Team USA Inside Look With Sean Ford

Recently we had a chance to sit down with Team USA Basketball's Sean Ford who serves as Men's National Team Director to discuss the evolution of the program and the influence of Coach Mike Krzyzewski in that process.

I saw that you started in your current role for USA Basketball in the early 2000s…

Yes, the first summer I started in this role was the summer of 2001.

So let’s think back to when you first started in this position and then look at where USA Basketball is under you at the U16-U19 levels now, would you have ever imagined that it would be where it is now?

No, not really to be honest. But it was certainly on our list to get to I’ll tell you that. The thing with the early days that you have to remember is there’s several things. One of the things is back then the youngest team we had was the 18 and under team and it was every four years, so you didn’t have something for people on a regular basis at a young age. So we had a U18, then 19, then 20 and then U21 and then we went back to U18. We had a U18 in 98, an 18 in 02 and an 18 in 06. So then when we got into the older years like U20 and U21, it was a real challenge because guys were going pro and if you are going pro, you aren’t. I would say this, my opinion on the competitive side with the US Men, two defining moments were the letting the pros play in the Olympics with the Dream Team, and then when FIBA did away with the 20 and 21 year old competitions and started the 16s and 17s. So they didn’t start the U20 and U21 teams until 1993 and they started them because they didn’t think they were going to have anything for that age range of kids because the pros were going to be playing. Then the last one with that group was in 2005 and FIBA realized that the best players weren’t playing in that competition because they were now on the National Team. It didn’t make sense to run a national team for the World Championships when you couldn’t even have the best teams.

So, what ended up happening was great timing. We came off reinventing ourselves from ’06 to ’08 and as we finished up 08 and it was cool again and it was great to play for USA, we had to go out and find kids that were 15 and 16 years old to play on our U16 team who are all so excited about what they had saw in the summer of 08 and we’re contacting them to come play for us and we’re wearing the same uniforms of the gold medal team who won in Beijing, so all of a sudden those two things were great.

So in 2008 when you are contacting those kids in ’08 class to come join the U16 team, what were you hoping the response to be and what did the response end up being?

You know so first time we did this, it was June of of ’09, so we were contacting players in November, December, January and we were talking to college coaches and we knew that we had a good group of high school coaches around the country involved who could tell us about a good player here, a good player there, so we said alright, let’s try and get them here. The biggest thing is when were you born because back then in 09, it was like if you were born in I think it was 94, 93, if you were born in 92 you were too old, if you were born in 93 you were ok. I just remember Austin Rivers being born in 92 and I remember talking to Doc (Rivers) and he was like aw man but then James McAdoo was born like really early 1993 so he was eligible by like a couple of days. So you hear about guys like James Michael McAdoo, you hear about this kid Bradley Beal who scored like 50 points and you hear about this big player from Connecticut Andre Drummond and this guy calls me and tells me he had heard about what what we were doing and he loved it and he talked about getting him out there. You talk about Michael Gilchrist and you are hearing about Teague and Tony Wroten from Seattle and that was just like really great.

So we got them here and we did it and what we thought about it was we were doing it, we were going to try and keep the same group together and the one good thing about this program is everyone goes to high school and everyone is there for at least 4 years. The challenge is everyone takes a lot of different paths from high school to the NBA, but everyone just kinda goes through high school or prep school, so it was easier to keep a group together. So the model that worked on the National Team that worked was to have a National Team pool of players and so we said let’s take that concept and culture and when we ask these guys to play, let’s ask them to be on the national team for 2 years so if they come and play great, we pick 12, but then we hit the reset button after the tournament and everyone is back into the national team and then we started the Developmental Camp in the fall for just a weekend where they come in and we’re able to tell the guys who made it that we gotta keep on going. The other beautiful thing with that camp is we don’t make any decisions, everyone comes in and leaves the same. So everyone stays equal the same time even if we take one part of that group to a tournament and that’s the great thing with that group concept and that Developmental Camp, is we maintain a good group environment and the kids have a good time being a part of it.

