When you do something one summer and it turns out perfectly, it’s hard not to want to do it again.
But can the magic ever be recaptured? Or is the entire experience destined for failure, given that many things in life are never as good as they were the first time?
Those are among the questions about Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s latest adventure. Coach K will direct the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team once again this year at the Summer Olympics in London, and once again nothing less than a gold medal will do.
“I can’t be worried about losing and what that would mean,” Krzyzewski said in our recent interview. “I couldn’t afford not to be a part of this one more time.”
Krzyzewski’s team will report to work in Las Vegas Thursday. On Saturday, the final 12-man roster will be announced (15 are scheduled to show up in Vegas). The roster will be without Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose. All were likely participants, but all are out this time because of injury.
But Coach K will still have LeBron James – the team’s boisterous leader and the world’s best player – along with mega-stars like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. Winning the gold medal will likely be more difficult this time around, but the Americans will still be favored. Spain, the 2008 silver medalist, is considered the biggest threat to the U.S., with the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka trying to dominate the post.
Krzyzewski, 65, and Duke’s basketball coach since 1980, knows he is putting some of his legacy on the line by trying to repeat as a gold medalist. He talked honestly with his family about the pros and cons of continuing as the U.S. team’s coach through this Olympic cycle.
“My family felt relieved when we won in 2008,” Krzyzewski said. “Because if you lose, you know you’re going to get it (criticism). So why would you want to do it again?”
The answer for Krzyzewski – an Army graduate in 1969 and a former basketball coach there as well – is patriotism. He refers to the national anthem as his team’s “fight song.” Jerry Colangelo, the chairman of USA Basketball, wanted him to coach the U.S. team again, and so Krzyzewski felt called to do it. Coach K has already said he won’t do it again in 2016, however, figuring it will be time for a younger coach to step in at that time.
And his family has gotten on board with his plans. Krzyzewski will be bringing everyone – his wife Mickie, their three daughters and their families – to London just as he did to Beijing in 2008.
“We’ll take all eight of our grandchildren, my daughters, their husbands – everybody,” Krzyzewski said, laughing as he then made a “Beverly Hillbillies” reference. “The Clampetts went to China in 2008. Now the Clampetts will go to London. We’ll set the international relationships back a couple of decades I’m sure.”
Basketball belongs to everyone
Krzyzewski was named the coach for the senior men’s national team in 2005 and was an assistant for the “Dream Team” of 1992. So he has deep international basketball experience. He and one of his daughters, Jamie K. Spatola, co-authored a book called “The Gold Standard” that was published in 2009 and chronicled his gold-medal experience of 2008.
In the book, Krzyzewski wrote of his lone defeat as U.S. head coach in the 2006 world championships, to Greece. “I have never suffered a more devastating loss,” he wrote. And he noted one of his early mistakes as the national-team coach, writing:
“I recalled that in one of our first meetings back in the summer of 2006 I told my team that we needed to remind the world of who USA Basketball was, and that in winning, we would reclaim our game. I had also told them that our goal should be not only to win every game, but also to win every quarter of basketball that we played. I regret having made both of those arrogant statements. And it was after the loss to Greece that it was truly embedded in my mind that this was not our game anymore. I had told that to my team and asked them to believe it, but until then I am not sure that I realized the entire truth of it. Basketball belonged to the world now, and I needed to see it for myself.”
Indeed, basketball is now often called the world’s second-most popular sport, trailing only soccer. Krzyzewski has tried to make sure his players understand that a gold medal is not their birthright, but a very worthy challenge.
Defense first (ask Kobe)
While the American team will be renowned for its offense, Krzyzewski believes defense is ultimately what it will take to win another gold medal. His players bought into that early in the 2008 cycle. That team was nicknamed the “Redeem Team” – although Krzyzewski never used the sobriquet – because the squad was supposed to redeem the 2004 bronze medal the U.S. got.
In that squad’s first scrimmage, Bryant literally didn’t take a single shot as he tried to send a message to the rest of the team that it should be defense-first (much like the way Duke plays).
Bryant has said a number of times that had he not gone pro straight out of high school that he would have gone to Duke instead. Krzyzewski has enjoyed Bryant the second time around. It was Kobe, LeBron and Jason Kidd who became the unofficial team captains of the 2008 squad and Krzyzewski’s sounding board when team issues came up.
LeBron and Kobe will likely return to those roles in 2012. Coach K is strongly considering naming team captains this time around, he told me.
“There is a certain earnestness about Kobe,” Krzyzewski wrote in his book. “It is part of what makes him great. But LeBron was able to joke with him and bring out a lighter side. The relationships among the players were critical, just as critical as my relationships with them.”
Bryant sent Krzyzewski an e-mail the first time around that the coach liked so much he quoted it in his book. It closed with this: “Having players have a defensive DNA and desire goes without saying,” Kobe wrote. “I am ready to learn and excited to be coached by one of the best and looking forward to the thrill of a new challenge and the joy of a new kill.”
Not one gold medal, but 12
Some things will change this time around. Krzyzewski said the team will scrimmage less because the NBA season was so condensed and his players’ bodies will be in danger of wearing down.
“I have to be really careful in how we as a staff bring this team along,” Krzyzewski said.
But much will be the same. Krzyzewski has kept his coaching staff (Nate McMillan, Mike D’Antoni and Jim Boeheim). And he will once again encourage his players to embrace the Olympic experience and become golden ambassadors, much as the 2008 team did by attending Michael Phelps’ swimming events and a number of the U.S. women’s basketball games.
The injuries? No doubt they could be a problem, especially in the post. “If I was Mike, I’d sleep like about half an hour a night,” said Geno Auriemma, the USA women’s basketball coach for these Olympics. “Every time you turn on the TV, someone else is being declared out for the Olympics.”
Mindful of the impact the team can have representing the U.S., Krzyzewski will look for moments that resonate with the squad. Some of those happen naturally, he said, but others the team’s leadership will try to “orchestrate,” as he said. An open practice will be held, for instance, in front of about 4,000 American military troops.
It’s not a well-known fact that Krzyzewski didn’t get a gold medal for the 2008 Olympics. Coaches don’t receive them for Olympic sports – only athletes do.
But all 12 players placed their gold medals around his neck after the final game and posed for a picture with him. It was a testament to how much a college coach had meant to pro players – a coach who worried whether he would fit in with the grown men he was asked to supervise and who ended up making America king of the basketball hill once more.
You can rest assured that if the U.S. finished in second place this year there won’t be any 12-silver-medals-around-the-neck pictures.
The Olympics will either be golden for the U.S. men’s national team, or they will be a disappointment. No in-between.
Krzyzewski knows that’s what he has signed up for, and he embraces the challenge. “I’m already really happy I did this,” he said. “And we’re going to try and go make everyone proud one more time.”