Team USA Will Not Regret Its Decision to Keep Coach K For Another Olympic RunPosted by Chris Johnson on May 23rd, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Coaching the biggest basketball superstars on planet earth into one cohesive group with a compacted practice schedule and unflinchingly mountainous expectations, among other obstacles, is not as easy as it seems. With minimal exceptions, every player is accustomed to being “the guy” on his own NBA team, where the frequency and type of shots taken are, for better or worse, monitored liberally – superstars are going to get their shots up whether you like it or not. When you mash these egos together on one, putatively dominant, practically unwieldy Team USA squad, vast philosophical and schematic adjustments melding is required. Ego-massaging is another part of the gig. Reduced shots and individual credit-basking glory is part of the cost of doing business. It’s an entirely different style and breed of basketball, this quirky thing we like to call international play, and without the right head coach in place, things can get out of hand pretty quickly. Matter of fact, Before Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski arrived on the scene, they did: In 2002, a George Karl-coached Team USA became the first American team composed of NBA players to lose in international competition when it fell to Argentina in the preliminary rounds and finished sixth at the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis. Two years later, then under Larry Brown, team USA lost a convincing semifinal game to Argentina at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. The days of Dream Team dominance and universal hoops royalty were slipping away. USA basketball needed a new face and culture and identity to offer a different spin on the stale and out-of-touch approach demonstrated by previous NBA coaches. It needed Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
You know the rest: after an initial bronze medal toe-stub at the 2006 World Championships, USA polished off two Olympic gold medals and a 2010 FIBA World Championship with a second-tier layer of then-rising stars, not once losing a game over four years. Coach K has accomplished everything he set out to do during his reign as USA Basketball’s transformative leader – blend a group of ball-dominant stars into one functioning whole not once or twice but for three sizably important world events, restore the rightful preeminence of the red, white and blue’s international hardwood stature, forcefully remind the rest of the world that yes, there is good basketball being played in Europe and China and South America, but no, you don’t have Kevin Durant ripping threes on the wing, and LeBron James guarding centers and point guards on the same possession, and Chris Paul whipping cross-court passes with pinpoint accuracy. This is USA Basketball, unbeatable and dominant and good. Mostly just good. Beijing 2012 restored the customary USA-headed international hoops hierarchy, and Coach K – who still, in case you forgot, kind of has a pretty good thing going right now in Durham – had ground off every bit of tread on the international tires. It was time to move on. Pass the torch. Recruiting and leading Duke to annual national championship contention is prohibitively exhausting on its own; the added onus of Team USA must have been a terribly draining, but hugely fulfilling, experience. Enough was enough.
Unless it wasn’t. Such was the biggest implication of Wednesday’s report from Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel that Krzyzewski is – shocker – set to return to coach Team USA through the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, a commitment that includes a midway pit-stop at the fast-approaching 2014 FIBA World Championships in Madrid. For every understandable reason underlying Coach K’s decision to step away four years ago, much of which was detailed in the space above, it would have been silly to completely rule out today’s news. Coach K is not an ordinary college basketball coach. He’s the winningest college basketball coach of all time, a demi-god-like sideline legend among not only college peers but the entire hoops coaching profession. There’s something about playing for Coach K that makes stringent disciplinary standards and a creaky old Cameron Indoor gym and weighty academic responsibilities outwardly glimmering. Players want to play for Coach K, simple as that. National championships and consistently high NCAA Tournament seeds are part of the equation, but so is the personal side, the off-court character building former Duke players cite whenever evaluating their past experience with the Blue Devils. It’s how Coach K evolved into the personal guide LeBron James and Kobe Bryant notably forfeited when forgoing collegiate basketball. He has a unique feel for the game as played, and the players who play it – how to adapt to different personalities, mitigate various individual and collective court deficiencies and almost always find a way to just make everything work. He is unfailingly successful at a job that should never be, and he carried over every shard of coaching wisdom at the college level – the stuff critics thought could never work in the NBA (and cited as reasons for his denials of various professional job offers), and surely not the Olympics – and applied it to a markedly dissimilar set of circumstances.
Another Olympic run with K’s proven aptitude for coaching, personality-mending and, OK yeah, winning, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Team USA will romp the world’s most feted quadrennial international hoops summit once again – unless James is swallowed up by an Inception dream-warped fourth-dimension, or gets injured, or something in between – Duke will remain exactly what it’s been for the past 33 years and Krzyzewski will no doubt profit from it in the exchange. You think the great young prep prospects of the world appreciate what a coach whose list of *hobbies* includes three-time Olympic gold medalist and personal mentor to LeBron James can do for their professional futures? I do.