The scene was Colorado Springs, Colo., and Sabrina Ionescu had just made the United States’ 2013 U16 girls’ basketball team.
After being allowed to go outside and briefly celebrate with their parents and other supporters, Ionescu and her new teammates were expected back in the gym for a team meeting.
But there was just one problem: Ionescu, a 5-foot-11 guard from Miramonte (Walnut Creek, Calif.), was locked out of the gym.
Every door she tried refused to open. Every knock was met with silence.
“I don’t know what was going through her mind,” said Carol Callan, the national team director for USA Basketball. “But if it were me, I’d have been thinking: ‘I just made the team, and now I’m going to be late for the first meeting.’ “
Ionescu admits she was momentarily frustrated.
“It was a little awkward,” said Ionescu, now a sophomore at Miramonte. “But when [Callan] opened the door, she was smiling, so I knew nothing bad was happening.”
That technical difficulty aside, USA Basketball wants to make sure that all doors remain open — figuratively and literally.
In that spirit, USA Basketball is conducting open tryouts for its 12-player U17 team that will represent the United States at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship in Bratislava, Slovakia, from June 28-July 6. Tryouts will be held in Colorado Springs May 22-26, and the deadline for applications is April 11. USA Basketball will pick up the tab for the 30 to 35 athletes it invites to tryouts, and there’s room for 115 to 120 paying applicants to attend and try to impress the committee who will select a final roster.
Ionescu was one of two players who made the 2013 U16 national team without an invitation from USA Basketball. The other “applicant” to make the team was Taylor Murray, a 5-6 guard from Annapolis Area Christian School (Odenton, Md.).
When USA Basketball held its first open tryouts, for the 2011 U-16 team, no applicant players made the cut.
Callan and the other executives at USA Basketball want to discover — and develop — more players like Ionescu and Murray. And they also want to make sure the applicants gain something for their time and effort, even if they don’t make the team.
“There are [uninvited] kids out there who will say to us, ‘You’re crazy — I’m one of the top 35,’ ” Callan said. “Or maybe they weren’t invited because they’ve been injured or live in a remote area and haven’t really been promoted very well.
“For those kids, not only do we want to give them a legit shot to make the team, but we also want to give them something to go home with.”
USA Basketball splits the tryout players into two groups of 75. While one group is on the court, the other 75 are getting valuable information on, for example, drug testing, which is mandatory in the international game, and nutrition.
In addition, Olympic athletes who are at the Colorado Springs training center come by and talk to the players about how to maximize their potential.
“The idea is: We have all these resources,” Callan said. “What can we do to help these kids develop their games?”
Every player gets two full scrimmage sessions before rosters are reduced.
As far as the applicants go, so far, no players have been denied a chance to try out. But if the popularity of the tryouts continues to take off, USA Basketball may go to regional sites before players earn their way to Colorado Springs.
“That could be the future,” Callan said. “The goal is to keep growing the game.”
Applicants flash back
Murray, who will be among the invited players at this year’s tryouts, said she wasn’t insulted in 2013 when she was not on the original list of 35.
“They invite who they invite,” Murray said. “I know I’m a good player, and this was a great opportunity to go there and give it all I had. I used [the snub] as motivation.”
Murray said she was far from perfect at the tryouts.
“There were a couple days where I was messing up,” she said. “I was missing layups. But you can’t make every shot. When I missed, I just realized that I could get a steal or a defensive stop and make the next layup.
“You have to move on to the next play.”
Callan said there are plenty of stories of elite players who have been cut by USA Basketball only to come back and make the team.
There are also players who get cut and try again and never make the team, but they are still helped by the experience of playing against elite competition.
Ionescu said she recommends it for anyone who thinks she has game to try again; the first time is hard on everyone.
“I was a little uneasy about the whole idea,” Ionescu said. “My coach [Miramonte’s Kelly Sopak] came up with the idea, and I agreed to it. But I didn’t know what the routine was going to be or what we were going to do. I was nervous.”
Ionescu was nervous going in — but confident on the way out. Sopak said making the team served as “validation” for Ionescu, who averaged 18.7 points and 6.5 rebounds this past season.
“She’s come back a different player,” Sopak said. “Now she has ‘USA Basketball’ attached to her name, and she knows she needs to go out and perform every night.
“You don’t need to motivate her. She knows she’s a great player, and she has to live up to being great.”
USA Basketball says it does not select an all-star team, per se. It selects a team — one that the committee believes gives the U.S. the best possible chance of winning a gold medal.
In general, Callan said, that means picking the two best players at each of the five positions, along with two who can play multiple spots.
Since there is only one basketball, “doing the little things” is at a premium. Setting screens, running down loose balls and making the extra pass are three examples Callan cites.
“Taylor and Sabrina were good enough in their own right to make the team, but it also helped that they made the players around them better,” Callan said.
“You don’t need the 12 fastest players or the 12 highest jumpers. You need kids who will make the right plays to help us win.”
Callan said she doesn’t want players dwelling on their mistakes.
“My advice is to do what you do best, and don’t worry about everything else,” she said. “If you are a point guard who scores, then be that.
“At this level, a lot of it is about your attitude. It’s about encouraging others. At the end of the day, it’s about finding talented players who are good teammates.”