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How Clemson became Team USA and brought home basketball gold

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Clemson basketball/Team USA

Clemson represented the United States at the World University Games in Napoli, Italy, this summer. Photo provided/USA Team

CLEMSON— Clemson basketball coach Brad Brownell wanted to be honest. He was appreciative of Nels Hawkinson's offer, but he wasn't quite sure his Tigers were up to represent Team USA at the World University Games this summer.

"We're losing four starters. I'm not sure how good our team will be or not, but we'll play hard," Brownell told Hawkinson, whose organization, Basketball Travelers Inc., is affiliated with the U.S. International University Sports Federation.

"Certainly we want you to compete for a gold medal," Hawkinson replied. "But it's just as important, or more important, that you represent the United States in the right way."

So it was settled. Clemson's offseason experienced an uptick in intensity and stakes this summer, as the Tigers made off for Napoli, Italy, for the Games this July and came home with gold medals.

"We won a lot of close games in the process," Brownell said. "Some balls bounced our way at the end of games, but (we're) certainly deserving of that after last year when it didn't feel like we had many good breaks."

Clemson finished last season 20-14, missing the NCAA Tournament and winning one game in the National Invitation Tournament before elimination. The Tigers lost three conference games by two or fewer points, and enter the 2019-20 campaign facing significant roster turnover.

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No matter. Clemson found chemistry in Naples, finishing off the run with an 85-63 win over Ukraine in the gold medal game, thanks in part to strong performances from John Newman III (20 points, seven rebounds), Aamir Simms (12 points) and Trey Jemison (11 points).

Brownell was pleased with Simms' performance, noting how important Simms' leadership was in the wake of injuries to guard Clyde Trapp and forward Jonathan Baehre. 

"To have the opportunity to play in a game like that, wear that jersey was so exciting," Simms said. "(You get) an energy rush every time you put it on, felt like you were playing in the Olympics."

Back home, Simms' family followed along via livestreams. Elsewhere around the country, though, the Games, which took place from July 3-14, largely fell under the radar in the news cycle. There were no promotional commercials, no aggressive social media campaigns. Just a team, and a coaching staff, representing the nation on the global scale.

Clemson is the third Division I men's team to represent the United States at the Games, which requires participants to hold a U.S. passport and be between ages 17-25. College teams started representing the nation in 2015, starting with Kansas, which won gold. Purdue took second place in 2017.

Hawkinson declined to reveal the complete parameters for the selection process, but did note that he's impressed by the culture Brownell has created at Clemson.

"I can say part of what's important to me and our community is not only the strength of the team, is the coaching staff going to represent our country in a positive way," Hawkinson said. "Don't want a team on the sidelines that will be an embarrassment to us."

Mission accomplished. Clemson left Napoli with both a heightened sense of unity and greater appreciation for the national scene. Simms was impressed by Israel and Ukraine, noting that each ran crisp sets with frequent ball screens, challenging Clemson's defense.

The basketball calendar never stops, though, and now the Tigers are preparing for their season opener Nov. 5 against Virginia Tech. A team of Big East all-stars is representing Team USA at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.

But chatter about what Clemson experienced and achieved in mid-July persists around the team. Simms said he plans to pass on the jersey to his parents to display along with other mementos from his career.

"A good memory to have for a lifetime," he said. 

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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