A Quinn Buckner Q&A of Olympic Proportions
In addition to his duties as the Vice President of Communications for Pacers Sports & Entertainment and analyst on the Pacersí television broadcasts, Quinn Buckner also serves on the USA Basketball Executive Committee as Vice President for Menís Programs. The former Indiana University star was a captain of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in Montreal.
Q. As Vice President for Menís Programs with USA Basketball, what are your primary areas of responsibility?
A. The job includes all of the menís programs from the Senior National Team, which is the Olympic team, our collegiate and under-21 teams, and we have a development festival. This year, in addition to high school seniors, we went down to the freshmen and sophomores for the first time in what weíre calling a developmental camp. We had a camp in New York and what weíre trying to do is get the fundamentals back in the game. Weíre trying to do it in two facets. Weíre trying to teach the young people about the fundamentals but we also think an area of concern, without being disparaging, is coaching. Whoís coaching the kids? We had Pete Newell, the great coach from the 1960 Olympic team, headline that for us and weíre looking to expand that this coming season.
Q. How would you characterize the current struggles the U.S. team has had with its well-publicized exhibition loss to Italy and Olympic opening-round loss to Puerto Rico? Have you seen this coming? Is it an aberration?
A. Itís a byproduct of the original Dream Team. That team inspired a lot of international players, and thatís good for basketball. The tough part about it is Iím not sure all of the American players, the NBA included, appreciate how much it inspired them. In 2000, we almost lost to Lithuania (an 85-83 victory). We knew that was a problem. We came to Indianapolis and finished sixth in the 2002 World Championship (losing to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain). So it was very evident the gap was closing. We donít have a national team, so different people are filling the gaps, so theyíre not responding in unity. Thatís part of it. The other part of it, frankly, is theyíre two different games. The international game is more structured toward a real group dynamic Ė share it, screen, get something for the other person. The NBA game, because of the talent level of the individuals, is geared more toward two-on-two or three-on-three but to a lesser degree five-on-five. Thatís a real adjustment. Going into the international game with different rules, playing a different game in different venues, the U.S. has to make a bigger adjustment than the international competition.
Q. To address the issue of team unity, USA Basketball decided in 2003 to name a ďcore groupĒ of players that would comprise the nucleus of the U.S. rosters for international competitions. But because of injuries and withdrawals, only one of the original four players named to that group (Tim Duncan) is in Athens (the others were Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd and Ray Allen). Only three players from the 2003 team that qualified for the Olympics by winning the Tournament of the Americas in Puerto Rico last summer (Duncan, Allen Iverson and Richard Jefferson) are in Athens. Is that lack of continuity also a problem?
A. The world has changed. The basketball world was not unaffected by 9/11. We thought we had it pretty well situated and guys were comfortable. But we had a sense in Puerto Rico that there were growing concerns about how guys were going to go forward because of security issues, and you canít blame them. Though you may or may not have (the same concerns), you canít blame them because they have families and they have legitimate issues.
Q. Though the publicity generated by the loss to Puerto Rico has been negative, can it in some way be used to help achieve a greater long-term good?
A. I think itís good for basketball. I really do. I know Iím sitting here in a USA Basketball position, but I think itís good for the sport. We exported the game internationally. Theyíre very good students, they learned it and they gave it back to us. Now the question is, do we rise again? So it fosters a higher level of play all the way up the basketball chain. It forces everybody to look at what we donít do well in the country. I wouldnít be surprised if we hear a lot more about ramping up that developmental camp process because part of what you see is the inability to knock down a fundamental jump shot and the recognition of what to do against a zone defense. Itís really fundamental basketball. All of those things come under scrutiny, and they should, so I think itís good for basketball.
Q. What needs to change in terms of structure in the U.S., to address the current problems?
A. Weíve got to look at the way we put the team together and the whole training period. Do we consider trials? You have to ask those questions. If you go with the top 10 players on the All-NBA team, you may be able to get away with two or three weeks of practice. But if you donít get seven of those guys, youíve got to figure out where the balance is. If you do any less than that, youíre not being realistic about the challenge. These international teams play better at their style of basketball than the U.S. does. Itís just that simple.
Q. Would going back to the old system using college players rather than NBA players be considered?
A. It canít work. College players are just not good enough. Go back to the time when you were a freshman in college, then think about when you were 25 and compare the difference emotionally and physically. And because of a lot of the really good players are leaving college early or not going to college, youíre further down in terms of where you are on the talent pyramid. The skill level wouldnít be high enough, and youíre talking about boys going against men who have played the international game for some time. I donít think we go back.
Q. Could a potential solution include broadening the authority of USA Basketball as a true governing body of American basketball?
A. Structurally, every basketball governing body is under USA Basketball, so it might be the right umbrella. I think what we have to do is provide the venue for the NCAA, high school federations and the NBA to come together. Itís going to be a slow process, but thatís really what weíre trying to do. I think we have a systemic problem in basketball, in the way the young people are brought up through the system. Theyíre brought up basically just trying to get ahead, not learning how to play basketball. We have to find a way to stem that, because thatís why fundamentals are down.
Q. Though there was a brief uproar after the 2002 World Basketball Championship, and it has rekindled, will losing in the Olympics shake us enough that we truly re-evaluate how basketball is developed in this country?
A. The reaction that Iíve gotten in the last few days over losing in the Olympics suggests to me there is a great deal of passion about how people feel about basketball, particularly our basketball as it relates to the United States in the Olympics. So yes, I do think it will make a difference. I expect us to get more calls about how USA Basketball can be a more effective body in helping direct the system as I see it back in the direction it was when Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley took it to the pinnacle. Since then, I donít know if weíve been on a decline, but everyone else has been on an incline toward us.
Q. Are we still the best in the world in basketball?
A. Yes. If we put our best five out against the best five in the world, I firmly believe weíre the best. But when you start down the talent pyramid, the gap closes.