John Calipari would prefer to focus on the players he wants and the offense he’ll run.
This time, there are other concerns.
When he leads the U.S. basketball team into the Under-19 World Cup for men, they will travel to Egypt, home to enough violence lately that the Americans questioned whether it was safe enough to even go defend their title.
Calipari spoke to parents seeking answers he didn’t even have for himself, but he knew where he could get them. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is now USA Basketball’s chairman, and a conversation a few weeks ago that detailed the Americans’ security plans and procedures put Calipari’s mind at ease.
“I’m trying to figure out basketball, let alone trying to figure out security and so all I can say to the parents is I’m comfortable making this trip,” the Kentucky coach said. “And believe me, three or four weeks ago I was like, ‘Come on now, talk to me, how are we going to do this?’ And from that point when I was on the phone with Gen. Dempsey, I knew at the end of the day either he was going to feel real comfortable with what was going on or we wouldn’t go.”
USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said the U.S. and other federations raised concerns with basketball’s governing body a year ago when it selected Cairo to host the July 1-9 event. Any fears only heightened in recent months when more than 100 people were killed since December in four separate attacks targeting Christians claimed by the Islamic State group.
But Dempsey stressed that most of the danger is beyond Cairo, while the capital city is well protected. And Tooley said that during a recent discussion with FIBA it was revealed that security for the event had now fallen under the control of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, rather than the office of sports ministry.
“So while we are very much aware of the challenges of security in Egypt, we have concluded that the venue — that is to say where the games will be played, the hotel, the transit zones — will be secured adequately and gives us confidence to send a team over there,” Dempsey said.
USA Basketball took the unusual step of deciding that the U-19 team would be given the same level of security as an Olympic team, with more staff on the ground and greater intelligence shared. The Americans have been criticized for the lengths they go to comfort their millionaire players, such as staying on a cruise ship rather than the athletes’ village in Rio, but NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant said he’s always felt safe while winning two Olympic golds and a world title with the Americans.
“I’m sure they’ve been doing their work for years in advance on this thing and trying to make sure it’s perfect for the players, so I have no concerns that USA Basketball won’t get it done,” Durant said. “So hopefully everybody’s comfortable going and have a great time and win a gold.”
Though the Americans have won two straight golds in the 16-nation tournament, fielding a team is challenging. Many college coaches would prefer their incoming recruits on campus in summer school, and with the security concerns this time, Tooley figures some players Calipari may have wanted passed on invites to training camp next week.
But Chuma Okeke of Atlanta, who will be a freshman next season at Auburn, will be among the 28 players in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His mother, Renee, reached out to a USA Basketball official with some questions, but ultimately decided to let her son attend after getting the answers and doing enough research on her own into the situation in Egypt that she said she’d even feel comfortable going.
“It was explained to me that the USA Basketball security team is really experienced in that area so I really don’t have any worries,” she said. “They reassured me that my young man will be safe so I’m OK with it. And you know what, even if I wasn’t, I could not stop Chuma from going. I could not. He understands what the climate is but he still wants to go.”
And Dempsey feels the Americans should, not only to give their younger players experience with the international game, but to show FIBA they’re a good partner. With their precautions in place, Dempsey said the Americans have done everything they can to be prepared — and now it’s Calipari’s turn.
“I said, ‘OK Cal, now that we’ve got this behind us, how about you stop worrying about that?'” Dempsey said. “‘We’ll keep worrying about that, you go win us a gold medal.'”
Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter @briancmahoney