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.” (more…)