NY Times: For Coach K and U.S., Gold Is the Only Prize

NY Times: For Coach K and U.S., Gold Is the Only Prize

Postby JSM on Sat Jul 05, 2008 12:15 pm

New York Times: Three national championships and more than 800 victories say Mike Krzyzewski is one of the greatest college basketball coaches.

Anything less than an Olympic gold medal this summer would probably say something else about him.

Krzyzewski fell short two years ago in his first shot with the professionals. If he cannot win in Beijing with the most talented team he has had, it may be time to wonder if Krzyzewski is little more than an elite college coach.

“Coach knows that his legacy is on the line,” said Shane Battier, who played under Krzyzewski at Duke and with the United States national team.

Battier added: “As he preached to us at Duke, that’s only pressure if you call it that. Some would call it a challenge. Others would call it pressure.”

Carlos Boozer, the national team forward who also played at Duke, said Battier’s comments about legacy were not a stretch.

“Coach K is used to the pressure; this is who he is,” Boozer said. “He went to Army, and there ain’t too much more pressure than that. Then he goes to Duke, where it’s an institution, where if you lose, they get you out. That’s pressure. And this is obviously the biggest stage in the world, and Coach is ready for it.”

And for the no-win position that comes with it.

Take home gold, and it is because a team with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and other N.B.A. stars could not lose. Fail, and fingers will be pointed at the guy who had the deepest team and somehow blew it.

Even with Krzyzewski’s success at Duke, his hiring was in some ways the riskiest move made by the USA Basketball managing director, Jerry Colangelo. The Americans had stuck with N.B.A. coaches since adding pro players with the Dream Team in 1992, with some college coaches, Krzyzewski among them, serving as assistants.

Or, maybe that is why Krzyzewski was the perfect choice. Even more than their poor performances, perhaps the biggest embarrassments surrounding the failed United States teams in the 2002 world championships and 2004 Olympics were the strained relationships between the players and the N.B.A. coaches George Karl and Larry Brown. Brown had no use for many of them, including some who will play for Krzyzewski in China.

Krzyzewski does not criticize his players in the news media, sometimes practically scolding questioners who ask anything negative about them. The players seem to like and respect him — Bryant still has a letter Krzyzewski sent him in high school and was his choice to coach the Lakers when Phil Jackson stepped away in 2004.

And as Krzyzewski points out, because he is not in the N.B.A., there is no bad blood with any of his players.

“None of the guys that play for me ever have to worry about competing against me,” Krzyzewski said. “We can develop a relationship that you might not have been able to.”

That was one of the reasons Colangelo picked Krzyzewski three years ago without giving serious consideration to other candidates. He said the only other person in mind was San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, but apparently not for long. Popovich said he received a call asking if he would be interested, replied it would be an honor to be considered and never heard anything again.

Krzyzewski went on to guide the United States to a bronze medal in the 2006 world championships, falling to 0 for 2 running a team in a major event. He also led the United States to a third-place finish in the 1990 world championships.

That result was understandable, given that he was coaching a team of college players and the Americans’ semifinal loss came against a veteran Yugoslavia squad featuring Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and Drazen Petrovic. The lone defeat two years ago, against Greece in the semifinals, was not one of Krzyzewski’s finest moments.

Many players, while not assigning blame, were frustrated afterward that the Americans never came up with an answer for Greece’s pick-and-rolls. Perhaps the Greeks were just too good that day, but maybe a coach of Krzyzewski’s stature should have come up with something — a zone to slow them down, or pressed them to force them out of their preferred pace.

Battier called the loss “a great learning experience for Coach,” and Krzyzewski agreed there was something to be gained — but for the whole team, not just himself.

“Yeah, you learn from those things,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s what you do when you’re trying to build a program. The international game is a beautiful game, but you have to learn it, and we didn’t know it well enough back then.”

Krzyzewski usually responds that way, turning any question about the individual into an answer about the group. And his message about team the last three summers has had an effect on his star players, who are intent on coming through for him this summer.

“Absolutely, there’s going to be pressure on Coach K,” James said. “There’s going to be pressure on a lot of the players. I’m not one of those guys who believes in pressure.

“If we go out and do what we need to do every game, we’ll be fine.”
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JSM
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