LONDON – Twenty years ago, the Olympic Dream Team was the hippest story of the Barcelona Games. NBA owners, among them Jerry Colangelo of the Phoenix Suns, proudly waved the flag as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird brought global attention to the game invented in the U.S.
Times have changed. NBA owners are now pushing for an age limit for future Olympians that would dramatically alter the roster of the U.S. men’s basketball team.
However, that won’t happen if Colangelo, chairman of Team USA and no longer a member of the owners fraternity, has anything to say about it.
NBA Commissioner David Stern and owners want to restrict players over the age of 23 from playing on the team. They are wary of the wear and tear the Olympic program has on their talent after an 82-game NBA schedule and the long playoffs that follow, arguing sending their highest-paid athletes to represent the country endangers their most valuable assets.
“The game comes first, money comes second,” he said at a team practice. “I’m not quite sure that’s true for all owners in sports.”
Colangelo said lowering the age limit would deny NBA stars an opportunity to play for their country. For example, guard James Harden, a former Arizona State University star, would not have made this year’s team because of the age rule.
“I don’t think that rule should be put into (effect),” Harden said. “That would mean that I couldn’t come back. The majority of the guys that play, the faces of the NBA, are 26 (or) 27, so that means they wouldn’t be allowed to play (either).
Ultimately, the decision isn’t Colangelo’s. But he is lobbying owners not to impose the rule. He said players want to decide whether or not to play for the Olympic team.
“They love it,” Colangelo said. “I mean, it’s pretty hard to argue with something as simple as supporting the flag and representing your country.”
As a former owner of the Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Mercury, Colangelo put Phoenix on the sports map. He was also a major player in the Winnipeg Jets relocating to Phoenix as the Coyotes.
Colangelo brought his expertise to Team USA at the request of Stern after the 2004 Athens Olympics, which ended with an embarrassing bronze medal behind Argentina and Italy.
“At the time, the commissioner said he thought I was the only person who had the credibility and the respect of the players and people around the world because of my experience and because of my resume,” he said.
Colangelo revamped the USA basketball program, including its junior and women’s teams. His approach has resulted in the Redeem Team winning the gold in 2008 in Beijing and the London Olympics team, led by LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, being favorites to repeat.
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said Colangelo has been the instrumental in the program’s dramatic turnaround.
“He’s given us a great business model for USA Basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s done it by developing great standards and getting good people around him. He’s the main reason why we’ve been able to change the culture here.”
This year’s team has drawn comparisons to the original Dream Team, but even the architect of this star-laden group doesn’t buy it. Colangelo said it’s more appropriate to compare this year’s team with the younger team four years ago that included many of the same players.
“There will only be one real Dream Team,” Colangelo said. “It’s as simple as that, and to make comparisons is kind of ludicrous.”