Scenes From "Road to Redemption"ESPN is airing a series of shows about Team USA called "Road to Redemption." The first episode brings the viewer up to speed on the history of NBA players being members of Team USA. The 1992 Dream Team dominated in the first Olympics in which American professional basketball players participated (other countries had been sending their pros to the Olympics for years). The 1996 version of Team USA also won easily but by 2000 the rest of the world had improved to the point that Team USA had to survive some close games before capturing the gold medal. Then came the disaster in 2002 when Team USA finished sixth in the FIBA World Championship ("Road to Redemption" does not even mention that fiasco). In the 2004 Olympics, Team USA lost to Puerto Rico 92-73 in the first game of the tournament, the most lopsided defeat ever suffered in FIBA play by a Team USA squad comprised of NBA players. Team USA also lost to Lithuania but managed to advance to the medal round only to lose to Argentina; they settled for the bronze medal after winning a rematch against Lithuania. Two years later in the FIBA World Championship, Team USA once again had to settle for the bronze medal after losing to Greece in the semifinals. That meant that Team USA would have to at least reach the Finals of the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament in order to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Contrary to what a lot of people say, the primary problem in 2002, 2004 and 2006 was not poor shooting but rather poor defense, as I explained in a September 4, 2007 post titled The Real Story Behind Team USA's Losses in Previous FIBA Events. As Fran Fraschilla noted when I interviewed him, poor perimeter defense also compromises the interior defense because "the first post defender is always the man guarding the ball." Team USA's guards and wings did not defend well consistently and thus opposing teams feasted on open shots. Team USA scored plenty of points but their defense was bad (for instance, Greece beat them 101-95 in 2006--in a 40 minute game). Jerry Colangelo, the managing director for USA Basketball, understood that it was essential to improve the team's perimeter defense. Team USA also needed some veteran leaders to provide stability and set an example not only in games but also on the practice court. Enter Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd, the new starting backcourt.
Bryant is quite simply the best player in the world. That is true not just because he has no weaknesses in terms of his skill set but also because of his killer mentality. In "Road to Redemption," Colangelo recalls, "The very first play of the very first scrimmage there is a loose ball and there is Kobe Bryant diving on the floor. That set the tone." Coach Mike Krzyzewski adds, "He showed a selflessness right away in telling us, 'Look, I want to play defense. I want to guard the best offensive player every time.'" Mike Miller says, "He competes more than anyone I've ever seen in my life. He takes a challenge against everybody. He's got a different mentality and that's a mentality of being the best." As Miller's comments were aired, "Road to Redemption" showed some practice footage of Bryant breaking Miller down off the dribble and driving to the hoop. Someone--it's not clear who--said "That's off" as Bryant shot but the ball went through the net and Bryant responded triumphantly, "Shut up. Shut up."
Great basketball coaches and players understand that practice is supposed to be hard so that the games will be easy (or at least easier). Champions like Phil Jackson and John Wooden do their most important work behind the scenes and then the uninformed wonder why they sit on the bench impassively during games; the reason is that they did their work during practice and it is up to the players to execute during the games. Colangelo says of Bryant, "I think his presence alone makes us a much tougher team. Who was there every morning? Kobe Bryant, working out every morning--hard." Carmelo Anthony declares, "Kobe's work ethic is out of this world. Seeing him work, it just makes all of the other players elevate their games to a higher level."
Kidd's leadership is also important. He paced Team USA in assists in 2000, the last time that Team USA won a gold medal in international play, and he has never lost a FIBA game. Coach Krzyzewski says that Kidd "is like a coach on the floor--a really good coach on the floor" and he praises "the subtle things that he's doing in a drill or in a huddle." Several scenes of practice footage support that point, as Kidd pulls aside various players at different times to offer advice about how they should position themselves offensively or defensively. "He's kind of that missing piece that just bonds everyone together," Chris Bosh says. "I think he makes everybody better and when you can make guys like Kobe, Carmelo and LeBron better it just really takes the team up a notch."
"I'm so young and have a lot to learn about this game," Deron Williams admits. "I feel like he's the type of player that can teach me those little things I need to know to improve my game and take it to the next level."
Last summer, with Bryant and Kidd running things from the backcourt, Team USA rolled through the FIBA Americas tournament with a 10-0 record, earning a berth in the Beijing Olympics with a 118-81 victory over Argentina in the gold medal game. The next step on the "Road to Redemption" is a five game exhibition tour that starts tonight with a game versus Canada.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:37 AM