|Mike Krzyzewski followed Team USA's 2008 Olympic gold with the 2010 world title. (Getty Images)|
Mocking Mike Krzyzewski is cool. It's hip, safe, it's easy. A newspaper in Indianapolis drew a crude cartoon of the Duke basketball coach during the 2010 Final Four with horns coming out of his skull and a bull's eye on his forehead. Mocking Mike Krzyzewski? You've done it, and truth be told, I've done it. Maybe a few times. Maybe I'll do it again someday.
Today is not that day, however, because I didn't come to bury Coach K.
I came to praise him.
Praise him for his job as U.S. Olympic coach, which he said this week would probably end after the 2012 Games in London. That announcement makes this as good a time as any to thank Krzyzewski for restoring the United States to its rightful place -- that's right, rightful place -- atop the Olympics podium stand. World championships podium stand, too.
Those are the titles the U.S. men's team has won under Coach K, the 2008 Olympics and 2010 world championships, and they'll be followed by the 2012 Olympics. I don't say that to put pressure on Coach K, because Lord knows I couldn't put any more pressure on him than he must feel already. I say that because the 2012 Olympic gold is ours to win, and because Coach K is the one -- the only one, frankly -- I trust to make it happen again.
See, in basketball, U.S. Olympians are a strange bunch. The best basketball players in this country, they're not just athletes. They're businessmen, they're entertainers, they're egomaniacs. Handling a team of them is like handling a kindergarten class: You better keep them happy, you better keep them focused, and you better keep their respect.
|More on USA Basketball|
Nobody has done that better than Coach K -- not even Chuck Daly in 1992, though the original Dream Team did win the gold medal with more ease than Krzyzewski's Redeem Team of 2008. Basketball has changed from 1992, and not in a good way. The money, the fame, it was there in '92. But it had mushroomed by 2008, along with the sense of entitlement that comes in an era when guys are famous at age 16, skipping most or all of college, and signing $100 million contracts in their early 20s. A team like the one in 1992 led by Michael, Magic and Larry isn't walking through the door, is my point.
Coach K just made it seem that way in 2008 when he herded all those fabulous cats on his roster and got them going in the same direction, a direction that seems easy enough -- hey everybody, let's play for our country and win a gold medal against inferior competition -- but isn't. George Karl couldn't do it at the 2002 worlds. Larry Brown couldn't do it at the 2004 Olympics, and he's the only head coach to win NCAA and NBA championships.
It's not easy, winning international events with the superstars our basketball system produces today, but Coach K did it in 2008, he did it in 2010, and he'll do it again this summer. How he does it, I have no idea. If we're lucky we'll learn a few of his motivational techniques after the fact. These things can take years to come out, like the mindfreak Coach K put on Shane Battier after Duke lost four players to the top 14 picks at the 1999 NBA Draft. That one didn't come out for 12 years, when Coach K wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal.
That summer of 1999, Krzyzewski wrote, he called Battier and put him on the spot. He asked Battier, whose intelligence is eclipsed only by his humility, if he had looked in the mirror and seen the conference player of the year.
Stunned -- Battier had averaged 9.1 points the previous season -- the Duke forward tried to mumble something. Coach K hung up.
The next day, another phone call. Another question from Krzyzewski, wanting to know if Battier had pictured himself scoring 30 points in a game.
Again, the eloquent Battier didn't know what to say. Again, Coach K hung up. This time Battier called back and asked Krzyzewski to stay on the line. Responded Coach K, "I won't hang up on you if you won't hang up on you."
Long story short: Once a role player, Battier became the ACC (and national) Player of the Year and led Duke to the 2001 national title.
That's a college thing, yes, but it's a Coach K thing -- and his stuff works with elite players. Why? I don't know; I'm not an elite player. But Kobe Bryant is, and before the 2008 Olympics he said he had been waiting years for the chance to play for Coach K. After the 2008 Olympics? Bryant shared a short conversation he had with Krzyzewski, a conversation that had him primed to produce.
"He wanted me to be who I am -- be a scorer," Bryant said. "I never had a coach come up to me and say, 'I want you to shoot it -- shoot it, shoot it, shoot it.' But that's one of the things he stressed to me: 'We want you to be who you are.'"
Said LeBron James, after the 2008 Olympics: "I'm not sure what makes Coach K the right guy -- but he is. I've played for a couple different coaches on the USA team, and he just fits perfect for us."
Yeah, he does. Getting the best players in the world to win the gold medal isn't as easy as it looks. If it was simply an X-and-O thing, Larry Brown would have won the gold, not bronze, in 2004. It's a motivational thing, a chemistry thing, a confidence thing. It's a Coach K thing. That'll be proved again when the 2012 team wins Olympic gold.
And when the 2016 team doesn't.