HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Mike Krzyzewski came back for more.
After originally deciding to end his tenure as the U.S. National Team’s coach, Krzyzewski changed his mind last spring and signed on for another four years. Now, he’s putting a 43-1 record and a 36-game winning streak on the line at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, which begins Saturday in Spain.
There’s no arguing with Krzyzewski’s success, either on the college or international level. With four national championships at Duke, two Olympic gold medals and a World Championship gold medal, his legacy is set. He certainly didn’t need to coach this team again.
The goal, of course, is two more golds.
“Obviously, the best moment is when there are 45 seconds to go and you know you can’t get beat,” Krzyzewski told NBA.com last week. “Those are the defining moments.”
But coaching the National Team is a whole lot more than that for Krzyzewski. And it’s the journey, as much as the destination, that brought him back for three more years.
No easy task ahead
The 2014 World Cup is likely to be Krzyzewski’s biggest test with USA Basketball. The U.S. doesn’t have LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant. The two stars Krzyzewski had at the starting forward positions for the first week of training camp – Kevin Durant and Paul George – aren’t with the team anymore.
There are five players on this year’s roster with Senior National Team experience, but four of them had limited roles on the teams they played on in 2010 or 2012. And the fifth is Derrick Rose, who’s working his way back after playing just 10 games over the last two NBA seasons. There also aren’t as many natural ball-sharers on this roster than there have been in years past.
The host of the World Cup – Spain – is the team that came close to knocking the U.S. off in the gold medal games of the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, when Krzyzewski did have James, Anthony, Paul and Bryant on the roster. The Spanish team also has more NBA experience (total regular season and playoff games) than the U.S. team does.
Yes, the U.S. always has a talent advantage. No coach in the world feels sorry for Krzyzewski, who seemingly just has to steer the ship in the right direction.
But the talent advantage and the margin for error are reduced in a 40-minute game and in a single-elimination format. And when everyone expects you to win (and most of the arena wants you to lose), the pressure can be overwhelming in the closing moments of a tight game.
So, with just 21 days to prepare for the World Cup, Krzyzewski has to use every opportunity to make the most of his roster. As the U.S. has learned in years past, talent alone doesn’t win these games. There will be moments in the next 18 days when the USA’s talent will need to be supplemented by both chemistry and effort. And there’s nobody better than Krzyzewski to build that chemistry and elicit that effort.
Krzyzewski has never been and never will be an NBA coach. But he certainly knows how to connect with NBA players.
“That’s what he does best,” USA assistant Jim Boeheim said. “He’s a tremendous communicator.”
Krzyzewski knows that communication takes effort. He doesn’t view this as just a summer job. He makes sure to build a bond with his players throughout the year.
“During the NBA season,” Krzyzewski said, “you try to text them a few times or give them a call if you knew there was a special event or something really good happened or something not so good happened, and continue having a relationship. So when you do get together in the summer, it’s not ‘Oh, I remember when we went to summer camp together last year.’ It’s ‘Oh, we touched each other a few times’ to maintain a relationship.”
When he does get his players in the gym, Krzyzewski doesn’t just focus on basketball.
“I try to touch a few guys each day,” he said. “Not these big individual talks, but just goof around with them and just try to get to know them.”
At Duke, Krzyzewski has four months to get to know what makes each guy on his team tick. With the National Team, he has five weeks. But he uses the relationships he has with guys who have played for him to build ones with the new guys. He may be 40 years older than his players, but all those years have helped him develop the requisite leadership skills for this job.
“He just knows subtle ways to talk to you,” Stephen Curry said, “whether it’s cracking jokes or getting on you if he needs to, but not in a disrespectful way at all.”
When it’s time to light a fire under the best players in the world, Krzyzewski can do that too.
“He’s rah-rah, but he’s chill,” James Harden said. “So when he gets rah-rah, we know it’s go time.”
“They see his passion through what we’re doing,” Boeheim added. “I think that’s important, because players are constantly pulled and pushed to do different things. And I think that passion is very important.”
Talk to a U.S. player after a game and it’s clear that the coach got them fired up in the pre-game locker room, no matter the stakes or the opponent. He keeps their eyes on the prize while reminding them that, with such little time to prepare for the knockout rounds, they have to value every possession of every game.
“They realize this isn’t an 80-game run here,” Boeheim said. “We’re making a short run. We’ve got to be ready. It’s one-and-done. If you get into bad habits, there’s no correcting it.”
For more motivation, Krzyzewski and USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo make the U.S. Military a part of the program every year. This summer, they took the team to West Point, Krzyzewski’s alma mater, and had the players connect with the cadets who are sacrificing a lot more than they are. It’s a reminder of who they’re playing for when they put on a USA uniform.
“That right there alone,” Harden said, “makes us want to go out there and play hard.”
This group was ready to go after the team’s initial meeting on the day before training camp began.
“His opening remarks in Vegas, he showed like three different videos,” Curry said. “One of them was all the gold-medal teams he’s coached, their celebrations on the podium and as the clock struck zero and the buzzer goes off at the end of the gold-medal games, basically to say that’s what we’re working for and all the sacrifices each guy has to make to make the team better, the commitment that we all made to be here.
“There’s a goal and visually, we all got to see what that goal was. I’m sure every guy wanted to lace ’em up right after that meeting, just watching those videos.”
A two-way street
For Krzyzewski, communication goes both ways. He may seem old-school and rigid from the outside, but there aren’t many coaches that are more open-minded. Last season, Duke became the first college team to put STATS LLC’s SportVU cameras in its arena. And it put them in its practice gym too.
Krzyzewski clearly isn’t afraid to embrace new ideas to help him gain an advantage. With USA Basketball especially, he’s open to input from his assistant coaches and his players.
“In college, I help guys get over bridges of improvement,” Krzyzewski said. “When I coach the U.S. Team, these guys have gone over a lot of bridges already. And they have a lot of really good practices or ideas, that, if they’re shared and we can incorporate them, will make us better. So that’s what I try to do.”
That doesn’t go unappreciated by the players and staff.
“A lot of coaches will listen, but they don’t necessarily use the input,” Boeheim said. “To be a good communicator, you’ve got to not just listen, but you got to be able to implement what people talk to you about. He does that. He includes people.”
A learning experience
Boeheim also keeps coming back. He was part of Krzyzewski’s original USA staff in 2006 and is the only assistant still here. Mike D’Antoni and Nate McMillan were replaced by Tom Thibodeau and Monty Williams last year. Boeheim has a national championship and over 900 career wins himself. But he’s picked up plenty from Krzyzewski over the years.
“He’s different than I am,” Boeheim said. “He’s much more organized, much more detailed. That’s good. I learn from that.”
And Krzyzewski learns from the other coaches and the players.
“There are plays, terminology, strategies,” he said. “Right now, just the defense that we’re putting in and how you put it in. The best practices of players, how they work out, their individual workouts, their stretching routines, how they eat. There are a number of them.
“I learn a lot from being in this. Hopefully, I’m able to impart knowledge too, but we learn from one another. You get a bunch of good people together, that’s what happens.”
The intangible reward
This job isn’t for everyone. With his resume, Krzyzewski obviously commands respect from his players. But he builds on that that through communication, motivation and leadership. And for him, the reward is much more than the medals that are placed around his players’ necks.
“Every once in a while,” Krzyzewski said, “someone asks, ‘What do you get out of it?’ Obviously, whoever asked that question really may never understand what you get out of it.
“What do you get out of an amazing experience with amazing people and tough competition? You get something that most people never get. Is it worth it? It’s more than worth it.”