Vlade Divac is president of the Olympic Committee of Serbia and also general manager of the Sacramento Kings. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, his two worlds collided when his Serbian team matched up with Team USA twice in the Olympic tournament.
The first game was a tight 94-91 Team USA win during pool play. Divac had some fun with Team USA and Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins, promising a Serbian victory if the teams met again. Well, they did meet in the gold-medal game and the Americans were impressive in their decisive 96-66 win.
Cousins turned in his most productive game of the tournament with 13 points and 15 rebounds after being beset with foul trouble for most of the Olympics.
"Boogie played well," Divac said. "He's a very talented kid. Hopefully he can bring that positive attitude that he had here to Sacramento next year."
Cousins is considered one of the more talented centers in the league but has a reputation for being mercurial. He had to convince USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo to name him to the USA Select Team a few years ago, before he was named to Team USA for the 2014 World Cup.
Divac has maintained that Cousins will be a fixture with Sacramento after a tumultuous season that led to the firing of coach George Karl. Has the Olympic experience helped Cousins mature? Divac is banking on that.
"[The Olympics] helps international guys but it also helps NBA guys," Divac said. "You see a different part of basketball. They can pick up some tricks. That's how I look at it. When I used to play, I loved playing international because it's more freedom and more ability to improve."
The question for Divac with the Kings, who are moving into a new arena after being saved from relocation by owner Vivek Ranadive, is whether Cousins will stay long term and whether the organization can finally take a major step toward respectability.
The Kings added Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes, Garrett Temple, and Anthony Tolliver in the offseason.
"For me it's no question [Cousins is one of the best centers in the NBA]," Divac said. "For the media and people outside, they're always questioning him. I don't know why, because people change and he changed a lot the past couple of years since I've been over there.
"It's going very up, improving every day, so I'm proud that he's improved the last two years. I'm not happy that he won the gold because it would be otherwise different [if Serbia won], but I congratulate all of Team USA."
Divac's presence at the Olympics in Rio gave the two an opportunity to speak and also trash talk.
"We communicated almost every day and I told him my boys are going to come and beat them, but we came up a little short in the first game," Divac said. "So I told him, 'I'll give you this one and we'll take you in the finals.' But they know what they have to do and they did it."
Cousins basked in the glory of his first gold medal. He survived through two weeks of difficult officiating and losing his starting slot in favor of DeAndre Jordan, who adjusted better to the international game. Cousins, however, was dominant in the gold-medal game, and smiled brightly after winning his most meaningful set of games since his college days atKentucky.
"It's all worth it at the end of the day," Cousins said. "All the B.S., everything we went through. Everybody went through their own little type of adversity. This is the best feeling ever, honestly. This is the best feeling ever."
The 3-point win over Serbia in pool play served as a wake-up call for the Americans. After consecutive blowout wins over inferior China and Venezuela, Team USA won its next three games by a total of 16 points, leaving it potentially vulnerable in the knockout round. USA finished the tournament with an impressive win over Argentina, a wire-to-wire win over Spain, and then the squashing of Serbia. Cousins finished the Olympics with 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds in 14.6 foul-plagued minutes per game.
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"It let us know that we had to take it to another level," Cousins said of the close games. "If anything, that was the best thing for us. [I told Vlade], 'I told you so.' I think we made it easier for ourselves. I think we were engaged from start to finish. It was no looking back and I think we made the game easier for ourselves, not to take any credit from Serbia.
"It wasn't many mistakes. We were getting closer to our goal, hungry, that's all it was. Our eye was on the prize."
When asked if he improved his image and perception with the gold-medal run, Cousins said: "I'm not worried about it, man. I am who I am. You can either love it or hate it. I'm comfortable in my skin."
Cousins, who turned 26 during the Rio Games, wants to return to Team USA.
"I'm open to [coming back for Tokyo 2020]. I'll be older then, so it depends on how my body feels. As of right now, where I'm at, absolutely, I'm open to it," he said. "I think people don't understand [how hard this winning is]. They see the guys on the roster and they think automatically, they're supposed to win. This [international game] isn't our game. This isn't the way we play. This is an adjustment for every guy on the roster.
"No matter how much time there is, if guys can come together and mesh and play with some type of chemistry, you're going to win games. It's been proven in the past. We've had some of the most talented teams in the past and we didn't win, so it's not as easy as people think it is."
Asked if he had another conversation with Divac after the resounding win over Serbia, Cousins said: "Did I talk to Vlade? Yeah, he told me congratulations and I told him I told you so. He talked trash to me the first game. He was real quiet [during the championship game]."
Colangelo wants countries to rise
Team USA was supposed to dominate the Olympic tournament, quite frankly. Argentina was old, still primarily using four of the players who beat the USA for gold in 2004. Spain was missing big man Marc Gasol and is also aging, while Australia was geared for a run but missed Dante Exum and Ben Simmons.
France just lacked the elite talent of past Olympics.
After a couple of close games, Team USA dominated the knockout round with only resistance from Spain in the semifinal. And the gold medal came without LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, arguably four of the top five players in the NBA. (Kevin Durant is the other.)
So while it was a sweet victory for the Americans, Jerry Colangelo wasn't exactly impressed with the competition. If you recall, Argentina's upset of Team USA 12 years ago was supposed to resurrect international basketball. And though there are more NBA players from other countries, it hasn't resulted in a serious challenger to Team USA's reign.
