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Bilas: U.S. Ryder Cuppers can learn from USA Basketball

Editor’s Note: Fascinating nuggets lie in the pages of Golfweek writers’ notebooks. As 2014 draws to a close, our Untold Stories series reveals the best anecdotes from this year that you haven’t yet read. The series runs from Dec. 15-22.

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Every once in a while, I run across a story but never quite get to put it on paper. Some of my colleagues say I do that a lot, but in this instance I had a good reason.

While at The McGladrey Classic this fall in Sea Island, Ga., I had a chance to talk with Jay Bilas. The former Duke basketball player has been a fixture covering basketball for CBS and ESPN.

After the pro-am, we talked Ryder Cup. Of course, Bilas, was keenly aware of the U.S. team’s woes in the biennial matches with Europe.

I wanted to know whether he could see any parallels between what has happened during the past three Ryder Cups and what happened to U.S. basketball in the early part of this century.

“When you’ve lost eight out of 10, that’s a trend, and I don’t think that – not that I’m a golf expert; I’m far from it – but I don’t consider the United States has had a 20?year poor putting trend or we haven’t been good enough,” Bilas said. “I think it just comes down to committing to it and committing to the process.”

Bilas noted that American international basketball struggled because the U.S. would assembled its squad at the eleventh hour and expect the players to act as a team in international competition. “We didn’t really respect the international game like we should have,” he said.

In golf, the rules don’t vary from U.S. to international events as in basketball, but the respect issue could be real. After the Americans’ 16 1/2 – 11 1/2 loss at Gleneagles, Scotland, the focus wasn’t so much on how well Europe played but rather how poorly the U.S. performed.

“I think there’s a lot that can be learned from what USA basketball has accomplished in a 10?year period,” Bilas said about a program that has won the past two Olympics (2008, ’12) and the past two World Cups (2010, ’14). “Now people are saying, Oh, we’re just more talented. Well, we weren’t saying that a few years ago. So it’s really changed, and I think the program that’s been put in place has been the primary reason why.”

After the Americans were relegated to a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Games, then-NBA commissioner David Stern called Jerry Colangelo, who recently had sold his interest in the Phoenix Suns, and asked for help. Stern offered Colangelo the job of managing director of USA Basketball.

“I have two conditions,” Colangelo recalled of his 2005 phone conversation with Stern, “and he said, ‘Well, what are they?’ One is full autonomy. I’ll pick the coaches; I’ll pick the players; no more committees; all the politics get taken out of it. And he said, ‘Done. What’s No. 2?’ I said, I don’t want to hear about a budget, and he went off for a little bit, and I brought him back, and I said, It’s still No. 2. And once he acquiesced, I assured him, Don’t worry about it, because I’ll raise the money in terms of sponsorship.”

Since that day 10 years ago, USA basketball has had a leader, one who controls the product on and off the court and has guided USA basketball back into the sport’s stratosphere.

“It’s not rocket science,” Colangelo said. “That’s No. 1. But you need to have leadership. You need to have someone in control that is respected and can get people to fall in step with the plan, with the program.”

The PGA of America lacks such an infrastructure with its Ryder Cup. With Richard Hills, managing director of Ryder Cup Europe, the U.S. opponents have such an undisputed leader.

Hopefully for American interests, after the PGA’s proposed task-force meetings, Ryder Cup officials will get down to the fundamental question: Who is our leader?

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