Now maybe it will change, this culture that has many of the best young U.S. basketball players choosing other things over playing for their country. Davidson coach Bob McKillop thinks that just might be the 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball team's most enduring legacy.
McKillop, not long returned from coaching USA Basketball's under-18 team to a silver medal in the FIBA Americas U-18 Championships in Argentina, certainly hopes that's the case.
His team won the silver medal – losing to Argentina in the championship game July18 – despite the fact that the vast majority of the top high school players seemed to have better things to do than play for the United States.
“Of the top 100 kids, only 18 opted to try out for the team,” McKillop said. “Some were already enrolled in school, some chose to play at high-profile basketball camps or in AAU tournaments.”
McKillop said the coaches explained to the kids how the trip and the rowdy crowds that awaited them in Formosa, Argentina, would prepare them for the monster arenas and raucous fans of the college game.
Then there was the three-week period that McKillop and his assistants had to mold a team.
“There are a lot of minor differences in the international game that can throw a player off his game,” he said. “The rules, and the ball itself is slightly smaller, and with a different texture. It's a lot to get used to quickly.”
Despite the obstacles, Team USA won its first four games before falling 77-64 in the title game.
McKillop remembered walking through the streets of Formosa earlier that day. All the televisions in store windows were showing Argentina's gold medal victory in the 2004 Olympics. At the arena, the crowd jammed into the building.
“Standing room only, and it had the passion of an NBA championship series and a Final Four combined,” he said. “And I have that memory of how tough and talented Argentina was.”
McKillop called losing the gold “very frustrating,” but he said the experience gave him so much more than a medal.
“It was exhilarating because you had an opportunity to work at your trade, to coach, to get better at it. And work with many of the top young guys in the country.
“It was energizing, because representing the USA and being part of USA Basketball is one of the very important experiences I've had as a coach in my 35-year career.
“Once you put ‘USA' across your chest, boy, it's a proud moment.”
And he sees better things ahead.
As he watched his friend Mike Krzyzewski coach Team USA to Olympic gold, McKillop delighted in the “team” aspect, of how 12 players sublimated their own wants for the good of the group.
“It was really a point of pride, seeing tears rolling down the faces of guys like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony for the country and USA Basketball,” McKillop said. “Them wearing the flag over their shoulders was magnificent.
“I'm hoping this helps change the whole culture of our young people here in the country, that USA basketball becomes a point of pride for every player. That playing for their country moves up from being a second or third option.”
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