Kobe: Coach K brought 'pride of being American' back to Team USA

ByMarc Stein ESPN logo
Sunday, August 21, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO -- A decade-plus of persistent worry finally ends Sunday night for Michael William Krzyzewski.


The coach who lugs a 75-game winning streak into the gold-medal men's basketball game of these Rio Olympics insists that he most certainly does fret and sweat about every single one of these outings.

Even if only eight of those 75 W's in a row were decided by single digits.

"I worry all the time, believe me," Krzyzewski says. "It's part of being a coach ... to worry. Worry does not mean not have confidence. Worry is making sure we keep moving along and giving positive energy to one another and that no one gets hurt. That type of thing.

"Worry means that you think the other guy's good. If you're not worried, you're an idiot. If you don't think you can be beat, then you're not a real smart guy."

Rest assured that no one in the USA Basketball traveling party believes with greater conviction than Coach K that the Americans are vulnerable in Sunday afternoon's reunion with Serbia, who tapped into their deepest anxiety reserves as recently as nine days ago by scoring 91 points in a 40-minute game and nearly dragging the tournament's heavy favorites to overtime.

Krzyzewski had spent a full two weeks before landing in Brazil trying to convince hard-headed media types and yawning fans that this competition would be no cruise for Team USA, no matter how much you've heard about the docked ocean liner that houses the Americans here.

Few listened.

"We were telling you before the three [tough] games we could be beat; now you're telling us we could be beat," Krzyzewski said with a smile the other day, patiently fielding questions that dripped with their own concern from press pests (like me) who didn't heed his warnings.

"Now we all know."

Reporters have likewise been trying -- and failing -- for weeks to get Krzyzewski to engage them in some semblance of a substantive rewind through these past 11 years of rebounding alongside USAB chairman and close friend Jerry Colangelo.

To reflect on the journey that's taken the red, white and blue from finishes of sixth, third and third in three successive major international competitions -- 2002 worlds, 2004 Olympics, 2006 worlds -- back to untouchable again.

To get a sense of how much the ride to restoring national pride on hardwood has meant to him.

To assist with assessing his USAB legacy.

"I don't see a legacy," Krzyzewski will say.

Or: "I don't do that. I never do that."

Or: "We're going someplace I don't want to think about right now. This can't be about, 'This is my last time.' Carmelo can't think of it as his chance to win a third gold medal. There will be time for reflection. But not now."

Krzyzewski will say, no matter how creative the queries get, that he's "not in a reflective mood."

The reflecting is thus left to others, until Team USA actually wins this thing and takes off on Sunday night's return flight to the States, but that's OK.

Reached this week by ESPN.com, freshly retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was eager to revisit the history Krzyzewski shuns, harking back to the Redeem Team in 2008 in Beijing that -- with Kobe making his national-team debut -- brought the bronze-ing to a halt.

"Coach K brought the pride of being an American back to the team," Bryant told me.

"He brought in army vets and generals to speak with us and share their stories. He helped us see that we, as athletes, are an inspiration to the men and women that protect the freedoms we enjoy. That is the biggest impact.

"The gold medal now meant so much more. When we won [in Beijing], I envisioned our troops abroad celebrating. I did it for them. That's the perspective Coach K brought. He made it not about us but about the U.S."

The emotional payoff was naturally immense for Krzyzewski, former West Point cadet, fiercely patriotic military man.

And it came with a bonus for the basketball lifer. The chance to coach Kobe. To coach LeBron James. To bond as he does now with Kevin Durant, with the serious Paul George or with the playful DeAndre Jordan. To rekindle his relationship with a former Duke guard namedKyrie Irving, who made it onto the floor for only 11 games in Durham, North Carolina, before matriculating to the pros.

"We're very grateful that we've had this opportunity," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, Krzyzewski's longtime rival from the college ranks and trusty assistant with Team USA.

"I can share that we feel very fortunate. He's very fortunate to have been at Duke for so long; I'm very fortunate to have been at Syracuse for so long. And we've been very fortunate together to be a part of this team with these players."

Of course, as Boeheim smartly points out, it's not exactly accurate to parrot the oft-made claim that this job allowed Krzyzewski, after he turned down the chance to coach Kobe's Lakers in the summer of 2004, to scratch the proverbial NBA coaching itch without ever leaving Duke.

"This is really different than the NBA," Boeheim says. "This is the best.

"This is getting the NBA players without agents, without anybody else telling them what they should do, with them willing to do exactly what we have to do to win. So it's really not coaching in the NBA. It's not even close. We know that. This is fantasy world."

