Team USA players quick to bond despite battling during the NBA season

NBA rivals Klay Thompson (left) and Kyrie Irving come together for Team USA gold. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

On June 19, Klay Thompson watched Kyrie Irving rise up over Stephen Curry to hit what would prove to be the game-winning shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, giving the Cavaliers their first NBA title while bringing a historic Warriors season to a disappointing close.

On July 18, once training camp got underway for Team USA in Las Vegas, Thompson and Irving were in the awkward position of becoming teammates, tasked with the goal of bringing home a gold medal from the Rio Olympics.

This is the USA Basketball experience in a nutshell. Players who spend nine months competing against each other at the highest level for the sport’s ultimate prize are forced to put aside those rivalries in order to come together to complete a singular mission.

In Thompson’s case, that switch had to be flipped more quickly than it did for others. Was it a difficult task?

“Ah, not really, because you’ve got USA across your chest,” the Warriors guard told FOX Sports at USA Basketball practice in Las Vegas last week. “It’s easy for me to hate Kyrie nine months out of the year, but we can come together to play for a gold for a month. We did it two years ago, and it’s an honor to be in his backcourt, man, he’s one of the toughest players I’ve had to guard. I’m happy I don’t have to check him anymore, to be honest.”

Klay is happy he no longer has to check Kyrie now that they’re USA Basketball teammates. (USA TODAY Sports)

Irving, on the other hand, made sure to remind Thompson of what had transpired just 29 days before.

“Yeah, he gave me a hard time, but I gave him a hard time last year,” Thompson said. “I wish I was 2-0 on him, but things don’t go your way all the time. Hopefully we have a rubber match next year. He’s a tremendous talent, and obviously was a difference-maker this year.”

Thompson’s situation here was somewhat unique. For most of the rest of the guys, coming together to play with such a talented group of stars is a welcome reprieve from the grind of the regular season, when players are often individually forced to do too much.

“That’s what makes it fun,” Carmelo Anthony told FOX Sports. “Because everyone knows, on our respective teams, how hard it actually really is. And everybody’s goal is to play alongside guys like we have on this team. So it’s easier for everybody, it’s a relief. There’s no pressure. You just go out there, you believe more in the guy that’s to your right or to your left.”

“DeMarcus Cousins has to do so much for Sacramento,” Thompson told FOX Sports. “He has such a heavy workload; on this team, he doesn’t care about scoring, he just wants to play his role. We’ll feed him the ball in the post, but he just wants to win.

From left: Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan and Kevin Durant share a moment during an exhibition game against Argentina. 

“Over the years, sometimes he gets a bad rap, but when I’m around him, I don’t see it at all. I see how competitive he is, and he’s willing to sacrifice to get that gold. I respect DeMarcus a lot for that, because I know he has a heavy, heavy workload in Sacramento.”

There’s a certain segment of NBA fans who long for the days of the past, when players weren’t as friendly off the court, and the rivalries between teams remained fierce through and through. It’s tough to envision, for example, guys like Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer sharing a banana boat ride while vacationing together in some tropical location.

But Kevin Durant explained that getting to know his fellow players better as part of the Team USA experience only made him want to compete against them that much harder.

“I know these guys inside and out. I know their games inside and out,” Durant told FOX Sports. “Most of the guys, I didn’t know their personalities as well. Like I’ve said before, our games, we’re taught to, like, hate each other, want to fight each other when we see him. We’re not supposed to like each other because we compete so hard.

“But I compete harder against Melo now because we’re like best friends. I compete against LeBron harder because we became so tight. James Harden, the same way. DeAndre Jordan, I haven’t talked this much trash in a game before until me and him became best friends.

Kevin Durant says he’ll go at guys even harder after bonding with them on Team USA. (USA Today Sports)

“So I think there’s a misconception that you’re supposed to hate the guys you’re competing against. I understand where people are coming from, but just getting to know these guys makes me want to compete harder against them, and I enjoy those matchups.”

The overwhelming sentiment from the players is that it’s an incredible privilege to get to spend the summertime bonding as teammates, if only for a few short weeks. The USA Basketball experience is a special one, and the players realize that — which makes setting aside rivalries that much easier.

“It’s really not hard, because all these guys are such great guys,” Jimmy Butler told FOX Sports. “Obviously great basketball players, but just their spirits, their competitiveness and their will to win.

“It only makes me better, it only makes them better. I think it only makes each and every one of us better.”