ABU DHABI – The players and coaches on USA Basketball’s roster for the World Cup that starts next week are in possession of a combined 16 NBA championship rings.
The breakdown of those rings: Coaches 15, Players 1.
Make no mistake, there are some rising star players on this U.S. roster: Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Brandon Ingram and Jaren Jackson Jr. have already been All-Stars, Jalen Brunson should be one soon, Jackson Jr. is the reigning NBA defensive player of the year and Paolo Banchero is the NBA rookie of the year.
But the biggest names in terms of star power might be the guys who’ll wear polo shirts, not jerseys. The U.S. assembled an All-Star coaching staff for this tournament, with Golden State’s Steve Kerr leading a group that has the Los Angeles Clippers’ Tyronn Lue, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Gonzaga’s Mark Few as his assistants.
“It’s kind of cool to step away from our regular teams and come to another team setting where we all have to figure it out on the fly and figure it out fast,” said U.S. forward Bobby Portis, who won a championship with Milwaukee in 2021. “Steve Kerr does a great job of putting us in position to be our best and use our strengths to the best of our ability. I love everything he does, and we have a hell of a coaching staff
"Mark Few, obviously he’s done a hell of a job at Gonzaga. Tyronn Lue, a hell of an NBA player and NBA coach. And then Erik Spoelstra, I think his resume kind of speaks for itself.”
Kerr is a nine-time NBA champion; five as a player, four as a coach with the Warriors. Spoelstra has three rings, two as a head coach with the Heat. Lue has three rings; two as a player, one as Cleveland’s coach. Few’s worst season in 24 years at Gonzaga was a 23-11 year in 2006-07, and he’s guided the Zags to 14 top-10 finishes in the AP Top 25 poll.
There are several coaches that have NBA or North American ties that are leading teams in the tournament. It's an impressive group, though none have the credentials of those on the U.S. staff — who should end up in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But first, they’ll chase gold at the World Cup, with the U.S. set to play all its games in the Philippines while other early games also take place in Japan and Indonesia.
“I bet if you asked Erik and Ty and Mark why we’re doing this, they’d say something similar. We love what we do,” Kerr said. “We’re so lucky to do what we do. This is a unique and different experience than coaching in the NBA. For me, I didn’t want to one day say ‘I could have done that and said no.’ This is six weeks of my offseason. Maybe right now that sounds like a lot, but years from now, that six weeks is going to seem like nothing. ... "We’ll remember this for the rest of our lives.”
Kerr is enormously popular, given his role on the Chicago title teams as a player and the following the Warriors have. Spoelstra might have more fans than anyone in the Philippines; the Heat are a huge brand there and his mother hails from that country. Lue has the panache that comes from playing with or coaching some of the biggest names in basketball: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Kidd, Kawhi Leonard among them.
All have different backgrounds, different styles, and it works.
“It’s kind of funny,” Lue said. “You have all these different coaches and the terminology is so different. We might call a double drag ‘77’ or ‘delay,’ Steve calls it ‘open,’ Mark calls it ‘zoom’ … it’s all the same action. We just find ourselves laughing more times than not, but when guys are talking, guys are really listening. There’s a lot of respect around that room.”
The players are the on-court stars. The coaches might be the rock stars. And there are far more people involved than just Kerr and his assistants. Jeff Van Gundy is helping run the scouting, the highly regarded Chip Engelland is with the team to aid with shooting, a Basketball Hall of Famer in Grant Hill is the managing director and longtime USA Basketball executive Sean Ford — who past U.S. coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Gregg Popovich still rave about — might know as much about the FIBA game as anyone.
“One of the best things about USA Basketball, and it’s true whether you’re a player or whether you’re a staff member, is it’s about the program,” Spoelstra said. “And it’s about sacrificing, it’s about being a part of it and doing whatever we need to do collectively to come back with gold. I’ve admired Steve for a long time, and how he conducts himself and his sustained success. I’ve really admired Ty Lue and his journey and the success that he’s had and how he operates. And Mark and I go way back … two guys from Oregon, and it’s been great to reconnect.”
It just sort of happened that this team doesn’t have any Warriors, Heat or Clippers players on it. The 12 players come from 10 NBA teams, and while everyone knows each other from being on opposite sides of the court during the season these weeks together give the players the chance to learn how other coaches think – and vice versa.
For the next month or so, it’s one team with one goal, and the coaches are setting that tone.
“I just love being around great minds,” said Haliburton, Indiana’s standout guard. “You can see guys’ wheels turning sometimes. I can look at Spo and Ty when we’re doing defensive stuff and it’s like I can see the inside of their brain just spinning. That’s so cool to me. I’ve had great games against all these coaches, but I want to earn their respect here too"