Jay Wright called being a part of the coaching staff on the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team “truly one of the great experiences I’ve ever had in any sport — basketball especially … an incredibly rewarding and exhilarating feeling when we finally won the gold.”
But it wasn’t always fun for Villanova’s head coach during his 37-day stay with Team USA.
When you’re coaching a roster of NBA players expected to win every game by plenty, the pressure builds and builds, especially when you lose an exhibition game to a Nigerian team that Team USA routed by 43 points in 2016, and particularly when you drop your opening Olympic tournament game in Tokyo to France.
“Knowing that we couldn’t lose, I was more nervous for those games [after the France loss] than any other game I’ve ever coached,” Wright said Tuesday from his office at Finneran Pavilion during a Zoom call with reporters.
“People don’t want to hear about your problems, especially when you’re with USA Basketball. You can’t imagine what this team went through, what this staff went through. I know we’ve been criticized for, ‘Why is this guy not on the team?’ Well, there were guys that were injured and were not available, guys that were free agents that couldn’t come.”
The team lost Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal, the NBA’s second-leading scorer, after he was placed in health and safety protocols. Other players couldn’t practice because of close contact protocols. The criticism flowed after back-to-back exhibition losses and grew in intensity after the 83-76 loss to France.
But Team USA did not lose again. It won its next four games by an average of 30.5 points and defeated France, 87-82, for the gold medal.
“It was exhilarating to be a part of it with those great players and those great coaches,” Wright said. “I don’t know if they felt it like me, but I know we all felt the criticism from home. We got it, we understand it, and we really wanted to win it for our country. None of us wanted to let anybody down, so that was the pressure.
“I don’t know what was greater, the relief or the exhilaration in winning it.”
Team USA was led by head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, assisted by Wright, Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, and former Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce. Wright said he shared defensive responsibilities with Pierce, while Popovich and Kerr took care of the offensive end.
“Pop really went out of his way to make everybody feel involved and make everybody a part of all decisions,” he said. “It was really pretty impressive in how he did that all the way through to the end.”
Wright also admired how the NBA players sacrificed. When asked who his favorite Team USA players were, he mentioned the last three players off the bench, including two last-minute replacements for Beal and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love.
“I was really impressed with a guy like Jerami Grant coming off the bench, not playing much, but just keeping a great attitude,” he said. “Keldon Johnson, same way. I thought JaVale McGee, those three were awesome. You’ve got pros like that making a ton of money, not playing, keeping a great attitude, I thought they were awesome.”
Coaches are not presented with gold medals at the awards ceremony but Wright said USA Basketball presented the coaching staff with the medals after they returned home. The memories will last a lifetime.
“It was really a special experience to share with those guys,” Wright said. “I think we’re all bonded for life. Only we know what we went through. Everybody stuck together and everybody battled, and it was just incredible to be a part of.”