Coach Trip: How the choir of influential voices enhanced Team USA’s Tokyo 2021 experience

When USA Basketball Men’s National Team Managing Director Jerry Colangelo began to assemble his coaching staff for the Olympics this summer, he knew he would be building alongside the modern NBA’s most accomplished head coach – Gregg Popovich. The San Antonio Spurs legend’s name carries enough weight alone, but the Americans also took the ‘coach by committee’ approach, hoping to further supplement the development of their uniquely brilliant playing roster.

After his team earned the gold medal against France on Friday night, Pop described the experience of coaching the national team as ‘the most responsibility I’ve ever felt’. That external pressure was felt by the assistant coaches too, as expressed by Villanova University Men’s Head Coach and Hall of Fame inductee Jay Wright.

There’s a natural pressure when you are part of the USA team,” Wright said. “I know Pop knows that and embraces that – we all do. With Pop though, win or lose, we’ve got a chance to have a good meal.”

Joining them at the dinner table for a glass or two were Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr and Indiana Pacers Assistant Lloyd Pierce, who both officially served as Assistants.

Recently-hired Boston Celtics Head Coach Ime Udoka and his new Assistant Will Hardy also served as coaches in the American camp, further enhancing their relationship with Pop, under whom they earned their stripes in San Antonio.

Finally, USA basketball mainstay Jeff Van Gundy could also be found, seemingly working one-on-one with players such as Damian Lillard.

“Just being here and having the experience of being around other top-level coaches like Pop – he’s Pop, I don’t need to go into that,” Lillard said as he prepared for the gold medal game. “But being around Steve Kerr, even Lloyd Pierce who has been around a long time – I met LP when I was 16 years old. Jay Wright, a Hall of Fame coach, Ime Udoka, it has just been great. Jeff Van Gundy, I feel like I’ve had the most conversations with Jeff Van Gundy, just on the side basket, we actually worked out today.”

The beauty of forming this Avengers-style mob of accomplished basketball voices is the availability of fresh perspective. Players who spend the majority of the year working exclusively with a certain group are afforded the chance to attend something of a basketball clinic, mining from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to high-level experience in the NBA and further afield. Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine found himself adjusting his muscle memory and embracing the journey.

Just like the collective group of players we have is some of the best players in the world, it’s the same with the coaches. Different thoughts, different great basketball minds working together. I have taken away different ideas, different schemes.”

USA Basketball men’s all-time Olympic leading scorer and Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant also clutched at the opportunity to learn from and rely on the group.

“Yeah man, you’ve got champions over there and guys that have been around the game for so long, seen the evolution of the game, can teach us a bunch,” Durant affirmed. “It’s always a different perspective from guys inside the action to somebody that’s just outside watching it. The best thing about our coaching staff is that we all have an open dialogue in what needs to happen in practice, games and they listen. It’s been a great relationship.”

Not many basketball anecdotes carry as much value as those from previous Olympic Games – Charles Barkley roaming Las Ramblas in the wee hours comes to mind – but the on-court action is immortalised too. Players have a near endless supply of ‘war stories’ from their respective careers. Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo enjoyed hearing the equivalent tales from Pop’s staff.

“It’s great because you’ve got coaches from all different aspects of the game and you need that when a Team USA is assembled. You can listen to the different stories of times they’ve won or when other teams have won, all the battles they went through. It’s good because it’s like us – we’ve all had battles within the lines against each other, so it’s great to hear that from coaches also.”

Similarly to Adebayo, a portion of the team had only played under one head coach for the entirety of their NBA career. Damian Lillard had spent almost a decade under the tutelage of coach Terry Stotts in Portland before his departure this summer. While he values that relationship above most, Lillard’s trip to Tokyo was elevated by the ability to be part of a new conversation.  

“I’ve played my whole career for one coach, those nine years were a great nine years, we got along really well, we experienced a lot of success together and that was a relationship that I cherished, I wanted it to last forever. That was my guy.

“But having one coach for nine years, I never experienced another coach’s thoughts or how they do things. So, to be here and to be around so many high-level coaches, to see their way as to what I’ve become accustomed to has been pretty cool.”

Much of Team USA’s early challenges as the Olympics began, which included a jarring loss in their opener against France, may have come from the need for role definition. With most players on the roster accustomed to leading their NBA team, guys quickly began to realise that something else was needed from them. Durant became the de-facto go-to scorer on the team while some of his teammates had to find new ways to help their team off-ball. It required a sacrifice that LaVine thinks the collective were able to make.

“What I didn’t expect was just how well everybody was able to put their ego aside, us and the coaches included. For the greater good, people take a step back or play different roles to get the job done and I think it’s a beautiful thing.”

Much of the success of this coaching staff has been attributed to their ability to connect with the players, on a human level. Their film sessions took place during their ‘good meals’, they would involve themselves in competitive raillery and would only draw the line at joining one of the cross-team Uno sessions.

They stay out of that,” Adebayo joked. “That’s intense, too intense for the coaches.”

Durant feels as though the coaches’ approach enhanced Team USA’s experience in Tokyo. He too valued the autonomy allowed and trust afforded by them. It’s clear that he and his teammates will reflect on this trip with gratitude, in part due to the environment created for them by Pop’s team.

“We’ve got a lot of respected coaches in this locker room and they know exactly how to deal with this calibre of player every day. It’s not like they’re just on us, preaching stuff to us every day, they kind of let us be who we are and when the time is right, they speak up and hold us accountable. That’s only going to make us better.”