WEST POINT, N.Y. — Addressing the crowd in Christl Arena just before Monday’s USA Basketball open practice began, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “I take West Point everywhere I go.”
Krzyzewski attended the United States Military Academy at West Point as a cadet, and was a three-year letterman under coach Bob Knight from 1967-69. After five years of service in the Army and one year as an assistant coach at Indiana under Knight, Krzyzewski returned to West Point as coach, his first head coaching position. In five years at Army, before moving on to Duke in 1980, Krzyzewski accumulated a 73-59 record.
Which explains in part why Krzyzewski was looking forward to Monday as part of the USA Basketball’s Men’s National Team’s preparation for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. The practice itself was nothing more than shooting drills and layup lines, with a short scrimmage mixed in. But Krzyzewski felt the lessons learned were less about basketball and more about teaching what it means to represent the United States.
“A day like today is one of our most important days,” Krzyzewski said, “because these guys get a chance of feeling America, feeling what it is to be on the U.S. team. You know, we’ve done that with all of our teams, whether it be Arlington Cemetery, the Statue of Liberty, Wounded Warriors, people coming in from the military to talk. To spend a day here is better than any offensive or defensive drill you could have that bonds a team together. That’s what today was about.”
The team spent the early part of the day touring the campus and doing things like watching cadets run an obstacle course, observing a Combat Water Survival Swim Lab, as well as visiting the West Point Cemetery. Just before the practice, they ate lunch in the mess hall with the cadets.
“They only have like, 20-25 minutes to eat,” said Team USA guard Derrick Rose. “That’s what shocked me. How can you even prepare yourself to eat with 20-25 minutes? That’s what shocked me. And waking up. I think they have to get up at 5:30 or something like that. To me, that would be devastating. But it tells you that they’ve committed their whole life to this, and that’s pretty cool.”
“You walk around this place and you just … feel,” said Krzyzewski. “You feel good about being an American, and you feel a little bit more proud of being a USA Basketball player and coach. And that’s what we wanted our guys to get today. You can talk about it, you can see it, but today we all had a chance to feel it. And that’s why we do these things with the military.”
Despite spending over three decades at Duke, it’s obvious that West Point still plays a huge role in Coach K’s life. He calls West Point “the foundation of who I am.” He still wears his West Point class ring just above his wedding band (“I never take it off”), and he visits the campus at least once a year.
“You go to the best leadership school in the world, and something’s gotta rub off, you know,” Krzyzewski says. “Part of it is organization, understanding of teamwork, not accepting failure — all these things. I got married on graduation day here at West Point. And I lived here for five years when I coached, so it’s been a cool place.”
Even his former Duke players understand Krzyzewski’s special relationship with West Point, as they heard him frequently reference West Point during locker room motivational sessions.
“You know, 30 years at Duke, he’s got some Duke stories,” admitted Team USA center Mason Plumlee, who played for Krzyzewski at Duke from 2009-2013. “But he’ll always reach back to some of his West Point stories — when he was a player, when he was a coach here. The most frequent were the ones where Bob Knight was telling what he could and couldn’t do. Those were always good stories.”
After the open practice, the team headed back to New York City to prepare for exhibitions against the Dominican Republic (Wednesday) and Puerto Rico (Friday). While Monday might have been about team building off the court, with Paul George injured and Kevin Durant gone this group first assembled in Vegas, Krzyzewski says there is plenty of work left to do in the gym.
“We need a lot of practice time, quickly, because we’ve had so many changes in our roster. And the guys are working hard but hopefully the next few days will be good for us.”