Coach K’s approach solidifies Team USA
Chicago — Eighty-one wins, one loss.
No matter the sport or competition, it’s impressive.
For the record, it’s the U.S. men’s basketball team’s record in international competition under coach Mike Krzyzewski since 2005. Krzyzewski was brought in after the U.S. fell into relative rough times after finishing sixth at the 2002 World Championships.
Under Krzyzewski, Team USA has won 71 straight games, the lone loss coming to Greece in 2006 World Championships. It’s been a mostly dominant stretch for the U.S. since pro athletes were allowed to compete on the world stage in 1989.
Since Krzyzewski took the helm, the Americans have been almost unbeatable, even with different rosters.
The Rio Olympics, though, mark the end for Krzyzewski, 69, who will relinquish the reins to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. The U.S. plays Spain in the semifinals today.
“His leadership qualities and his coaching speaks for itself, that he was the right person,” managing director of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo said last month. “His military background, his pride in representing the United States — he’s a West Point graduate. All the pieces were there that he would be the right fit — and he certainly has lived up to all of that.”
Colangelo said he didn’t have any second thoughts about picking Krzyzewski because there was a mutual, built-in respect with NBA players. He admitted that after talking to former Olympic players and coaches, it came down to Krzyzewski and Popovich, and Colangelo made the choice he thought was best.
“Here’s arguably the top college coach in the game and the top pro coach in the game, who have never met and are so similar in so many ways: both military guys, incredible leaders and coaches,” Colangelo said. “That whole thing was seamless. Everything is in great shape going forward.”
Krzyzewski has used a hands-on approach to coaching the pros and hasn’t coddled them or let them get too lax or lazy. He’s brought a precision to their practices and tries to squeeze more than the minimum out of his loaded rosters.
That means getting buy-in from superstars such as Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins, and garnering their respect from the start.
“You’re honest, to talk to each guy straight out,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re professionals, so we have to adapt to them while they’re adapting to us, too.
“In college, they’re pretty much adapting to you. They haven’t crossed the bridges of experience yet that these (pro) guys have, so we try to make it where it’s ours.”
‘Way to reach everyone’
Following the debacle in 2002 and a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics, Team USA was under duress. George Karl and Larry Brown failed on the international stage, and Krzyzewski was the best coach to fix it.
The plan may not have been for Krzyzewski to stick around for three Olympics, but he’s stabilized things, concerned even with the minor details, like whether the current team was playing too loose and he need to rein things in.
Still, with that level of concern, he’s never lost the players.
“What makes him so special is his communication — he just has a way to reach everyone the same way,” forward Paul George said. “It’s a different impact. He’s good at personalizing with his communication, but we all are impacted the same way.”
“It all comes down to trust. We’re all the best players on our teams and in this league. You’ve got to trust one another and you have to be open and willing to trust these guys. Everybody wants to be the guy and you have to give yourself up a little bit.”
That mutual trust and sacrifice make it tenable for the players and Krzyzewski, and the expectations are laid out at the beginning so there’s no misunderstanding or misconstruing that winning is the main goal.
While building that trust and being brutally honest could rankle the feathers of a lesser coach or immature players, Krzyzewski puts all the cards on the table early to avoid those issues.
“Just being straightforward with one another and being committed to one cause,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re all committed to representing our country and winning the gold medal. If we’re honest with one another (about expectations), we can cut to the chase right away.”
“That’s what we do and they do and they’ll tell you they trust us and we trust them. Then it’s a matter of working our butts off and making it happen.”
“Even before they come to the (first) meeting, just being part of USA Basketball, (we say) this is what is expected and what we’ll ask you to do. They all are fine with it, which is great. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be here.”
‘Not happy about the 1’
One of the benefits in Rio for Krzyzewski is coaching Irving again. Irving was at Duke in 2010-11 and played for Team USA at the 2014 World Cup.
But after winning the NBA title with the Cavaliers last season, he’s a different player.
“He’s got ‘it,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “He has that combination of talent, personality and intelligence and a commitment to working at all those things. He keeps taking it to higher levels.”
While LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and others chose to bypass Rio, Krzyzewski and Team USA are still the favorite to send Krzyzewski off with an 83-1 record.
But it’s the number on the right side of the win-loss dash that still draws some ire.
“I’m not happy about the ‘1,’ ” Colangelo joked.
With Krzyzewski leading the way, however, Colangelo might not have to worry about that “1” turning to a “2.”