‘A standard to uphold’: US set for final AmeriCup qualifiers
Some of the rooms that USA Basketball is occupying this weekend in Puerto Rico overlook the Isla Verde Beach, meaning those on that side of the hotel can gaze from their windows at the white sand and clear blue water.
That’s also as close as they’ll get to vacationing on this trip.
USA Basketball is in a bubble for the next few days, as it prepares for its two remaining qualifying games for the 2022 FIBA AmeriCup at San Juan. The Americans have already clinched a berth in the field, regardless of what happens against Bahamas on Friday and Mexico on Saturday.
But to the players — including NBA veterans like Joe Johnson, Isaiah Thomas and Brandon Bass — and coaches on this trip, these two games are far from irrelevant.
“People will ask, ’Oh, is this a great resume builder? No. This is Team USA,” said Joe Prunty, the head coach for the Americans in these two games. “The level of respect for not only representing your country but with what’s gone on with Team USA through the history of international competition, it means a lot to be a part of that.”
No fans will be at the games in San Juan because of COVID-19 protocols; only team personnel and those tasked with game operations are in the bubble. There are eight teams in San Juan and eight more in Colombia — also a bubble there — this weekend for the final qualifiers; the U.S. and Brazil locked up berths back in November, while the last 10 spots in the 12-team AmeriCup field were supposed to be set by Sunday.
That may not happen after all: FIBA said Wednesday that Brazil was denied entry to Colombia for its two games there, and Cuba simply did not arrive in Puerto Rico for what would have been three games this weekend. The travel issues for the Brazilians and Cubans will not affect the U.S. schedule this weekend, but those five games not being played could keep other nations from clinching berths.
The Americans could have brought anyone to these games. They decided to load up; Johnson and Thomas are former NBA All-Stars, Bass is an established pro, Dakota Mathias was starting games for Philadelphia earlier this season and four other players on the U.S. roster have past NBA experience.
“I genuinely love hooping,” said the 39-year-old Johnson, one of only 46 players to score 20,000 points in NBA history. “Regardless, if it’s in the NBA or just playing with my son, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to be in the gym playing after this. And if an opportunity comes from this and I feel like it’s worth listening to, I’ll take a look at it, no doubt. But that’s not my purpose in playing in this.”
His purpose? Simple. He wanted to wear “USA” again. He played for the 2006 World Cup team that went 8-1 and won a bronze medal. This time, there’s no medal at stake, only another chance to represent his country.
“This opportunity is a blessing within itself,” Johnson said.
Prunty looks at it the same way.
He was an assistant on the staff headed by Mike Fratello for the two qualifying games in November, a pair of wins that clinched a berth in the AmeriCup tournament — the event that serves as the championship for the teams in the FIBA Americas zone, covering nations from North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. USA Basketball has won the AmeriCup title seven times in nine previous attempts.
“There’s pressure that you always feel from the standpoint of wanting to win as a competitor,” Prunty said. “But it is bigger than that, because you get to represent something that’s significantly bigger than yourself. And that’s awesome. Being able to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself, it’s a great thing.”
The Bahamas game will be very big for that country’s chances of qualifying; the Mexico game could decide if Mexico advances. And both teams, Prunty knows, will be revved up to play against the U.S.
“Whenever you put on the Team USA jersey, it doesn’t matter who or where you are, you’re getting the other team’s best,” Prunty said. “And so, the carrot is, we have a standard to uphold here — not only as a team, but for everybody that’s ever been a part of this.”