After a decade away from the FIBA AmeriCup games, the United States made a triumphant return in 2017. With a roster composed of eight players whose last club was a G League team and 11 of 12 having had experience in the growing minor league system, the Texas Legends sent two of their 2016-2017 mainstays to help the U.S. capture a gold medal.
Jameel Warney and C.J. Williams were two of Head Coach Bob MacKinnon’s best and most reliable performers last season, earning them the unique, rare and prestigious chance to represent their country in the global games.
For the first time ever, the 37-year old tournament spread across three countries: Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay. The 18th edition saw the United States rejoin and once again overcome Argentina in the finale as they did in Las Vegas in 2007. It took a heroic effort, but the U.S. overcame a 20-point third quarter deficit to finish the tournament undefeated at 5-0 and claim their seventh AmeriCup gold medal.
“We didn’t give up as a team down 20,” Jameel Warney recounts a memory still very fresh. “It’s your fifth game in seven days, it would be easy to pack it in and go home the next day. We just said we have to keep on playing and we believed we could still win the game when we were down 20 in the third quarter. We knew we had to start getting some stops, some points and things to go our way. They kind of tightened up a little bit so we capitalized on that. It was a great experience to be down and come back like that. You see your true self at that time.”
The Legends forward-center literally put himself on the map over the 10-day competition (the U.S. had the first three days off, though), averaging 12.8 points and 8.6 rebounds and finishing strong on the biggest stage. In the final game against Argentina, he scored 21 points, grabbed seven rebounds and was named 2017 AmeriCup Most Valuable Player.
He deflects the award in the same humility we saw from him during the past G League season. “You have to give it to my teammates and my coaching staff who put me in great positions to succeed.”
The process of winning a gold medal is truly unique. You quickly form a team and just as quickly start out to play the games. “We took it one game a time. We started off with a scrimmage against the Dominican Republic. We knew they were a tough team and we were gonna play them later in the week. We just wanted to get off on a good start and see what positives and negatives came from the scrimmage. You have to respect your opponents.
“Against Panama we had to play with some kind of urgency knowing that any team can beat you in the tournament. You have to play well every game and we did but you have to give credit to Coach Van Gundy and how he helped us not get complacent, watch film after and correct all of our mistakes. He did a great job with helping us achieve our dreams.”
The 23-year old Stony Brook legend continues: “You have to form a bond quickly because you’re going for a gold medal. It’s not a showcase, not an all-star game, it’s a really competitive time. You have to put trust in people you just met and just got on the floor with. You don’t know each other’s tendencies yet, their strengths and their weaknesses. You have to kind of cram that all in a few days before you go overseas and play. But it was definitely fun. We had a lot of down time to hang out with the guys and see how they truly are off the court and help get accustomed to how they are on the court.”
In the past year, Warney and C.J. Williams have gone through Dallas Mavericks training camp and a full Texas Legends regular season together. A special bond has formed in the process and the two had the coveted opportunity to share this entire experience.
“C.J.’s not only my teammate, he’s one of my closest basketball friends that I met over the last year. It was a great experience to celebrate it with someone who you know on a personal level, who you’ve been to war with in training camp with the Mavericks to playing the season with the Legends. It was a great, unique feeling to get the gold medal with someone you know on a personal level and a lot of fun.”
Williams, 27, started for Jeff Van Gundy’s club in the semifinal and championship matchups. “I knew once we had Jonathan Holmes go down with an ankle injury that I would be starting. But it still didn’t hit me until we were going out for the jump ball and I heard my name being called out for starters. It was really a blessing to have that experience and to be able to say that I started a game representing my country is such an honor.”
The first word that pops out of his mouth when remembering the overall AmeriCup experience is the same one Warney had: crazy.
“To know that we were representing the country, it’s something that you start off thinking as a basketball player for a long time, having seen the ‘Dream Team’ and all that,” Williams says. “It was a little overwhelming at first and I know the first game –especially for me– I was a little anxious. I didn’t play my best game because, you know, (it’s) the first time putting on that jersey. It was a great experience overall and I’m glad I got invited and had the opportunity to do it.”
It all came together extremely quickly for the U.S. roster and coaching staff. Given the time window concerning national tournaments like this, it had to. Williams saw a championship caliber team around him before the games began. “We definitely had the confidence, coming in right away, that we could win it all. We just knew that we were up for a challenge. There were a lot of really good teams there. Teams that had chemistry over years and we had to figure it out over a matter of weeks. We knew we had a challenge ahead of us but we all have played basketball before, we’ve all been on new teams and stuff like that. It was one of those things where you had to rely on your defense more than anything to get the job done.”
Playing for former NBA coach and current ESPN and ABC A-team broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy was a highlight for both Legends players. The charismatic Van Gundy proved to carry the same valuable, hilarious weight in person as he does on television, radio, and the highlight reels.
