May 25, 2024

Making Stephen Curry ‘giddy’ is only part of Grant Hill’s to-do list for USA Basketball


NEW YORK – As with most things in this era of the NBA, of all its superstars, Stephen Curry’s moment was the most memorable. To Grant Hill, at least.

Hill had crisscrossed the country in the last week or so, wanting to let players hear it directly from him, the managing director of USA Basketball’s men’s national team, that they’d made the 2024 Summer Olympic Team. USA Basketball had finalized its list of 12 invitees a couple of weeks ago but wanted to time the announcement of the team to coincide with the 100-day countdown mark to the Opening Ceremonies of the Games, on Wednesday.

Hill had arranged to tell nine of the 12 players himself, in person, but left a few, including Curry, in the capable hands of people like Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who would also be Curry’s Olympic Team coach, while Hill joined them remotely.

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“It was Friday night,” Hill recalled on Wednesday, at the USA Media Summit, where 100 or so U.S. athletes on various Olympic and Paralympic teams, along with officials from the U.S. Paralympic and Olympic Committee, and support staff, met with reporters over three days.

The Warriors had just finished playing the Pelicans at Chase Center. Golden State’s legendary media relations director, Raymond Ritter, had planned to bring Curry into Kerr’s office, where Kerr, along with former “Run-TMC” Warriors star and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, would give Curry the good news. At long last, after he’d had to miss the 2016 Games in Rio because of knee and ankle injuries, and decided to skip the 2020 Games in Tokyo (which were pushed back to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic), Curry would be an Olympian – as Mullin had been, as a member of the celebrated 1992 “Dream Team” in Barcelona.

So, Hill waited for the call. And waited. And waited.

“Well, Steph takes an hour and a half to lift after the game,” Hill says.

“I go back to my (hotel) room. We have a 4 o’clock lobby call to fly to Minnesota (to tell Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards that he’d made the team). And Raymond calls me at 2:30 a.m., wakes me out of my sleep, and puts me on FaceTime with Steph. I don’t even know what I said. But he was almost giddy. It was like, here’s this guy, who’s done everything he’s done, and he was excited, like a little kid. It was refreshing. …He was authentic. And it was him. That’s who he is. And you could feel it, even through the phone. It was special.”

The whirlwind tour resulted in a U.S. team that is strongly favored to again win the Olympic gold medal. The roster is stacked with multiple Olympic gold medalists. Kevin Durant, who is the best international player of his era on the men’s side, already has three gold medals, from 2012, 2016 and 2020. And, Durant’s performance for the U.S. World Cup gold medal team was one of the great individual performances ever by a U.S. men’s player in international competition.

LeBron James has two gold medals (2008, 2016). Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Jayson Tatum were all on the 2020 gold medal-winning squad. Joel Embiid opting to play for the U.S. team rather than France — the reigning NBA MVP received French citizenship in 2022, and apparently told French President Emmanuel Macron in 2021 that he would play for Les Blues — tilted the board even further in the Americans’ direction.

The buy-in was complete. While broadcasting a Lakers game for TNT last year, Hill approached James, who wasn’t playing that night, but had just broken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record a few days earlier.

“I said, ‘Hey, man, I need you in Paris,’” Hill said. “And he was like, ‘I’m in.’ It was casual. It was halftime. People say things in the moment. But we circled back last year, and there was never any, from that moment on, any doubt he was going to do it.”

There will be, though, real challengers in Lille and Paris. The host French, looking to bounce back from a nightmare performance at last year’s FIBA World Cup, when it was bounced in the preliminary round, will almost certainly be rebuilt around Spurs rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama, along with other up-and-coming talent such as the Wizards’ Bilal Coulibaly, potential 2024 NBA Draft top pick Alexandre Sarr, and likely lottery picks Zaccharie Risacher and Tidjane Salaun.

Canada could have a potential monster squad in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jamal Murray, R.J. Barrett, Dillon Brooks, Luguentz Dort, Dwight Powell, Kelly Olynyk and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. (Andrew Wiggins’ status is apparently uncertain, after he declined to commit to play past 2020.)

