There is no person on the face of the earth to whom coaching the United States to a Gold medal in men’s basketball would mean more to than Doug Collins. For that reason, I do not believe that he would be a good choice to replace Coach K. We are faced with this question because after two gold medals and one world championship offset by a single loss, Coach K appears on the verge of ending his unprecedented tenure as National Team coach. In truth, he has been the first National Team coach the United States has ever had.
In the era of American college players, a college coaching legend was chosen to coach the team for the Olympic games, and a mass try-out was held over several days to select the team. The team played some tune up games, went off to the Olympics and with the exception of 1972 (world class and unforgiven injustice), 1980 (boycott) and 1988 (just plain inferior) returned with gold medals. It was a simple and effective process until “just plain inferior” slapped us in the face.
In 1992, The Dream Team was created. Chuck Daly, a well-respected coach and first rate man manager, was appointed coach, and all necessary (Jordan and Pippen) and ceremonial (Bird, Magic and Laettner) players were selected without the necessity of a try-out. With the singular exception of Laettner, every player on the team was of hall of fame, if not top 50 all time player quality. It was a fortuitous confluence of veteran and primed talent that appropriately bore the Dream Team moniker. The went to Barcelona as ambassadors, partiers and by a wide margin the best basketball team in history. Upon their return, the Dream Team died.
From 1996-2004, various professional teams competed in Olympic and International competitions under the United States flag and “dream team” name. These team’s featured a decorated NBA coach, and a hodge podge of marketable NBA players operating under the notion of invincibility. The “team” exuded the air of a NBA promotional tour rather than a National Team. Players were selected well in advance of the tournament. Many turned down their spots on the team causing a late scramble to replace them, and others remained on the team even though their present form no longer warranted their inclusion.
The United States placed sixth in the World Championships in 2002 and lost three games enroute to the Bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics. Things had to change.
It was at this point that Coach K became our first National Team coach. The premise was different. Coach K would stay on as coach through the 2006 World Championships and the 2008 Olympics. An extended player pool would be identified and maintained over time. Young players would be given an opportunity to participate in the Select team that would train with a scrimmage the full National Team. Full-time international scouting would be the norm. Coach K and Jerry Colangelo would personally recruit the best American players to participate on the team. Coach K established relationships with the best players Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, D Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. This is the foundation and under-rated aspect of his creation of a true National Team.
Coach K is a man of relationships. He cares. He cries everytime his Duke team gets beat in the NCAA tournament. I am quite certain he cries in victory as well. The tears are in the relationship, the respect for the time spent together in common cause. It comes vested at the end of the road, but the investment is made in many ways big and small that come before. In serving as our National Team coach, he has established relationships with all of the players that have worn the red, white and blue during his tenure. This is special given that the National Team does not live and train together as his Duke teams, or even these player’s NBA teams. He gets these players at the end of long NBA seasons that often end as this one did with Lebron James beating fellow National Team players Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the NBA finals. Two months later these same four men are hugging each other giddy in their golden accomplishments and forever bound by the experience.
There was a moment after today’s Gold medal game that was brought to my attention that spoke to what Coach K has meant to the National Team. Lebron James, the best player in the world, stood face to face with Coach K both filled with an immense sense of satisfaction and pride, and for a few moments more than an obligatory congatulations they locked eyes and spoke to each other. Under Coach K, the National Team is not a dream or promotional gambit, but a living brotherhood.
That brotherhood includes the aforementioned Doug Collins. He calls the games for NBC and his son Chris is on Coach K’s staff. In 2008, Chris gave his father his Gold medal. Today, every player on the team with the exception of Andre Iguadola publicly acknowledged Collins on press row during the celebration. Doug Collins is a basketball savant and phenomenal coach. In the fall of 2004, I attended Coach K’s clinic, and Doug Collins was the guest lecturer. He spoke for over an hour in what was probably the best speach I have heard in person. He spoke about his life, his career as a player and as a coach. Eight times during his speach, and yes I counted, he spoke of “the Gold medal being snatched from him”. Doug was on the 1972 Olympic team, and hit two free throws with three seconds left to give the United States a one point lead. The Soviets, against all that is right and just in the World, were given three chances to play the final three seconds of the game until they scored. Collins and his teammates refused to claim the Silver medals. Coach K deliberately included Collins in the National Team brotherhood as an emotional reference point for the meaning of the games and the negative possibilities that could occur should the team leave anything outside their own control. As evidenced by the recognition shown today, Collins resonated with the team.
As a National Team coach, however, Collins is a poor choice. He is too emotional, and truth be known, too intense for the duties of the National Team post. His singular purpose of avenging the ’72 Gold medal game would be a distraction and burden to the brotherhood.
It remains and probably is more likely that a loss or two will be coming to the National Team in the coming years. It will be apocolyptic. Collins might literally implode. Coach K lost, just once, but it was a considerable effort to maintain perspective and focus on the way to the 2008 Olympics. He succeeded. I believe Doc Rivers or Greg Popovic would be the best choices to succeed Coach K. Both are excellent man managers, who have a history of meaningful relationships with their players. By temperment they, unlike Collins, are well-suited to the limited time dynamic of National Team coaching. I hope Jerry Colangelo and those responsible for this upcoming hire will make a measured, rational decision and not a sentimental one. In doing so, they would honor the principles that have guided our first and only National Team coach.