or FIBA, the governing body for international basketball, are they sticking with you having to have a 12-man roster? Or are they showing a little bit of flexibility, saying, "Hey look, you can come with 13, 14, 15 guys," just in case somebody has a positive COVID test or is sidelined otherwise?
Colangelo: Good point. And yes, we are diligently working on getting as much flexibility as we possibly can. Not just for us, it’s true for every country who is involved. The rules that existed in the past existed in the past. Unusual times call for unusual changes, and all we’re asking for is flexibility and the ability to submit a final roster at the very last minute. And, number two, to be able to replace people because of COVID. So I’m hopeful. All I can say is that it’s in the works. All of the governing bodies are clued in, and let’s see if they make the right decision.
Let’s hope everything works out. Today is January 23, which means we’re exactly 6 months out from the opening ceremony, which is July 23. I hope to be there, and I hope to see you there. International basketball is so different than NBA basketball, and there's a different level of passion that exists and it’s hard to explain it to people who haven’t experienced it. But you’ve done a heck of a job turning this program around. Until the World Cup in China, you had a winning streak that lasted more than a decade, and I’m sure you want to bounce back from what happened in China just as much as Coach Pop and everybody else on the team does. I guess that was two years ago.
Colangelo: Yep, it was. And as I think back on it, obviously I felt disappointment. We had a couple of injuries, [Kyle] Kuzma was one, [Jayson] Tatum was another. I would say very strongly that if we had not sustained those injuries, and they could not be replaced because of the rules, it would have been a different outcome very simply. But it is what it is. You’ve got to deal with the cards dealt to you, and injuries have always played a role in sports -- professional sports, college sports and certainly the Olympics. We’re going to be ready. We’re going to try to put the very best players we can on the court, and we couldn’t ask for better leadership in terms of staff, starting with Pop and Jay Wright and Steve Kerr and Lloyd Pierce. This is my swan song in terms of USA Basketball and I'm sure it probably is for Pop [as well] in his first go. So, there’s a lot on the table and we’re going to be very committed to bringing back gold.