When the 2004 Olympics came to a conclusion in Athens, Greece, NBA commissioner David Stern knew he had a crisis on his hands. Twelve years after the Dream Team had been the talk of the Barcelona Olympics, the U.S. had been humiliated – barely managing to win a bronze medal in basketball. Two years earlier, in the World Championships, the U.S. had finished a stunning sixth, losing three times during the competition.
Not only was the country that invented basketball no longer dominant in the sport, it was no longer very good at it. American basketball hadn’t just taken a beating in Athens, it had been humiliated, with players carping at coaches and vice versa.
Sound familiar, golf fans?
“It was time to do something,” the now-retired Stern said recently, remembering those dark days 10 years ago. “When we first got involved in the Olympics and in international basketball, I thought we should defer to people. We let USA Basketball control things. In fact, we let FIBA (the International Basketball Association) control things internationally. Basically, the U.S. just supplied players and coaches.
“After Athens though, I realized that wasn’t working,” Stern said. “We weren’t in charge, but we were taking the blame when things went wrong. I decided if we were going to get blamed, we might as well be in charge.”
Stern didn’t appoint a committee to study the problem. Along with his deputy commissioner Russ Granik, he decided what needed to be done, and did it.
“I’ve always believed if you’re dealing with a bureaucracy, any bureaucracy, you figure out what needs to be done first,” Stern said. “Then you let the bureaucracy think it has come up with the solution. It isn’t all that difficult to do.”
Video: Basketball analyst Jay Bilas on USA Basketball and Ryder Cup
Stern put Jerry Colangelo in charge of USA Basketball, creating a managing director title for him so that none of the bureaucrats who had been running the organization were displaced. They were just told quietly that Colangelo would be making all the important decisions going forward. Then, Stern, Granik and Colangelo decided that Mike Krzyzewski would be the next coach.
Since the advent of the Dream Team in 1992, the Olympic coaches had all come from the NBA. Krzyzewski was a college coach, having won three national championships at Duke. If Stern and Colangelo had left the selection of a coach in the hands of any sort of committee, there is no way a college coach would have been selected to lead NBA players.
“My thought was that this wasn’t just about picking the next Olympic coach,” Stern said. “We needed a change in culture. We needed to somehow convince players – not just the stars of our league but, perhaps more importantly, young elite players who hadn’t played internationally yet – that, corny as it may sound, representing your country is not only a good thing but is something you should strive for; something that should be a goal.
“That hadn’t been the case in the past. Players took part because they thought they were obligated to or perhaps because it might help their marketing. Those aren’t the reasons you want someone to be on your team.”
Stern wanted Krzyzewski for reasons that went beyond basketball.
“He had gone to West Point,” he said. “He had served overseas in the Army. He could talk first hand to players of all ages about what it means to really represent your country in a way that may be a little bit tougher than setting a hard screen or taking a charge. He could take our teams to military bases and to West Point and say, ‘I was a player, I was a coach, but I did this ,too.’ And he could introduce them to men and women who were doing this. Most of all he could bring real passion for the whole thing to the table. He passed that passion on to the players at all levels.
“He got LeBron James to buy in but he also got kids coming out of high school to buy in, too. That’s why we’ve not only been dominant in the Olympics and World Championships (the U.S. has won the last two Olympics and the last two World Championships) but also at the junior levels, 19-and-under tournaments, things like that.
“He and Jerry have built something that should serve USA Basketball well for a long time. We’re dominant again – which is as it should be.”
Solving the U.S. problems in the Ryder Cup may not be nearly as easy. But Stern’s model would seem to make a lot more sense than the notion of having 11 men somehow try to reach a consensus on what is or is not important and on who should captain the U.S. in 2016 and beyond. As Stern noted, any kind of bureaucracy slows down decision-making and often results in wrong decisions made for the wrong reasons.
The PGA of America needs to put someone in charge – the way Stern did with Colangelo – and let that person decide who, as captain, can best help change the culture of American golf.
There’s little doubt that the biggest gap between the American Ryder Cup team and the European Ryder Cup team the last 20 years hasn’t been talent, it’s been passion. The European players grow up believing that there’s no event that’s more important than the Ryder Cup. You will never hear an American player say that, as a kid, he stood on the putting green at sunset and told himself, ‘This putt is to clinch the Ryder Cup.’
American’s dream of the Masters and the U.S. Open. Europeans dream those dreams, too – but they dream about the Ryder Cup just as often.
What needs to be done is not so much about appointing the next captain or even changing the rules for selecting the team, but it’s about the culture. You can’t create passion just by saying, ‘let’s be passionate,’ or by putting a pingpong table into the team room. You have to make Americans understand long before they turn pro, or even get to college, that the Ryder Cup should matter to them every bit as much as the Masters.
Phil Mickelson claimed in his post-singles anti-Tom Watson rant that Paul Azinger’s style as captain had made the players more invested in the Ryder Cup. If a captain has to convince players to be invested in winning, the U.S. is in trouble. Years ago, when Tiger Woods was asked about his relatively mediocre Ryder Cup record his response was: “What was Jack (Nicklaus)’s Ryder Cup record?” The point being that no one remembers you for playing well in Ryder Cups; they remember you for winning majors.
That’s not true in Europe. Colin Montgomerie is in the World Golf Hall of Fame because of his Ryder Cup record. Ian Poulter, who has never won a major, is a huge star because of his heroics in the Ryder Cup.
The best man for that job right now would be David B. Fay, the retired executive director of the USGA. It may seem anathema to the PGA of America to hire someone who spent his life at the USGA, but it would be a smart move. What’s more, Pete Bevacqua, the PGA of America’s CEO, worked for Fay and knows how bright he is.
Fay is pragmatic and would have a plan. His ideas would go beyond picking a captain. Maybe he could convince the PGA Tour to make the President’s Cup into an under-23 event to help younger players prepare to represent their country and to get into the spirit of an international team event after they turn pro and can’t play in the Walker Cup.
There’s no one right idea or an easy or quick fix. But, rather than appoint committees, the PGA of America should pick one leader and say to him, ‘make this better.’
That’s what Stern did 10 years ago. It worked out pretty well.