With the Fourth of July fireworks still a day away, some of the nation’s most talented young basketball players were immersed in red, white and blue a little early. Wearing blue and white jerseys with “USA” emblazoned across the chest, they were fighting in our Nation’s Capital for a chance to represent their country on the world stage.
On the practice court of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., the teens had gathered for the third and final day of the 2008 USA Basketball Men’s U18 National Team Trials. Fourteen remained in the running for spots on the 12-man roster selected by the USA Basketball Men’s Collegiate Committee.
The morning practice session began with the “Star” drill. As the athletes — all born on or after Jan. 1, 1990 — traced the five-pointed shape with sharp, two-handed chest passes, John Thompson III pushed the talented teens to perfection. “Hit me in the USA. Hit him in the USA.”
The leader of Georgetown’s storied program, along with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anthony Grant, are the team’s assistant coaches. To mastermind the team’s efforts, the committee tapped Bob McKillop, a former assistant coach for the National Team who led Davidson on a run to an Elite Eight matchup with eventual champion Kansas.
Those three heavyweights will run the team’s training sessions July 4-10 and its competition in the 2008 FIBA Americas U18 Championship the following week in Argentina. During the trials, however, they needed some additional manpower to run the tryouts, so the committee brought in four other collegiate coaches for the duration of the three-day trials.
One of these assistants was men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue, who last season presided over the Red’s first Ivy League title and NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years. After expressing interest in helping out with the National Team over the past few years, his break arrived this time around with his first selection as a trials court coach.
“When I got [to D.C.] I just tried to provide my services,” Donahue said, “just really trying to be support staff for the head coach and assistant coaches that are going to make the trip to Argentina. … It’s just an initial thing to help out on the floor, with the players, construction, whatever we can do to be support.”
His job, essentially, was to help get the committee the information necessary to cut an 18-man field down to 12.
“After each practice session we had a meeting ourselves with Team USA basketball committee,” Donahue said. “[Syracuse head coach and committee chair Jim Boeheim] and his committee … make their decisions based on their views as well as our input.”
Most of all, Donahue has enjoyed learning from the collegiate coaching giants McKillop, Thompson and Grant.
“[The trials have] been an opportunity for me to learn from three great head coaches. All three of them have different philosophies on different things. It’s almost been like this is a laboratory for me to go watch and see these guys work their stuff. I’ve taken great notes, mental notes. … It’s been great for me, and I know it’ll make me a better coach.”
Each individual’s style may differ, according to Donahue, but the coaching staff had specific views on what it was looking for in a representative of America.
“Coach McKillop has done a terrific job stressing that all these guys are going to play as a team,” Donahue said. “All these guys are terrific high school basketball players, and they’re going to be terrific college players. Team USA needs guys who are going to sacrifice, maybe points, and give themselves up on defense and the little things in the game.”
“When you watch the Senior Team going to Olympics, those stars are willing to give up themselves to win for their country. I think these guys have got the same attitude.”
Donahue is currently recruiting a teammate of Team USA candidate Ryan Kelly, a forward from North Carolina, and is familiar with fellow front-runner Maalik Wayns’s recruiting situation since they are both from Philadelphia, but he wasn’t sure what to expect when he came face-to-face with these heralded players.
“You hear so much about [these stars] being pampered all their life,” Donahue said. “I haven’t sensed that at all.”
The Team USA coaches, nevertheless, haven’t babied these budding superstars.
At one point in the final morning practice session, McKillop stopped a half-court 3-on-3 drill to point out that a single guard was out of position and that ruined the whole offensive scheme. He was stuck in “no-man’s land,” and the head coach used an unusual, laughter-inducing tactic to emphasize the mistake.
McKillop: “Do you guys know history? World War I? What happened when a guy got caught in no-man’s land?”
A teenage chorus: “You got shot!”
McKillop: “Well, that’s what happens.”
With this academic tilt, a Cornell-Davidson matchup could be the future incarnation of last season’s faceoff with Duke. Donahue doesn’t rule out the possibility of facing McKillop’s Wildcats or either of the assistant coaches’ teams, though the chance is slim for now.
“I think that Davidson-Cornell would be a good match,” Donahue said. “The two schools have similar academic missions, and that would be a good game. In the right situation [it would be great to play Davidson, Georgetown or VCU]. … All three of them are great programs.”
“As a coach, I feel good about the way I’ve been doing things because it’s similar in the way [the other coaches] look at things. So it almost gives me the reinforcement that they are asking [for] the same things.”
When the morning practice session on the last day of trials came to a close, the teens gave the four court coaches some send-off applause. While the 14 finalists would stay in D.C., to continue training, Donahue left the city that night with a new task at hand.
With his first USA Basketball experience under his belt, the Red coach began a month-long recruiting trip only a couple of days later.