TRYING TO REVIVE THE GOLD STANDARD
Given the task of changing the face of the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team from bronze to gold, managing director Jerry Colangelo selected Mike Krzyzewski of Duke as head coach in 2005. “The right man at the right time,” Colangelo said.
In 28 seasons at Duke, Krzyzewski has won three national championships, been named national coach of the year 12 times and won 803 games, the sixth-highest total in Division I history.
Before the U.S. team left for Beijing, Krzyzewski, often referred to simply as Coach K, talked about his team and himself.
Q: As important a period as this is for the Olympic team, it is also an important time for Duke in terms of recruiting. Are you trying to straddle your two obligations?
A: No, I took myself off the road NCAA-wise three days into the period. I went out the 6th, 7th and 8th of July and then notified [the NCAA] compliance [office] and our conference to take me off the road. . . . I just can’t recruit now. Are you kidding me? We are trying to win a gold medal. If any recruit doesn’t understand, that’s too bad.
Q: Having never coached at the professional level, what is your philosophy about handling an Olympic team made up of NBA players?
A: My belief has always been, no surprises. As soon as I find out something, they will know it. Everyone is equal.
Q: How do you approach the task of meshing so many stars into an effective unit?
A: These guys are smart and we have put in a simple system for them to best utilize their talents. I think they enjoy it. They get a chance to do some things they don’t normally do. Because of the length of the game -- it’s 40 minutes instead of 48 -- they themselves are not going to play 40 minutes. I think they like that as well.
Guys like Kobe [Bryant] and LeBron [James] love this because they get to use their whole game and they get to do it with guys they love and respect at the highest level. Look at LeBron. I’m not trying to knock anybody on Cleveland, but here, he has three of the best point guards, at least Americans, in the world playing with him. Camaraderie-wise, we are good as you can get.
Q: Were you as surprised, as were so many others, that the U.S. wound up with only a 5-3 record and the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics?
A: There’s talent everywhere in the Olympic tournament. I can tell you that, at one time in the not-too-distant past, I’m not sure I believed that. I just thought we were darn good. We can be better by recognizing that we weren’t that good, by recognizing what it takes to be good now, not what it took in the past.
What it took in the past was our just showing up. Even with the Dream Team in 1992, Russia had split up and Yugoslavia had split up. I’m not saying we would have lost if they had been together, [but] it would have been closer. We just couldn’t go on with college guys. The other teams have pros. Truly, it has become the world’s game. It’s just a whole new time.
Q: Which teams do you consider the other top contenders for gold?
A: If you asked any of our players, “Who is your toughest opponent?” I’ll bet not one of them would single out any one team. They know better. They know there are a lot of good teams.
This is a sprint. You have 30-odd days to this. Whether it’s painting, farming or basketball, hard work is the only way to do it. With the way we are working, as long as we stay healthy, we’ll have a chance to win.
Q: What would it mean to you personally to be the head coach of a gold medal-winning team?
A: Coaches don’t get gold medals, which is not necessarily wrong, because the Olympics are set up for participants. But I’m sure, if we win, Colangelo will figure out how to get us a replica. I would feel really good if we won and probably have a few bottles of wine to toast this team.
But I’m OK with no spotlight on me. I’m 61 years old. At my age, I’m usually better in dim light, looks-wise and everything. I just love the opportunity to be with these guys and to coach at this level. How lucky am I, at this time in my career, to coach this team and still have the passion to do it?
That’s the best part. I don’t need anything else.
Q: You’ve had various opportunities over the years to pursue a pro coaching job. Does being around these players ever cause you to wonder how you might have fared in the NBA?
A: No, no, I never think of that. The only thing I think about around here is why we turn the ball over so much in transition.
Q: You always shy away from controversy. Do you ever say anything startling?
A: Me and startling are not in the same crossword puzzle.