What's more, the Americans have lost once internationally since Athens, losing to Greece in the World Championship semifinals 10 years ago. USA has won 25 consecutive Olympic games and 53 games overall.
"Let me put it this way, I'm all for raising the bar for global basketball," Colangelo said. "The more interest in basketball on all levels, I'm for it. I'm a lifer for the game. I love the game. It's the No. 2 sport in the world. We just need to see these other countries get their acts together and become more competitive. I'd love to see that.
"Everyone would love to see that. I'm not going to be making excuses for anyone."
Colangelo appeared annoyed that the rest of the Olympic field wasn't stronger.
"One of the officials said to me, 'Next time you play, you should play with four [players],' " he said. "And I said, no, maybe the other teams should get their acts together and compete. We've been helping in basketball around the world for 50 years. We've taught the world the game. We've taught their players, coaches. Look at the number of [international] players in the NBA. Look at the number of international players in college today. We're all for that. But I want to see the level raised."
Colangelo decided not to hold tryouts for this Olympic team. Instead he sent invites to players and filled out his roster with several first-time Olympians after James, Curry, and Westbrook backed out. He seemed offended by the assertion that the best USA team was not in Rio.
"It's a testament to what we've been saying all along," Colangelo said. "The foundation's in place, the depth of the national team roster [is in place]. It bothers me when any of our players are called 'B players' or 'C players.' That's ludicrous. It's an insult. They're all great players. They came here and never had been together. Basketball is the ultimate team game and when you have 10 new people and you only have them for a few weeks, it's not enough time."
The formulation of the 2020 roster will be interesting. The aforementioned four superstars missing from Rio are likely to be interested in playing, perhaps playing alongside Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and Andre Drummond. Colangelo maintained the continuity will be improved.
"I'm glad we're past this," Colangelo said of integrating newcomers. "But it also says to me we can't go back to 10 new players. That's not going to happen. We need to have some turnover because people need to look for the opportunity that they're going to be able to play and make the roster. This offered an opportunity to some guys, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that might not otherwise had been there for them, so I'm happy for each of them."
WNBA has lead in social activism
WNBA commissioner Lisa Borders said she wants her players to conduct sessions on social issues similar to the one Carmelo Anthony organized during the Team USA exhibition stop in Los Angeles in July.
WNBA players have been trend-setters in terms of social activism, such as the four Minnesota Lynx captains — Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekka Brunson, and Lindsay Whalen — donnning T-shirts prior to a July game protesting the shootings in suburban Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, La., as well as the police shootings in Dallas.
They were initially fined for their actions but those fines were rescinded. Whalen, a Team USA member, offered her take on what prompted their social action.
"I think for one, just wanting to be a good role model in the community," she said. "And wanting to be just as a captain of the team, just any way I can make a positive impact on the community, and I think that was one of my motivations for doing it as well as just being part of a great team and a great organization, wanting to make an impact."
The WNBA took its share of flak for the initial fines, which also were handed out to three other clubs.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he would rather NBA and WNBA players not use games or the pregame setting as a means of making a social statement, but Borders said rescinding the fines was an offer of support to players who chose social activism.
"It was something that the players felt really strongly about, and the players have always tried to work together and make a positive impact," Whalen said. "But at the same time, I think it worked out well for both sides. I think that the league and the players each got their message across. We got out there and we want to have peace on all sides. I think that was the main thing."
Of the two leagues, the WNBA has been by far the more progressive in its social activism. Whalen said there is a togetherness among players in the league.
"There's a lot of people from all different backgrounds and areas of the world and I think it's only been 20 years [of the WNBA] and it's pretty cool we've able to build this league together," she said. "So I think that when we all decided to wear the shirts, everybody had each other's backs. That's pretty cool."
What became apparent after the Rio Olympics is that several international players who aren't in the NBA seek to play in the league. One of those is Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica, who has played for the Bucks and Timberwolves. Raduljica played 48 games for Milwaukee before being part of the Jared Dudley deal with the Clippers. He was waived by the Clippers and played five games with Minnesota before heading back overseas. Raduljica said he would like to return to the NBA under more fruitful circumstances, but agreed to a two-year deal with Emporio Armani Milano in July. Unless his contract is bought out, that will keep him overseas . . . It's nearing September and J.R. Smith remains a free agent, although it's highly likely he'll return to defending champion Cleveland. Smith earned $5 million in the final year of his contract and is expected to double that amount for his sparkling play during the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers appear content on waiting until the verge of training camp to bring him back . . . Some intriguing free agents remain on the market one month before training camps open. The increased salary capbenefited several free agents but eventually the market dried up and players such as Ty Lawson, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Josh Smith, Norris Cole, and Jason Thompson are still unsigned. They may have to accept training-camp deals with a chance to make a roster. It seems so much money was paid out to more desirable free agents that some of the lesser-regarded ones lost out on the financial boon . . . Three-time gold medalist and four-time Olympian Carmelo Anthony is one of five candidates for the USOC Male Athlete of the Olympic Games. Anthony averaged 12.1 points and 5.2 rebounds in eight games. Track and field's Matthew Centrowitz, BMX cycler Connor Fields, wrestling's Kyle Snyder, and swimming's Michael Phelps are the other candidates . . . New Orleans was confirmed as the next All-Star Game location after the NBA pulled out of Charlotte because of North Carolina's HB2 law. It will be the third time in nine years the game will be held in New Orleans. There aren't a lot of cities vying for All-Star Games; the pool of candidates is in single digits. Los Angeles will host the 2018 event, seven years after hosting its previous one.