Sitting in the press room Sunday just minutes after coaching Team USA to its fourth consecutive gold medal, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski cracked a smile and breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“Oh boy,” he said. “It feels good.”
Next to Krzyzewski, former Blue Devil Kyrie Irving displayed a new Tissot brand watch, given to the FIBA World Cup’s Most Valuable Player, after scoring 26 points on 6-of-6 three point shooting.
In a way, it was a redemption for the duo, whose 2010-2011 Duke team was eliminated in the Sweet 16 after Irving missed most of his only season in Durham to injury.
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“This is the biggest accomplishment of my life so far,” Irving said. “It’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever felt.”
Before returning to Durham, Krzyzewski spoke with the News & Observer to reflect on another international gold medal, his former Duke players and new ones preparing for the college season.
Question: This was your fourth straight gold medal going back to the 2008 Olympics. What was special about this time around in Spain?
Krzyzewski: Each one is special because it’s a different team each time. The one thing that’s the same is the culture that Jerry Colangelo and our USA Basketball coaching staff has built. And all four teams have not just bought into it, they’ve loved it. They didn’t have to be sold, they wanted to be a part of it. Of all the interruptions we’ve had and the injuries, these guys have done a great thing. This is as good for me as anything, national championships and Olympics. What this group did was very special for me. This was a great team to work with. They always wanted to work, and they were very well prepared.
There were a lot of interruptions and they stayed focused on the team they were going to play next. They respected the process and as a result, the process turned out very good. We also couldn’t have been treated at a higher level by the people of Spain - from Gran Canary to Bilbao to Barcelona and Madrid. The tournament was run great and we’ve come away with a strong love for the country.
Question: After long college basketball seasons, how have you stayed motivated through these summer tournaments? What keeps you going personally?
Krzyzewski: It’s always an honor representing your country and representing it the right way. We want to win and we want to win the right way. I don’t know if there’s a consistent level of energy as you get older, but it’s your watch, it’s your responsibility. It’s something I learned when I went to West Point. It’s your job right now, do it the right way and then somebody else will have that job eventually. While you’re in command, make sure your unit does everything the right way. Jerry has set that example and that’s all we’ve tried to do. And we try to keep learning.
Question: How did the play of Kyrie Irving and Mason Plumlee during the World Cup compare to your expectations of them before the tournament?
Krzyzewski: First of all, Kyrie is a star, and I think he showed that from the beginning. Mason was very important for us off the bench when Anthony (Davis) and DeMarcus (Cousins) got into foul trouble. Both of them were terrific, they were focused and I’m very proud of them.
Question: Is there anything you’ve learned with Team USA that can translate to coaching at Duke?
Krzyzewski: Well, the scrutiny is at an even higher level with Team USA. I’ve lived with that for 25 years as the Duke coach, and I’m the most prepared for that because we’re the most scrutinized college basketball team in everything we do.
Question: You had the chance to work for several weeks with your new Duke team before leaving for Spain. What are you most looking to when you get back?
Krzyzewski: We obviously have a very talented freshman class, and the new players are going to be a big part of our team this season. With (Jabari) Parker and (Rodney) Hood gone, we’re going to need the young guys to step up. I’m looking forward to helping them develop and putting the pieces together.
Question: Which freshman do you think can have the greatest immediate impact?
Krzyzewski: I think all of them have the potential to make an impact for us. (Jahlil) Okafor is extremely talented post player, which is really rare for a college freshman. He’s going to draw attention from opposing defenses and allow us to be flexible on offense.