So that was the big thing we took from the National Team along with the success we had in 08 allowed us to appeal to the best players. So we said let’s take that model and then the two other things I would say on top of that if you had to list it was FIBA going to the U16s and U17s with the timing of it right after 08 really helped, then the October mini-camp has been great, but probably the biggest thing of all in terms of carrying the success is Don Showalter and BJ Johnson. They are the two, they are the only two individuals who have been with this program everyday who have been to every competition, and they are the life of the program. Having a concept is great, you can have a strategy, but no strategy is successful if you don’t execute it and those two guys have done that. That’s really a big, big part of it is all the time they put into this to make it work.

The thing I noticed with Don (Showalter) coaching here is something similar I also saw with Shaka (Smart) in that he really encourages his other coaches on the staff to have a voice and he gives them the space to bring their coaching insights and experience to this…

Absolutely, Shaka said that he views this team as having three head coaches for the U18 team and with Don, he is a great developer of people and this program, so he’s trying to give back to the game and he’s not just trying to tell everybody what he knows, he’s trying to make sure that everybody involved in this approaches basketball from the perspective of a giver. The other thing too now is this is his 4th run and so we’ve had 6 other coaches that have worked with him and they all are out there talking about it and they know what the deal is and so we have some consistency in what we do. The other thing is these kids typically after U17, most of the kids are usually eligible for the Hoop Summit and what’s cool with that is Don’s assistant coaches, they usually are involved in Hoop Summit. So it’s great because we can use some of the same language from here in that setting.

Working with the college coaches; what was the process in starting to work with them at this level?

Oh man it was great because there’s so many great coaches. We have had great coaches and getting Billy Donovan just as we getting this going and he helped us to see how we could take advantage of our athleticism and our skill set could help us take advantage of the international game. So we thought let’s get a coach that will do 18 and 19 and get some consistency going because we’re getting consistency at the National Team level with Coach K, so Billy came in and took a lot of Don’s model in let’s press, let’s be athletic, let’s eliminate their ability to dominate us in the half court since the Europeans are so great. Yeas his assistants and Shaka knew Billy’s press since he likes to press. We had such a great team because that team could just annihilate teams with that press.

How’s that been for you seeing American teams doing so well overseas at this level in those competitions?

It’s great and to be honest with you with the way we play, it’s to our advantage with the FIBA rules, their whole philosophy is the flow of the game which helps us because we want to play fast. Now look usually the most talented team is going to win games, and usually we’re the more talented team in most games we play but not always, so the 24 second shot clock, the 8 second half court violation, all of those things work to our advantage. I like the fact that a lot of times when we didn’t have success, we were right there, no excuses, but man the game comes a lot easier when you have the best possible players. When we had a really bad run in losing in the Quarterfinals to the Pau Gasol level and then at the World Championship level having the issues we had in 99 and 01, then we lost to Australia with Andrew Bogut and 05 we went 8 and 1 and lost in the quarterfinals and finished in 5th place and then we lost to Canada, so we had some bad runs, so that was tough. Then when we finally won and now we’ve won 3 out of 4.

It’s interesting that all those struggles are a part of the “narrative” in a sense that Coach K came in under in the mid-2000s at the Olympic level…

Yeah for sure at the Olympic level and then at the junior level it’s all kinda turned around.

Since we’re talking Coach K, can you talk at all about his influence on this program, especially at this level—has he had any kind of influence on that or has he been much more involved at the Senior level?

You know we learned a lot from the Senior Team with how important the National Team program really is so that the U16 and U17 kids could have a similar opportunity but the flip side is that at this level, he wasn’t involved as much but we couldn’t have done it without the Men’s National Team doing things the way they did. In terms of strategy, let’s do this, let’s do that, a lot of that was Don and BJ sitting around and talking about things and we really thought with Don that we got the right guy to lead this new group. So we said to ourselves let’s do this, let’s take it out for a ride. You couldn’t have done it without the success that we’ve had with Coach K’s involvement, Jerry Colangelo’s involvement, they are great, but as we’ve built this, they weren’t involved in the day to day with it you know ?

It’s interesting you say that because there’s obviously been a lot of talk about Coach K’s involvement and the access to players for him and the other college coaches who have coached in this program.  With that in mind, what was your reaction to all that discussion considering what you just shared was that they really weren’t involved in the day to day aspects of this program being built the way it has been built?

