Mascots, merchandise giveaways, and hot dog stands had the feel of an NBA arena, not the U.S. Olympic men’s team’s workout.
Of course this was no game. It was practice.
The U.S. Olympic basketball team went through a most unusual workout Saturday, an open practice for military personnel and families at the D.C. Armory that felt more like Midnight Madness on a college campus than a team getting ready to defend a gold medal.
“We understand it’s kind of – actually every day with USA Basketball is a little bit different,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Not bad, but certainly different. But today was different in a very spectacular way. All of our guys were proud to be here.”
The best dunks were not by LeBron James or his U.S. teammates, but by G-Man, the Washington Wizards mascot who struggled a bit early before getting better as his routine went along.
Of course, the Americans don’t have games that count in two weeks.
And while France, the Americans’ opening opponent in London, was playing an exhibition game against fellow medal contender and reigning Olympic silver medalist Spain on Saturday, the Americans were taking part in what felt like a pep rally, a workout environment loaded with distractions.
Yet because of the people watching, and Krzyzewski’s military background, the day was worth it for the Americans.
“Coach K talked about this being such a great day for USA Basketball, but for America, and understood the significance of it,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played for Krzyzewski at Duke and served as the emcee of the practice.
“To be able to come here and say thank you for our men and women in uniform, they were here today but they’ve always been there, they’ve always been there for us.”
Krzyzewski played and coached at the U.S. Military Academy and attained the rank of captain before resigning from the Army in 1974. He has had a career-long dedication to USA Basketball, being involved with 12 teams as a head or assistant coach.
Bilas said when Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo began putting together the national team program in 2005, they sought to emulate the military in some ways. Service people were involved throughout the day, from a shooting contest in which a representative from each branch teamed with a U.S. player, to a moving moment at the end of practice in which soldiers gave the American flag patch from their sleeve to a U.S. player to carry to London.
“Just being here in front of these guys, the troops and the military, you can’t put into words how that made us feel,” forward Carmelo Anthony said.
Syracuse didn’t hold Midnight Madness, but Anthony experienced what it felt like Saturday, going through drills before a sometimes loud crowd of thousands of fans.
“I never heard nobody cheer in practice before,” Anthony said. “Coach K usually don’t let nobody talk in practice, but I don’t know how he was going to control to this crowd today.”
Put together jointly with Nike, the practice as part of what’s called the “World Basketball Festival.” Music blared outside and the sneaker company’s influence was everywhere, from the merchandise stands to the display of sneakers worn by Dream Team members during the 1992 Olympics.
The crowd included Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who dined with the Americans on Friday night, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who played at Harvard, and former Georgetown stars and gold medalists Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning. They sat with their college coach, John Thompson, who understood why the Americans’ motivation Saturday.
“That’s what you do when you have a group of guys like this,” he said. “You don’t have to sit down with a lot of serious stuff.”
Despite all the noise, Krzyzewski and his players felt they got work done.
They scrimmaged more than he thought they would, time even put back on the clock to play longer at one point at the request of Kevin Durant, playing in front of his hometown fans. The Americans haven’t been able to play much full court against each other while frequently short-handed during their training in Las Vegas.
They will have a normal workout Sunday before playing an exhibition Monday against Brazil, and believe Saturday got them more prepared for it, despite the unusual circumstances.
“It was fun, especially getting to play in front of the men and service women that protect our country,” forward Kevin Love said. “So it was fun to be here play with these guys and put on a little show for the fans.”