Not Too Cool for School

Times Staff Writer

People like to say you can't coach NBA players the way you coach college players, but watch Mike Krzyzewski try.

Before the first practice of the new-era approach to reclaiming U.S. dominance in international basketball after a string of embarrassing failures, Krzyzewski gave his roster of NBA millionaires a talk that sounded a lot like College Hoops 101.

"Each day before we come here, we talk about how we are going to conduct ourselves," Krzyzewski said. "We talk about what our standards are as far as how we're going to conduct ourselves on the court, off the court, how we react after a foul."

Inside the gym where the U.S. national team that includes LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade has been preparing for the FIBA World Championships in Japan next month, coaches "teach" and players "learn." Shirts are tucked and defense comes first, and so far there have been no reports of rolling eyes.

"No snickers at all, because people want to win, " said Elton Brand, the Clippers' forward who played for Krzyzewski at Duke. "If we were dominant the last five years, maybe there'd be some snickers or whatever. We lost. We need every advantage we can get."

With a stunning sixth-place finish in the 2002 world championships and a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics that included a loss to Puerto Rico, the U.S. is 11-6 in the last two premier international events. Krzyzewski seems to have everyone's attention even though he will be the first U.S. Olympic coach without any NBA experience since the Dream Team's debut in 1992.

Anthony, whose attitude landed him in Coach Larry Brown's doghouse for much of the Athens Games, sounds as if he is on board with "Coach K," as he already is calling him.

"The attitude has changed," Anthony said. "Everybody wanted to be here and is happy to be here. Nobody's moping around.

"Whatever I've got to do to make this team better, if it's scoring, rebounding, passing, whatever I've got to do, I want to do it."

Krzyzewski, asked about the difficulty of coaching millionaires, smiled slyly.

"I'm a millionaire, too," he said. "I'm not as millionaired as some of them."

If all of Krzyzewski's talk about "bonding" and "relationships" and "the journey" sounds as if it might have been a bit much with the Lakers had he taken that $40-million offer to become coach in 2004, well, there's no guarantee he would have played it quite the way he is playing it with the national team.

"Even if you were in the pros, you might coach the Pistons differently than Orlando," Krzyzewski said.

"This is a younger group. This group still has a learning curve in their profession. Dwyane Wade, who's amazing, is not even 25. I love the fact they want to learn."

The only player older than 30 is Bruce Bowen, the San Antonio Spurs' defensive specialist who is 35. Thirteen of the 24 players on the roster are 25 or younger.

Four didn't play in college, and when Krzyzewski, 59, asked Dwight Howard, a two-year veteran of the Orlando Magic, how old he was, he was stunned that Howard, 20, is two years younger than some of the players on last year's Duke team.

The roster is dotted with players Krzyzewski coached and coached against -- Chris Paul, the NBA rookie of the year and the probable point guard for the U.S. in Japan, went to Wake Forest -- and others he recruited. The most prominent of those is Kobe Bryant, who isn't playing this summer after minor knee surgery but has said he is enthusiastic about playing for Krzyzewski after turning down previous Olympic opportunities.

All of this lends Krzyzewski credibility few other college coaches would have. Already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he has won three NCAA titles. And, unlike any of these players, he has been part of an Olympic gold-medal-winning team -- as an assistant coach on the 1992 Dream Team that had Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and averaged 117 points a game, almost 44 more than its opponents.

"I don't think a lot of college coaches could do it, but he's had success and won the right way, and people respect you," said Shane Battier, another former Duke player. "They might not like you, as evidenced by the hatred of Duke out there, but they respect you. And just being around the guys, I think they really respect what Coach has done, his body of work."

Rudy Tomjanovich, the last coach to guide the U.S. team to a gold medal, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, agreed.

"He knows how to win, and he's also a guy who's had great relationships with players, and that always helps," said Tomjanovich, who was in camp as director of scouting for the U.S. team. "I think he's been very well received by the players."

Of course, the problem is bigger than one of respect or toning down the attitude issues that made Brown think about sending Stephon Marbury, among other players, home from the Olympics in 2004. It is also an Xs-and-O's problem.

Krzyzewski is zeroed in on the Xs. American NBA stars have struggled defensively in international play, seemingly befuddled by other teams' offensive movement and centers who shoot the three-pointer, sometimes off the fastbreak.

"The biggest difference between the international game and the NBA game is the fact you have to face a lot of continuity offenses," Krzyzewski said. "You have to be able to talk and communicate as a team, and not just one or two individuals. We'll have to change some habits.

"A lot of times in the NBA, all the isolations preclude you from having too much help-side defense. Nothing precludes that in international basketball. There's no defensive three-second call."

The presence of Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim on Krzyzewski's staff suggested to some the U.S. might play zone. That's not the plan, Krzyzewski said, and assistant Nate McMillan, the Portland Trail Blazers coach, has been implementing an aggressive man-to-man defense in which the players are helping and sagging more than in the NBA game.

It has made for an incongruous sight, NBA All-Stars waving their arms defensively and shouting to each other back and forth as they try to force turnovers to create scoring opportunities and an up-tempo game.

Offensively, instead of relying on one-on-one play, they are being taught to attack the zone defenses that have frustrated them in the past.

The assistant in charge of the offense is Phoenix Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni, who played and coached in Italy for 21 years and runs the most European-style system in the NBA.

Also notable, after the U.S. shot only 31% from three-point range in the 2004 Games, is the array of outside shooters on the roster, led by Gilbert Arenas and Chauncey Billups, though Billups won't play in the world championships this year because he and his wife are expecting a baby.

Still, the biggest difference in the new approach being led by Suns Chairman and Chief Executive Jerry Colangelo is that the U.S. has assembled a roster to point toward the Olympics for three years, building a team and not just a collection of questionably motivated stars.

Though Krzyzewski doesn't want to say anyone will be "cut," today he plans to choose about 15 of the 18 players available for next month's world championships to go on an Asian exhibition tour. He must then pare the roster to 12 before the FIBA World Championships begin Aug. 19.

Still ahead is the challenge of parceling out playing time. Krzyzewski made it clear he wants role players who will be content with limited minutes, but he also said no one is going to play 40.

"Say LeBron starts the first quarter, then he doesn't start the second, he comes off the bench," Krzyzewski said. "To get into that type of mentality is where we want them to be."

James, who averaged only five points a game as a 19-year-old on the 2004 team, is expected to play a central role on this team.

Wade was on the 2004 team too, but since then has become a star and was MVP of the NBA Finals last month for the Miami Heat.

"We understand Coach K is going to do the best for USA Basketball," Wade said. "This is not two years ago where we thought it would just happen. We've got to work."

For Krzyzewski, it is a chance to coach at the highest level -- the sort of opportunity the Lakers offered, minus the $40 million and the grinding travel.

Somebody asked a question about pressure, and Krzyzewski answered before the sentence was finished.

"No. I don't feel any pressure. I get chills about every 45 minutes," he said.

"Any coach would be envious of being in my position, not because of the prestige, so much, of coaching for your country, but the opportunity to coach the most elite players in our country. It has amazing possibilities.

"You feel like you're young again. To me, this is incredible. We're going to keep it simple. We're going to have fun, and we're going to play our butts off."



Losing its grip

The U.S. basketball team, once dominant in international play, finished sixth at the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis (6-3) and third at the 2004 Olympics in Athens (5-3). The losses:


* Argentina 87, United States 80

* Yugoslavia 81, United States 78

* Spain 81, United States 76


* Puerto Rico 92, United States 73

* Lithuania 94, United States 90

* Argentina 89, United States 81


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