ABU DHABI – Among the prized possessions that John Jenkins has collected in his career: a handwritten letter from former USA Basketball coach Gregg Popovich for his role on the Tokyo Olympic team, and a gold medal from those games.
His medal is a replica. His effort was very real. And who knows, another shiny souvenir might be coming his way in a few weeks.
As part of its preparations for big tournaments in recent years — such as the World Cup, which begins on Friday in the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan — USA Basketball has been taking a few extra players to help in practices and workouts. Jenkins, Langston Galloway and Eric Mika were the trio that got the call for this trip; they go home on Sunday, one day before the Americans leave for Manila and their World Cup run.
“To have this opportunity given to me again, I’ve never been more grateful in my life than now,” Jenkins said.
These aren’t some guys off the street who were brought in to be tackling dummies. Make no mistake: They all could be on NBA rosters right now. Galloway has appeared in 452 NBA games with seven different franchises. Jenkins has appeared in 171 games with five franchises. Mika had six points and seven rebounds in his only NBA game, more than holding his own on a night where LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the opposing team.
They were among the 52 players, most of them from the G League, that USA Basketball brought in for the 12 qualifying games — six different teams were assembled to play each of the two-game windows that wound up securing the Americans their spot in the World Cup.
“The people working in USA Basketball, we’re just placeholders, right?” said Sean Ford, USA Basketball’s men’s national team director. “But there’s a lot of people that contribute to make USA Basketball what it is. And once you’ve done it, you own a piece of USA Basketball — and we can never have too many investors. So, they feel a part of it.”
As they should.
Nobody played in more World Cup qualifying games than Galloway, who appeared in 10 of the 12 contests. On the night when the Americans clinched the World Cup spot in February, Galloway led the charge in an 88-77 win over Uruguay with 21 points — including 11 straight in the fourth quarter to help put the win away.
It’s the guys like him that gave the U.S. a chance to win gold this summer.
“It’d be a huge accomplishment,” said Galloway, a pro who’ll play in Italy this season and has own shoe line — ETHICS, it’s called, with one of his latest drops a shoe in the red, white and blue colors of the U.S. flag. “To see them win it all, it’d be a huge moment for me, John, Eric. We helped get them here. Now let’s finish the job.”
Mika was brought over to work with the U.S. team’s big guys, like Walker Kessler and Jaren Jackson Jr. It was also not an accident that USA Basketball chose three players to join the 12-man roster on the trip; that gave the team 15 for practice, or three teams of five.
“It says a lot about their character,” Kessler said. “They’re unbelievable guys. Obviously, incredibly talented. Eric’s a great player, great guy, and it says so much that he wanted to come here and be part of the team and make the team better.”
Mika and Jenkins are planning to return to the G League Ignite roster this coming season. They both used plenty of the same words — like “gratitude” toward Ford for inviting them and “honor” to get to wear USA on their chests on foreign soil again.
“This got me in great shape,” said Mika, who got his World Cup teammates to sign his official team jersey as a souvenir. “Even if I didn’t get tons of reps in practice, I got tons of reps after with great coaches, with a great staff, with great players. It got me a lot of confidence; I scrimmaged against them and I know I can hang with these cats. I’m not these guys, I’m not on their level, but I can play with them. I don’t think I’ve missed my window to make it back to the NBA.”
The team flies to Manila on Monday. By then, Jenkins, Galloway and Mika will be home — ready to root for gold. And when USA Basketball calls again, as it likely will, they’ll all come running to be part of whatever’s next.
“A mentor told me to always serve others,” Jenkins said. “That’s my purpose. However I can help, I’ve got to do it. My role is a little bit different, but I still think it’s pretty valuable.”