“Van Gundy is really into his stories, he tells quite a few stories,” Williams notes admirably. “They’re always good stories and they have a purpose. They’re funny a little bit and then there’s a moral to it so you understand it’s a job and you understand what the whole purpose for each story is.”
Staying in the moment, C.J. now looks back on the privilege he had to play for the legendary coach. “You just never really think about stuff like that until it’s done. I knew I was playing for a great coach but at the same time I knew we had a job to do so I’m focused on that. After the fact, thinking about the fact that I played for Jeff Van Gundy, it was an honor to play for him and represent our country.”
Warney’s experience with Van Gundy was intimate from the get-go. A stern talking to in tryouts began what would become a historic journey for the big man. “He’s a truth teller. It was funny, the first few days in tryouts I wasn’t playing up to my expectations. He came up to me and told me I’m underachieving right now and I have to pick it up. You have to respect someone if they can give you the 100% truth no matter how you’re going to feel about it. You have to respect it. He helped us a lot over the few weeks. I got better, the team got better and he’s a great guy. He respects the team, we respected him and he put us in good positions to succeed.”
But he’s still the happy-go-lucky, wise and humorous guy he plays on his nationally televised broadcasts. “Oh, yeah. He definitely had his moments where he was hilarious. He kept the team pretty calm. He has so many stories from his Knicks days, his Rockets days, he’s just a funny guy and it was great to be around him. You hear him on TV all the time so you don’t know how he is in real life, but he’s definitely how he is on TV.”
With all but one player on the roster boasting G League experience, the recognition to the fast-growing league reached an international scale. The AmeriCup games inadvertently acted as a bit of a world tour for the legion of G League participants on the United States squad, as Williams points out.
“Well, you know a lot of times the G League doesn’t get enough credit based on whatever it may be. It’s a great league overall. From some of the places you play, some of the coaches you play for, being in great organizations, all that stuff combined makes it a great league. I’m thankful we were able to show it off on a world level and allow people to see how great our league is and what kind of talent we have.”
The two teammates who have shared an incredible journey also share glowing reviews of one another. “It was really good (to be with Jameel) because we both had familiarity with each other and in games we were able to rely on each other a little bit, on our experience having played together before. It was one of those things where if all else failed, I know what Jameel’s gonna do and Jameel knows what I’m gonna do. It was really good to be able to have and share the experience with him. He’s a great guy, as I’ve said before, and he’s one of those guys you always want to have on your team. Both for his talent and for just his attitude alone. He’s a really good team player and his talent speaks for itself. It was great to be able to enjoy that experience with him.”
A rewarding month of basketball adds another storied chapter to these two young men’s incredible résumés. “I mean, three weeks of putting the team together and achieving the dream and meeting guys that you now have a lifelong bond with is really cool,” says Warney. “Obviously being coached by (former) NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy was great. I learned a lot over the weeks. I’d definitely do it again.”
Winning the MVP award lit a fire under a body of work for Jameel Warney that was already picking up tremendous steam dating back to the last G League season. “This has really helped me pick up some momentum. Just a few weeks ago I was thinking I’d be back in the G League. There’s some NBA teams showing interest in me so I just have to keep performing well and keep turning heads. If that happens, I’ll put myself in a great position.”
Where Warney is going to be a sophomore professional, the veteran Williams awaits his invite to an NBA training camp. It’s just a matter of where and when, not if, at this point for the sharpshooter. “Right now I just want to get into a training camp and give myself a really good shot to make it to the NBA. I don’t know where that will be right now but I’m just working hard and controlling what I can control as far as trying to make the NBA.”
Aside from a late scare in the championship game against Argentina, it was largely smooth sailing for Warney, Williams, and the United States team. However, the trip home saw a pair of notable hurdles come their way.
The first one came before they even reached their gate. Warney set the metal detector off in the coolest way possible. “I had my medal under my jacket. I had it on all night, I slept with it. I forgot that it was on me and I had my jacket zipped up and I walked through and the noise went off. ‘Oh, I got my gold medal on!’ Security found it humorous so thankfully they weren’t jerks about it. It was a funny moment.”
Furthermore, their first of two flights home was canceled and they faced a close call connecting on the second departure to Houston. Thankfully, Marshall Plumlee –who has now played for the United States basketball team as well as served in the country’s Army– took it upon himself to get him and his teammates home on time.
“We were ready to go home but our flight got canceled so we had to wait a few hours,” Warney laughs about it now. “We took a flight at 7:00 and got there at 8:15 and our flight to Houston was at 8:45. We were rushing. At one point we thought we were spending another night in Argentina and we’ve been away from home for a while. But thankfully everything worked out. You gotta give it to Marshall Plumlee for talking to United (Airlines) the whole way to make sure we could still get on our flight.”
A few bumps here and there of minor proportions will do nothing to mar the once in a lifetime experience overseas that Jameel Warney and C.J. Williams had. Add it to the list of things these two have accomplished, a list that is ready to keep growing.