Well, I think the involvement in terms of the planning involved in coming up with this level of USA Basketball and the mini-camp, that was Don and all those guys. There is some opportunity afforded to the national team coach to be around and so people identify with that but in terms of the # of times he’s been out here, he’s been doing it for 10 years now with the National Team and he’s been out here maybe twice. He’s not on the committee that selects the players for this, actually when it comes to selecting, there’s a group of guys who do that. We’re not, he’s not running this, he checks in just as much as any other coach does. We benefit from the coaches being involved by coaching. I remember like with Jahlil (Okafor) when he first came out here, Jahlil I don’t think had even played in a varsity game and Tyus played 8th grade at the varsity level and we were really young and they just hit it off. I think they roomed together the first time and they just got along great. And you know, we are ok with it if guys who are friends want to room together, we want to encourage that if they know each other and look, its ordinary dorm rooms. We’re really happy with how things are going. Coach has been great, him and Jerry have transformed USA Basketball at the highest levels and we look at them and just continue to stay on the path and be ready to follow trends and see what happens.

In seeing the relationship aspect of USA Basketball grow from covering recruits and hearing them and their parents talk about that, can you shed some light on whether USA Basketball did some things to encourage that relationship-building amongst the players and families?

What’s great is when you are dealing with 14 and 15 and 16 year olds, you are dealing directly with the parents and you usually aren’t so tied in with the travel team, we get to deal with the parents and we know that we have to build up an incredible amount of trust when you are dealing with 14 and 15 and 16 year old kids and their parents. So we encourage them to come here, we have an orientation for them every time we get together where we tell them what we’re doing and this is where BJ is exceptional and talented is the relationship he’s able to have with the parents and they know they have their child’s best interests at heart and he’s going to give good advice and will be truthful with them. You can tell they know that we care about them and their children. We want inclusion with the parents and so it’s been, we take our responsibility seriously of taking 16 year olds and in some cases 15 year olds out of the country. We try to maintain very good relationships with the parents because we believe that is really important.

I remember hearing from Justise Winslow’s mom and Tyus’s mom and Jahlil’s dad when covering them as recruits and hearing them talk about that relationship that was built for them and with you guys over the years that they played for USA Basketball….

Oh yeah and it was also Don, he was a big part of that too because he communicates with the parents and he’s very available to them and they see the other people trust them and they are also going out and seeing the kids play at other competitions and they talk to the parents about that and it means a lot.

One of the things you hear Coach K talk about at the National Team level when they compete is how much respect they have for the foreign teams they are playing and how much they also strive to know them so they can compete well against them, how do you guys keep up from a scouting perspective on the teams that you are going to play with the U17s and U18s?

You know, nowadays with technology, all the teams we’re playing are qualifying too, so you can watch a lot of those games via tv or online and look, there’s scouting services in Europe that help us understand who the top guys are and we know a lot of the NBA scouts who tell us when they know if a guy is really good. Basketball without Borders also helps with their camps and we can track those kids and how old they are and we get a feel for who is going to be playing at a certain age.

In thinking long-term, we’ve been talking about the vision that has come to fruition over this last decade plus, what would you say for you is the vision for the next five and the next 10 years with USA Basketball?

I think we have to continue to understand the players, where they are, what their feelings are, what their needs are and what our needs are. It’s important we never take for granted guys being a part of this program and coach says this all the time, just because you’ve had prior success doesn’t mean you can skip future steps. So every single group that comes in, we can’t skip steps. So in October for mini-camp, it’ll be the beginning of our fifth team and we tell the players that just because you are a part of something that’s won before, you can’t take this for granted because all the past success just means you have a bigger target on your back. I think that’s part of it and I think we have to think about the reality that Don is going to be a part of this for the next two years, but then we have to think about him not being here after that. And you know we have to think about the U17 and U18 levels even this year because every year it’s gotten tougher and tougher at this level and history tells you that nobody ever thought that the Dream Team would lose and they did. So we have to keep working hard and not taking things for granted, especially since now that we’ve achieved success, maintaining it can be hard. We’re also on the senior level the shift is happening because there’s a whole new landscape now as we figure out ways to put teams together in ways that maybe we haven’t before. You always have to keep trying to get better and better. You love success but many times there’s less and less time to enjoy it because you have to get back to work.

Thanks for the time Sean…

You bet, it was my pleasure.

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