Jerry Colangelo had total control to build the USA Basketball team into a not only a gold medal-winning group, but as importantly, something Americans could be proud of. He did it. Thanks in equal parts to the talent of superstar players, the wisdom of coaches, and the plan Jerry created and stuck to.

When you don’t set out looking to make history, sometimes history decides to come out and find you. Jerry Colangelo already had a long and lasting legacy before he decided to take on the awesome challenge of serving as managing director of the USA Basketball Senior Men’s National Team Program. He had built two professional sports franchises by hand, made one of them a model operation in the NBA, and the other a World Series champion faster than any other team, ever. He was already a legend in Phoenix and about as well respected nationwide as you can be in any sport or league. But after leaving day-to-day operational gigs with the Suns and Diamondbacks, Jerry has some time on his hands – as well as a competitive fire that had not been extinguished. There’s something else he had when he was given full control over everything that went into building and guiding the U.S. national team back to whatever everyone hoped would be respect, redemption, and of course a gold medal: a plan. And it was the plan Jerry stuck to from the beginning of this journey in the summer of 2005 that put the USA back on top of the medal stand and gave basketball fans throughout the country something to be proud of.

Now, plans are great if you can get people to accept and embrace them. But we weren’t just talking about regular people on the “Redemption Team” in Beijing. We’re talking about mini-corporations in sneakers. With entourages the size of small countries and egos the size of small planets. One-word names with global brands. Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade. The plan Jerry created, with the full autonomy he was granted when he accepted the job, actually went exactly according to the script.

“You know, it did,” Jerry told POST. “And that’s what’s so fulfilling. I had a vision. I had a plan. That was to have everyone involved buy in, and everyone we brought together to execute the plan, including Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] and the staff, and the players themselves. And we did exactly that. It was incredibly rewarding to watch it kind of unfold, and of course during the three years we tried to instill things that we felt were important.”

And the way Jerry did that is by making everyone on the journey with him truly, fully, unwaveringly understand that they were representing the country. He brought in soldiers who had lost limbs or their eyesight in battle and let them tell the players what was really important in life. He allowed experts to explain how people around the world view Americans. Instilling their messages into a group of stars – who are without peer talent-wise – turned them into a basketball team. And the plan unfolded and resulted in a truly memorable summer for all sports fans.

“What we were trying to do was to instill patriotism, and what it truly means to represent the red, white, and blue,” Jerry said. After three years of preparations on the court and off, it all came together as the team’s chartered jet landed in Beijing on August 8. “Coach K and I were sitting together, and as we landed we almost said simultaneously ‘Here it is, we’re here, this is it, we’ve been waiting for three years.’ At that moment we knew our guys were ready. Physically, mentally, emotionally, they were ready. As soon as I got off the plane they were headed off for the Olympic Village.”

And think about that statement alone. This group of superstars Jerry put together really acted like a team, which is why they would hang together in the village. Unlike past Olympic teams where the players would disperse to private villas. and it’s not like Jerry or Coach K had to suggest they do this, it just kind of happened. Naturally. “There wasn’t any need to remind anyone why we where there or about the mission we were on. Not at all. That had all taken place. Quite honestly, I believe in my heart of hearts we could’ve folded in the [gold medal] game against Spain had we not been together for three years, and not created this oneness with the team that we had. If it had been a team in the past where you just collected some all-stars to represent you for the World Championship or the Olympics, they may have cracked. It’s a possibility.”

One thing you would think would go along with the control and autonomy Jerry had would be pressure. There was one person to go to if things didn’t work out. The buck would stop at his desk. “Some people don’t want to accept this, but it’s the truth and I’ve always said this, and I’m going to be consistent. Pressure comes from within. I’ve never felt pressure. I really just welcomed the challenge. How many people are given the opportunity in life to do things that are truly special? To compete for a championship? To win a World Series? To be in a gold medal game, to have a chance to win it, and redeem your sport, and your country, the whole bit? That’s why we compete, and so I never felt pressure. I mean, did I feel anxiety in the last two minutes of the game against Spain? Of course I did. But it wasn’t pressure. It was anxiety. I wanted to get to the finish line. but it wasn’t pressure about ‘Gee what if we don’t win?’ Never. I just don’t think that way.”

It was a two-week span that created a lifetime of memories. It all started in the first game the American team played, which NBC kept informing viewers was the most watched game in the history of hoops. Over one billion viewers worldwide tuned in for the USA versus China. Surrounding Jerry in his seat were Presidents George W. Bush and his father George H.W. Bush. Henry Kissinger was there. Dignitaries abounded. “the thing that crossed my mind is at the age of 68, and with all of the experiences I have had, I’ve been very blessed during my lifetime. I’ve been with a number of presidents. I’ve been with kings. AndI’ve been all over the world. I’ve walked in some unusual places with some incredible people. Being in China and on that international stage, with the people I was with, was a very special moment in itself. There’s a little humor that goes with it because being in the row with the president of China, a prime minister, the president of the United States, and [his wife] Laura and his father, and Kissinger there, I had to do a halftime NBC interview, and the problem was how do I get back down to my seat. It was going to be a real challenge because of security. When I came back, I got reasonably close, and I had all the proper credentials. Bu the Chinese security stopped me cold, and I couldn’t get back. Just then the president of China was walking by, he had gone to the men’s room, and I turned to him and I said ‘Could you tell these guys I’m with you, and I’m getting back to my seat?’ He said something in Chinese, they stepped aside, and I got back to my seat.”

You know you’ve made it when you not only get an audience with the president of China, but he also listens. After the Americans beat Spain in the gold medal game came another moment that Jerry will never forget. The whole team gathered on the medal stand, and all the players put their medals around Jerry’s neck. “Because it was all about team, it was ‘We are all one’, starting with me and the staff, and the players. It was ‘We are on this journey together’ and to have it all happen the way it did we all shared in the reward.”

As you can imagine, the calls of congratulations began when the final horn rang, and they continue to this day. “Before I got back, my email went crazy. For example we had a flight from Beijing to Anchorage, and then from Anchorage to Minneapolis. We were on a charter, and we all came back and dispersed at the Minneapolis airport. I only slept an hour and a half the whole time primarily because I was responding to emails that I had already received. I just continued for the next week, week and a half, where I was trying to decompress, and it was pretty hard. I stayed over in Carmel, by the ocean, but it was a true joy. Being responsive to all the congratulations, all the requests people had for interviews, appearances, and all kinds of things like that. When I think about all of the things that have happened to me, the Basketball Hall of Fame induction in ’04, the World Series trophy in 2001, winning the gold medal in 2008… I have so much to be thankful for it’s unbelievable.”

He’s attained a lifetime of success and has deserved and earned every ounce of it. His professional life has been a combination of steady leadership, relationship building, trusting his instincts and – just ask anyone who knows Jerry and what the Olympic experience showed once again – taking risks. As for 2012, and the Olympics in London? Jerry hasn’t decided if he’ll be involved yet, although he’s leaning toward doing it again. And there are a lot of people who want to go along for the ride if he saddles up again. “I’ve heard from a ton of agents, I’ve heard from a few players. Seven of the 12 on our roster, without me asking, have already said they want to be back. It’s a great position to be in. But for the moment, I think its okay to savor it, because we’ll have some time to make decisions to go forward.”

What we saw happen with this team was a great moment for American sport. And doesn’t it feel good to be back on top of the world again in the sport we invented? What makes it even sweeter is that a Phoenix sports icon led the charge. Jerry Colangelo made history with what he did for USA Basketball, and if he’s running the show again four years from now, do not be surprised if history has a way of repeating itself.

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