Australia, which won the bronze in Tokyo four years ago, securing the country’s first-ever men’s basketball medal in Olympic play, will field a team led by the Thunder’s Josh Giddey, the Pelicans’ Dyson Daniels, the Mavericks’ Dante Exum, the Spurs’ Jock Landale, likely first-round pick Johnny Furphy from Kansas and longtime national team veterans Patty Mills, Matisse Thybulle and Joe Ingles.

The pressure is on Hill, himself a former gold medal winner for Team USA, in 1996, and Kerr, after the U.S. team’s subpar fourth-place showing in last year’s World Cup. Team USA lost to eventual gold medal winner Germany in the semifinals, then lost to Canada in the bronze medal game.

“Even though we won the (Olympic) gold medal in ’21, we didn’t fare well last summer,” Hill said. “And then, maybe, because we have sort of overwhelming amount of talent, there’s almost a feeling that we have to. … reset things. I’ve sensed that a little bit, from talking to folks. There’s an excitement and an eagerness to get there from these guys, and show what we’re capable of. And that’s exciting.”

The ’23 World Cup results, though reveal a dilemma going forward. As ever, USA Basketball can field an Olympic team with little difficulty. While the rest of the world puts much greater value on winning world championships/World Cups, many of the top U.S. men’s players remain fixated on the Olympics. The problem has been more acute since FIBA, in 2014, moved the World Cup cycle from two years between Olympic Games to just one. The next World Cup will be in Qatar in 2027, a year before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Under the old format, with two years between the World Cup and Olympics, USA Basketball could get commitments from players to play both on the World Cup and Olympic teams. But with just one year now between the World Cup and Olympics, NBA players would have to commit to essentially giving up consecutive summers to play international competition. Most of the elite players will only pick one.

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Team USA will be fully stocked this time around. But Hill has a million logistical challenges on his plate. With families now allowed back in the host Olympic country after being kept away from Japan in 2020 because of COVID, USA Basketball will have to ferry people back and forth the 140 miles between Lille and Paris the first week of competition. Fortunately, there are multiple off days between games in the preliminary round, so people can get back and forth between the cities if they like. (They will not be using public transportation, it’s safe to say.)

And, while many NBA players and almost all of the league’s superstars live on Instagram or their YouTube channels, doing so during an Olympics presents the potential for trouble. It’s one thing for an athlete in a non front-facing sport to tell the world that he or she is at the Louvre. It’s not as smart a play for Curry or Embiid to do so.

“I serve on two corporate boards,” Hill said. “I’m not on the audit committee on either one of them, but one of the great risks in corporate America is cybersecurity. And so I’ve learned more the last couple of years about what that is, and the precautions necessary. And I do think with this group, because of their stature, what they’ve had to experience in their everyday life, I think they’re active on social media. But I think they’re also very much careful, and they’re very much aware. … this is a global stage. You’re being watched everywhere. And that’ll be a point of emphasis for them.”

It’s all part of the challenge Hill faces since taking over for Jerry Colangelo, who led the U.S. return to prominence in men’s basketball during his 16-year reign as USA Basketball’s managing director. Colangelo inherited a program that had been embarrassed at the 2002 World Cup in Indianapolis, finishing sixth, and which self-immolated on the world stage at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Colangelo had carte blanche to fix things, and understood the assignment.

Making the team invite-only — Colangelo’s invite — gave being on the U.S. team exclusivity, and more cachet. (Nike just gave players on the U.S. team more, uh, cash.) Colangelo brought Duke’s Mike Kryzezewski on as coach, and after an initial stumble at the 2006 Worlds, the 2008 “Redeem Team,” led by Coach K, James and Kobe Bryant, re-established U.S. hegemony on the men’s side. (This is not yet an issue for the U.S. women’s team, which has won seven straight Olympic gold medals since 1996, and hasn’t lost in any international tournament since 2006.)

“I think what I learned from him, just being around him in general, is leadership,” Hill said of Colangelo, “and making tough decisions, having a standard, having a vision, empowering people. That’s something that has served me well. … inviting guys, but also letting people down and having to have those uncomfortable conversations, that you’re not on the team. And doing it the right way, treating people the right way.”

(Photo of Grant Hill: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)





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