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To fix USA Basketball, Colangelo first had to fix relationship with Nike

Jul 29, 2013, 5:47 PM EDT

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 2013 Class Announcement Getty Images

Nike and USA Basketball are intertwined. They exert some influence — particularly over players we need on Team USA if we are serious about winning — and while some would argue too much control it is a reality.

So when Jerry Colangelo was given carte blanche as USA Basketball President to fix what was wrong with Team USA after the 2004 Olympics, he had to start with Nike. A well done story at NBA.com by David Aldridge details what Colangelo went through.

This all ties to LeBron James. Even back in 2004 after his rookie season, Nike knew LeBron was the future biggest star in the NBA and the guy that could sell them a lot of shoes. He went to the 2004 Olympics and sat on the bench while Larry Brown went with veterans.

Nike had watched in horror in 2004 as James, in whom the company had already invested millions, couldn’t get off Larry Brown’s bench in Athens. Whether or not James, then 19 and coming off his rookie season in the NBA, was immature at that time, or hard to get along with, wasn’t the point. He was the future of basketball, and the NBA. He was Nike’s guy. And Nike wasn’t going anywhere.

“The Nike relationship with the NBA had fallen apart,” Colangelo said. “But I had a lot of relationships there myself. Phil Knight was a partner of mine in the baseball team in Arizona. I’ve known Phil Knight for so many years. Coach [George] Raveling [currently Nike’s Director of International Basketball], dear friend of mine for many, many years. So the relationships were there. And it was a matter of re-establishing a relationship. But I wanted to make it clear to them, this wasn’t an NBA deal. This was USA Basketball. This is our own entity and brand. And that kind of opened the door.”

Here is where Colangelo deserves credit — he convinced Knight and Nike to both stay with Team USA and be a big financial sponsor, but they also let him and Mike Krzyzewski make the call on who gets to play. So yes, Nike guys like LeBron and Kobe Bryant are there, but Adidas guys like Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose can be chosen also.

That’s a tough sales job. Colangelo pulled it off.

USA Basketball has a bunch of sponsors now — including American Express, Gatorade, Jeep, and Right Guard — that includes Nike, but now the all that money the elite men’s team pulls in helps pay for youth development programs. It’s a cycle. What the big names get for their time is the chance to show off and promote their brands on the biggest international stages — and right now the pipeline of young stars wanting to play for Team USA is full.

If LeBron plays in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, it will be in part thanks to a push from Nike wanting him on that stage. Nike still has influence. But their relationship with USA Basketball is much better than it was nine years ago.

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