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Bob Ryan

For US, a world of difference

Kevin Durant and coach Mike Krzyzewski embraced once the gold medal was secured. Kevin Durant and coach Mike Krzyzewski embraced once the gold medal was secured. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 15, 2010

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C’mon, let’s hear it!

Yes, we need a round of applause from sea to shining sea. Let’s hear it for basketball Team USA, which waded through the Croatians, Slovenians, Brazilians (barely), Iranians, Tunisians, Argentines, Russians, Lithuanians, and, finally, the host Turks to come home as undefeated champeens of the whole known universe. So please put your hands together.

Not so very long ago, the once-omnipotent US was champion of exactly nothing in the world of basketball. We hadn’t won a world’s championship since 1994, and in 2004, we weren’t even able to bring home a gold in the Athens Olympics — beaten not once, not twice, but three times, by Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Argentina. Two years later, we were embarrassed in the Tokyo World Championships by Greece, a game in which our multi-multimillionaire players acted as if they were being asked to defend a pick-and-roll for the first time in their lives.

There were serious doubts about the group we sent to Turkey. It was variously described as too small, too young, and too lacking in outside shoot ing. Throw in too lacking in general international basketball experience, and there was a school of thought that bringing home any kind of medal would be an achievement.

It was, at best, a “B-team,’’ talent-wise. Not one player who had won gold in Beijing two summers ago chose to play. But Team USA had three things going for it: 1. players with a strong desire to be on the team; 2. great overall athleticism; and 3. coach Mike Krzyzewski and his experienced staff.

Let’s begin at No. 3, and let’s take it one step further. Before there was a Coach K, there was a boss, a basketball savant and visionary named Jerry Colangelo, who had assumed control of USA Basketball when it hit rock bottom and who had vowed to restore America to what most of us who love the sport regard as our rightful place as the No. 1 hoop country in the world.

By 2004, it had become a given that NBA talent alone could no longer guarantee American success in the international arena. Countries had begun catching up with us within two years of the Dream Team’s sweep to the gold medal in 1992. The overly cocky 2000 Olympic team coulda/shoulda/woulda lost to Lithuania, which had the proverbial last shot. A Team USA whose roster included Elton Brand, Baron Davis, Reggie Miller, Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Michael Finley, Jermaine O’Neal, Ben Wallace, and our own Paul Pierce lost to Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Spain at the 2002 Worlds in Indianapolis.

In Athens, we pretty much stunk out the joint by our old standards — we did stagger home with a bronze — and we again messed up in Tokyo. It was clear we had a fundamental problem.

Our coaches were the same-old, same-old; that is to say, decorated NBA lifers for whom the position was a thank you for NBA services rendered. Chuck Daly, it turned out, was the perfect man to massage megastar NBA egos while parceling out playing time for the one-and-only Dream Team. Who needed international experience?

But Larry Brown’s 2004 Athens team had been exposed as ill-organized and basically unprepared. And when Colangelo was selected to be chairman of the board of USA Basketball on April 27, 2005, things began to change.

Said Colangelo upon assuming his new position, “I will make the calls and pick the players and coaches. That’s the only way I know how to do business.’’

Once Colangelo decided that the NBA lifer coaching approach was no longer the way to go, the identity of the coach became obvious. There was one man who possessed the requisite general X-and-O expertise; who had extensive international exposure; who was flexible enough to deal with both decorated NBA superstars and eager, impressionable young talents; who was young and vigorous enough to withstand the 12-month, multi-year grind his life would become; and who was a complete and utter Winner with a capital “W,’’ and that man was Mike Krzyzewski.

The key to everything for Colangelo was continuity. He wanted a deep national roster of qualified and interested players and he wanted a coach who would be there for the long haul. There would be no more one-and-done. And so when Coach K came home from Tokyo in his first official gig as head coach of Team USA with a bronze, that only meant he was off and running. He would learn from whatever mistakes he and his staff had made.

Nowadays, when a player comes to Team USA, he is going to be coached by the Coach K staff in international basketball. In all likelihood, he will go back to his NBA team as a better basketball player, and that includes Lamar Odom, whose NBA mentor is sometimes assumed to have descended to the basketball world on a cloud.

Of course, there must be some degree of talent, and it always helps to have the best player in the tournament on your side. When Coach K’s team lost in Tokyo, the best player in the tournament was Spain’s Pau Gasol. But this time around, Coach K had by far the best player.

The wise guys all said that the US had no chance to win if Kevin Durant didn’t take control of the offense, and that’s exactly what he did, averaging nearly 23 points per game with a high of 38 in the semis against Lithuania. After him, the US squad had six players average between 7 and 9.8 a game.

Coach K recognized that the best US assets were speed and athleticism, and thus he and his staff formulated a superb pressing defense. What was thought to be shaky 3-point shooting — mastery of same being an absolute international must — also turned out to be an American plus, with Durant (26 for 57, .456) and Eric Gordon (19 for 42, .452) the primary marksmen.

Coach K’s superb tactical and leadership skills mean the US can now make a bunch of virtuosos into a team almost overnight. But it all comes back to Colangelo. Were he not in charge, another NBA lifer would almost undoubtedly be home today asking himself, “What the heck just happened?’’

Instead, we have a world championship to go with an Olympic crown. You can send all congratulatory correspondence to USA Basketball headquarters at 5465 Mark Dabling Blvd., Colorado Springs, Colo. 80918-3842. They’ll happily forward it to Mr. Colangelo.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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