James, Leonard bookend latest Dream Team

The Sporting Tribune's Jackson Thompson talked to Grant Hill about LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard being on Team USA.

NEW YORK — Two days after Lakers star LeBron James sunk a jumper to break the NBA’s all-time scoring record, he was approached with an offer to make even more history. 

It was halftime of a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at Arena on Feb. 9, 2023. James was inactive for rest when Grant Hill, the managing director of USA Basketball, came from the TNT broadcast booth and approached James on the sideline. 

“I just went up to him and said ‘I need you in Paris,’ and he said ‘I’m in,’” Hill said at the U.S. Olympics Media Summit in New York on Wednesday.

Hill had secured a verbal commitment from the NBA’s newly minted all-time scorer to represent the U.S. in the 2024 Olympics, breaking James’ 12-year hiatus from the Games. James is now one of 12 players confirmed for the U.S. Olympics roster Wednesday, all of them NBA players and most of them all-stars.

Still, Hill wasn’t completely convinced that James would be available at the time of their sideline conversation last February. Hill, a Hall of Famer who retired in 2013, said he didn’t know James very well prior to that, having joined the NBA a generation before James.  

“It was casual, it was at halftime, people say things in the moment,” Hill said. “But from that moment, there was never any doubt that he wasn’t going to do it.

“He’s been engaged, very responsive. Through this, we’ve gotten to know each other and talk about a number of things, so he’s excited and he deserves, because of all that he’s done and what he’s still doing, to be on this roster.” 

It wasn’t until September that reports of James’ plans to play in Paris surfaced, via The Athletic. After that, James himself took an approach of underpromising his commitment, telling reporters at the 2024 All Star Game that his decision would be dependent on the state of his health later in the year.

“It’s more miles put on these tires,” James said of the toll of playing in Paris on Feb. 18. “But if I’m committed — which I am — to Team USA, then I’m going to commit my mind, body and soul to being out there for Team USA, being out there representing our country with the utmost respect and go out there and play.”

James ultimately stayed healthy enough through the season as the NBA’s oldest player at 39 years of age, as his participation was confirmed when the official roster released Wednesday.

This year’s roster has been labeled by many to be the next iteration of the “Dream Team,” a label previously bestowed upon the dominant 1992 team led by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. 

In Hill’s blueprint for the 2024 team, he envisions James’ role similar to that of Bird and Johnson in 1992.

“He understands ‘I’ve been through it, we have some younger guys, we have guys who have who haven’t’” Hill said.

James is not the only veteran Los Angeles star with an Olympic drought. Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, who has never participated in an Olympics, was selected as the 12th member of the team.

Unlike Hill’s blunt recruitment of James, Leonard was the last player to know that he had been picked to the roster. 

Hill said that he and USA Basketball officials set up appointments with each player voted to the roster, which was finalized three weeks ago, to inform them they had been chosen. 

“We had this novel idea, which was ambitious and maybe slightly delusional,” Hill said. “Let’s go around and create a moment for every player. Let’s go and meet with every player, surprise them, welcome them to the team, give them their jersey, make it formal, but do it very quiet and under-the-radar, which is nearly impossible in today’s NBA.”

Hill and his colleagues informed the other players during the past 2 1/2 weeks, which led to leaks and speculation going into this week as 11 players had been chosen. Leonard was unaware if he had made the roster.

“Things started to come out Monday,” Hill said. “They put out that we only picked 11, we had picked 12, they just didn’t know who that 12th person was.” 

On Tuesday, Clippers coach Tyron Lue informed Leonard that he made the team. Leonard does not having experience in the Olympics or the FIBA World Cup. 

However, Hill said Leonard fits the mold of his plan to set this year’s USA Basketball apart from that of past teams.

“[Defense] was certainly an area where we needed to be better on and to improve upon, and we have guys that have that as a foundation,” Hill said. “The game is much more physical than the NBA game. And so being aware of that, having guys whose games would translate on that level on the defensive side and offensive side was important.

“So yes, this is not a knock on any team that we’ve had in the past, but I’m really excited about the defensive potential of this group as we work together and prepare ourselves for Paris.”

This year’s team will face tougher competition that previous Dream Teams didn’t. Some of NBA’s most elite players, including former MVPs Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetonkoumpo, and MVP candidate Luka Doncic, will be opponents for USA Basketball this year.

The closing parity of the rest of the world to USA Basketball has been evident in the most recent Olympics in Tokyo in 2021, when the Kevin Durant-led squad came back from early struggles to clinch Gold after stirring doubt among fans. It was even more evident in the 2023 FIBA World Cup when USA lost in the semifinals to a Dennis Schroeder-led Germany team.

Hill is navigating the task of putting a team together that can re-establish the U.S. as a basketball superpower — and will lean on heavily on James and Leonard to lead that resurgence. 

“We have to reclaim what’s ours, and even though we won the gold medal in ‘21,” Hill said. “Because we have a certain overwhelming amount of really talented international players, there’s almost a feeling of we have to repair or just reset things.”