With an international coaching career dating to 1979, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has been on the bench for some of the greatest highs in the history of the U.S. men’s national team. A four-time gold medal winner, Krzyzewski was an assistant for 1984 and 1992 Olympic winners, and head coach of gold medal teams in 2008 and 2012. A two-time bronze medalist in the World Championships, Krzyzewski last won gold there in 2010. Team USA opens the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup on Saturday against Finland. The gold medal game is Sept. 14.
On Wednesday, Krzyzewski spoke on the phone with The News & Observer on adapting to the international game, expectations for Team USA in Spain and his international coaching legacy.
Question: What are differences between coaching college and professional players?
I think you have to adapt to both situations. When you’re in college, you’re coaching young men that are not professionals. They go to school. Basketball isn’t their job, just something they have a passion for.
You have to help them much more.
Team USA is all professionals. Basketball is what they do, it’s their job. With pro players you need to adapt to them, whereas college players need to adapt to you.
Q: Much has been made of Team USA’s youth and relative lack of experience on the international stage. How do you prepare first-time players for this new experience?
The main advantage we have with our coaches, infrastructure and support of Team USA is that we’ve been to numerous competitions. So new players aren’t going into this without help. We try to teach our guys the nuances of the international game. We even have FIBA officials at our practices enforcing FIBA rules.
As coaches, our mindset is that it’s not our responsibility to change our players’ games. But the way our players play in college and the NBA is a little different than FIBA. Basically, we need to adapt to a different style. It’s an advantage other countries have over us: the continuity of playing with FIBA rules their entire lives, when our guys haven’t had the chance to do that.
Q: What are some of the adjustments players have to make for international play?
I think every player has to have a willingness to adapt to the different rules. In the NBA there are more minutes, more fouls, more contact and even a different ball. As a coaching staff, we try not to make them all adapt immediately to the new style, but try to come up with a program where players adapt to one another while adapting together to the international rules.
We really try to get to know our guys too so they’re more comfortable with us as coaches. We have four players who played for Team USA before and two former Duke players. So six guys that already know what to expect from me and my staff.
Q: You mentioned the two former Duke players, Kyrie Irving and Mason Plumlee, both guys you coached in Durham. Did that previous experience make them easier selections for Team USA?
Really that had nothing to do with their selections. Absolutely nothing. In Kyrie’s case, he’s a star. He was going to make the team because he’s that good. When you’re filling in, after the core group, you’re looking for complementary players. We had a need for Mason after an injury and guys pulling out at the last minute. So we had to take a look at the team as a whole. We feel very comfortable with the players we’ve selected, and we’re excited for the start of the World Cup.
Q: Are there other any players you’ve been most impressed with during the exhibition rounds?
Talent-wise, I think for Anthony Davis, at age 21, to be playing at the level he’s playing at is very exciting. He’s a rising superstar, and he has showed it thus far in the four exhibition games we’ve had.
Q: What teams do you see as the greatest contenders in competition with the United States? Are there any teams besides Spain that really stand out?
We’d be arrogant to think that our next opponent would not be on our radar. Over the nine years I’ve done this, the only opponent on our radar is our next opponent. The main team is us. We have to keep developing, and we’ll be better as a result of doing that instead of looking ahead. We need to look at us right now and see how we need to develop.
Q: Last year, you re-committed to Team USA through 2016. When your international coaching career ends, do you have a legacy you want to leave? Does international competition go beyond winning gold medals?
For me, working with Jerry (Colangelo) and Team USA has been an amazing and rewarding experience.
I’ve learned a lot from working with top-quality dedicated people. The continuity of us all working together has also helped. That’s something we thought USA Basketball needed. When we started in 2005, Jerry and I both had goals to win gold medals – but we also wanted to win the respect of the world and our own country. We want to win and we want to win the right way. And we want to show respect and humility as we move forward.
Chris Kudialis is a former intern at The News & Observer.
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