LOS ANGELES -- Rebuilt, redeemed and reaffirmed, the U.S. men’s basketball program heads into the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games with another R-word looming: Reload.
With memories of the program’s early 2000s underachievement (including an Olympic bronze medal in 2004) now firmly in the review mirror, the generation that brought respectability back to USA Basketball’s men’s program is in the midst of its first major transition.
Gone is Kobe Bryant, veteran of the past two U.S. Olympic Teams and five NBA championships, who is retiring after the NBA season. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the only active players with three Olympic Games under their belts, are still in their early 30s but seem much older as they play through their 13th NBA season.
Looming most ominously, though, is the impending departure of Mike Krzyzewski, the record-setting Duke coach who has led the national team since 2006 — guiding them to a 75-1 record, two Olympic gold medals and two world titles in the process.
Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same.
USA Basketball is trading one legendary coach for another as Gregg Popovich, winner of five NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs, is set to take over after Rio.
As the past generation of superstars grows older, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the high-flying Golden State Warriors are injecting new life into the sport.
Meanwhile, Jerry Colangelo, the lead architect of the U.S. turnaround as the national team’s managing director, has pledged to stay through the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“(Popovich) said I’ll do the Olympics in 2020 and the qualifying after Rio, but you have to stay,” Colangelo, 76, said. “So that kind of forced my hand. It didn’t take much of a pull, because I love the game.”
Now comes the hard stuff, like cutting the pool of 31 players down to a final 12-man Olympic team in late June, and then the little matter of defending the Olympic gold medal in August in Rio.
Although the current pool includes a who’s who of the top American NBA players, Colangelo, speaking Wednesday at the Team USA Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton, said he expects some of the decisions to make themselves as players have to withdraw due to injuries or family or contract reasons.
“If there were a few who decided not to participate, it makes my job a little bit easier,” Colangelo said.
Still, any cuts will be difficult, especially because the USA Basketball staff will make all of its decisions based on play in the NBA and analytics, Colangelo said, rather than holding a selection camp.
Those players selected will go to Las Vegas around July 17 for a training camp before playing exhibition games around the country and finally heading to Rio.
Colangelo wouldn’t speculate on individual players except, in reference to a question about injured forward Blake Griffin, to say that, “Everything that’s happened in this season this year will have a bearing on who we select.”
Colangelo said he is also holding off on any decision on U.S. assistant coach Monty Williams, whose wife Ingrid was killed in a car crash last month in Oklahoma City.
“I’ve chosen not to even talk to him about what his plans are,” Colangelo said. “I don’t need to know anything right now.”
Though, he added that he has a plan in place should Williams decide not to take part in the Games.
As he’s done since taking control of the national team in 2005, Colangelo has created a long-term plan for the team, and as obstacles come up he refuses to waver.
“After ’04, in the loss in Athens, we were on a mission, and the mission was to get back,” Colangelo said. “We were climbing the hill as we went to Beijing. In my mind, as the (gold) medals were being awarded and ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was being played, it was a moment of full fulfillment for me.”
And it’s a moment that, by all indications, could very well be replayed again soon.
Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.