Yet this is also a world where Krzyzewski, with no affiliation to any NBA team, had the license to transform himself from the man mocked for not knowing the names of the Greek players who torched Team USA at the 2006 worlds in Japan to a year-round mentor/sounding board/life coach to some of the biggest names in the game.

If George needed a pick-me-up on the long road back from a gruesome leg fracture -- or when Durant was in the market for some knowing counsel on how to deal with the vitriolic reaction to his decision to join the Golden State Warriors in free agency -- Krzyzewski was there to call or text.

"He's more of like a father figure slash mentor than he's a coach," Durant said. "On top of being a coach, when you have that combination, that makes for just an incredible leader."

University of Texas alumnus Durant and former Kentucky star DeMarcus Cousins got quite a chuckle at practice earlier this week when asked to share what they thought of Krzyzewski when they were still in college.

"I hate to say it [as a Kentucky guy]," Cousins offered, "but I really have enjoyed playin' for K."

Said Durant: "We were taught not to like Duke. I grew up in Maryland, so they used to always play each other, so we hated Duke. And I didn't think that was my style of play, just from hearing from everybody [what Krzyzewski] was like.

"But once I got to play [for] him, I was like, 'Wow, I should have looked at Duke a little bit more than I did. ... He literally told me one time, I think it was 2010 [at the worlds in Turkey], he was like, 'Don't pass the ball.' And I was like, 'All right, cool, that's the way I want to play.'"

"He wants you to go out and be who you are," Durant concluded.

Said Irving in a recent SportsCenter sit-down with ESPN's Hannah Storm: "What makes Coach K one of the best ever at what he does, not only as a coach but as a person, he just respects your individuality. He allows you to create what you want to create in a space that is the best fit not only for yourself but for the team."

The chance to make up for lost time with Kyrie is just one of the many reasons Krzyzewski counts this as one of the most enjoyable summers of his USAB run, despite the recent rash of close games to really mess with his Worry Meter.

When the group convened for the first time in Las Vegas in mid-July, it gave him the first opportunity of his career to actually have a substantive conversation with Team USA successor-in-waiting Gregg Popovich. Until Vegas, K and Pop had never been in the same place long enough to exchange much more than a handshake.

A string of all-nighter dinners inevitably ensued, where Krzyzewski and his Team USA heir, both with such strong military backgrounds, quickly realized how much they had in common.

News conferences have been another source of amusement. Krzyzewski takes his role of American basketball diplomat quite seriously, patiently answering whatever comes at him in the most respectful of tones, but he also likes to show us his open-mic side whenever the chance presents itself.

One example: After the recent nail-biter with Australia, which found Team USA trailing by five points at halftime, Krzyzewski relished the opportunity to go back and forth with a journalist from Poland.

"You're the first one to pronounce my name right," Krzyzewski quipped. "I can't even pronounce my name right."

What he insists he has enjoyed most, though, is the competition.

As he explained after those three straight scares against Australia, Serbia and France, Krzyzewski "would worry if we just won by 30 points the last three games." So it was no trouble to just embrace the requisite fretting and sweating when the blowouts failed to materialize. Then savor the resourcefulness his much-critiqued players -- 10 first-time Olympians on a 12-man roster -- repeatedly mustered to find a way to stay unbeaten at 7-0.

"Satisfying" is the word Krzyzewski has used after more than one narrow victory in Rio, with further frequent references to what he's been calling "the best Olympics [field] that I've been a part of."

"More talented than the other two Olympics that we've been in," Krzyzewski said, "because more countries are really good."

The Serbs are a prime example. With only one NBA player -- Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic -- they've nonetheless played the United States tougher than anyone here and just thumped the aforementioned Aussies by 21 points in Friday night's semifinals.

They've "grown up a lot in two years," in the words of veteran center Miroslav Raduljica, since Serbia absorbed a 37-point pounding from Team USA in the 2014 FIBA World Cup final in Spain.

So let's see.

Let's see what happens in the rematch, as well as what Krzyzewski does at the buzzer if he can sign off with gold medal No. 3.

His triumphant leap on the sideline in the waning moments of the gold-medal game in 2012, as victory over the Spaniards finally came into view in what originally had been billed as his farewell to this job, was one of the iconic snapshots of the London Games.

At age 69 now, coming off knee, hernia and ankle surgery just since Duke's season ended, Krzyzewski was asked the other day what sort of encore he might have in store.

"If we win," he said, "I'm sure I'll jump around a little bit."

Makes sense.

When it comes to his country, he'll be worry-free at last.

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