Krzyzewski sets the pace

Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- It’s a command played out in countless junior high gymnasiums and one usually met by grumblings and groans.

“Defensive slides,” the coach tells his players, his voice even but stern.

Only this isn’t any coach. This is Coach Mike Krzyzewski, synonymous with Duke and winning. Coach K, to nearly everyone now.

And this isn’t any team, let alone one of seventh- and eighth-graders. This is the USA men’s Olympic team, a squad full of big stars, who earn bigger paychecks and strut even bigger egos.


Except there is no grumbling, no groaning. Only a smile from Kobe Bryant as the team splits into two, going to separate baselines and Krzyzewski, notebook in hand, straddling the midcourt line while keeping one keen eye trained on each side.

The team convened for a one-day mini-mini-camp Saturday as it begins tuning up for Beijing, still trying to brush away the aftertaste of coming home from Athens four years ago with a bronze medal.

Enter Krzyzewski.

Still, the task is monumental: mold a team of superstars, fresh off the rigors of a full NBA season, and get them to buy into your philosophy wholeheartedly with precious little time or margin for error.

“It’d be difficult if people don’t cooperate,” Krzyzewski said. “They need to be superstars on their individual teams. They’re the center of the wheel. Everything emanates from them. On this team, they’re not. Not one of them.

“We talked about it, but they get it. There’s no ‘I want to be the center of the wheel’ or ‘I’m jealous.’ There’s nothing like that.”

Krzyzewski is undeniably smart about basketball, and life, and so ordinarily he does not scream nose to nose at players or referees. He is a man more of calm than calamity, but it’s an intense calm.


What exactly is he?

“He’s a winner,” said forward Carlos Boozer, the only member of the 12-man team to play under Krzyzewski at Duke. “Any time you’re playing for a winner, the respect is given before he even comes into the gym. His winning precedes him.”

Krzyzewski knows superstars are often perceived as arrogant and petulant, and maybe his history of winning made a difference, but this U.S. team, he says, just isn’t like that.

“It goes against what normal people would do, maybe,” he said. “Or maybe people who aren’t superstars who think that a superstar should act that way. I guess, it goes against stereotypes. Instead of stereotyping them in a negative sense. The reality of it is, they are in a positive sense, so they’ve been easy to work with.”

Yet the perception that superstars will always act like superstars became reality with the Athens Games, when the U.S. was taught that it could no longer slap together a team of All-Stars and dominate in international play.

Larry Brown, the coach of that 2004 team, was rebuked in the media for criticizing his players, the officiating and nearly everything else. Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire, for example, were benched for an exhibition game after showing up late to a pregame meeting.

“We didn’t approach the Games the right way,” said James, one of four current players from that team. “We didn’t take the Games serious and we paid for it.”

That is why USA Managing Director Jerry Colangelo decided things needed to change.

Colangelo, the former longtime owner of the Phoenix Suns, requested full autonomy in putting together the team, from the coach to the players.

“When I met with guys one on one, eyeball to eyeball, I was looking for a response,” Colangelo said Saturday.

“And I basically said, ‘Look, here’s what I’m demanding and don’t ever embarrass me and I’ll never embarrass you, but this is all about pride, representing your country. If you want to be part of this, you’ve got to buy in 100%. This is not halfway. If you can handle what I just said, then I’ll consider you. But if you can’t, then you’re out.’ ”

“We got total buy-in,” he said. “Total.”

In Krzyzewski, Colangelo has seen what others see: his soft rhythm, a smooth manner of delivering messages and making sure it is understood, whether the recipient requested it or not.

“He has the ability to use the right words to get his message across and whatever it might be, it’s uplifting,” Colangelo said. “He can use the right phrases . . . to make his point and guys follow.”

Said Bryant, one of those who follows: “Above all else, he just wants to see his players play well and he wants to win. He communicates that beautifully to his players.”

Colangelo also did something new -- he asked Krzyzewski to help choose the roster, something previous Olympic basketball coaches had not been allowed to do.

“That team that I had, you just got the team,” said Rudy Tomjanovich, who coached the U.S. to its last gold medal, in 2000. “This team got to work out and work with different possibilities to create a team.”

Krzyzewski, he said, “has done a tremendous job. . . . There’s an intensity there and the players have picked it up.”

Outside, the afternoon sun is beating down on Cox Pavilion on the Nevada Las Vegas campus. Nearly two hours into the practice, the slides give way to shooting drills. Players, from Bryant to Dwyane Wade, shout encouragement, be it makes or misses. It’s all in perfect symmetry, one the team hopes to carry to Beijing.

So how much does Krzyzewski account for this unity of one team with one goal -- gold?

“Minimal,” he said. “I think it’s minimal.”

Another case of a coach leading by example.