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Mike Krzyzewski

Coach K Takes On the World

  • Author:
    Craig Ellenport
  • Date:
    Jul 15, 2014

On July 27, the USA Basketball Men’s National Team assembles in Las Vegas in preparation for the FIBA World Cup in Spain (Aug. 30-Sept. 14). For the fifth time since becoming head coach of the USA National Team in 2005, Hall of Fame basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski will lead the squad into competition on the world stage.

Krzyzewski, who has compiled a 62-1 win-loss record since serving as the USA National Team head coach in 2006, is the only USA Basketball men's coach to have won gold at the Olympics and the FIBA World Championship, while also possessing an NCAA Championship. He is only the second coach (along with Henry Iba) to lead teams to back-to-back Olympic gold medals. Having won the 2010 FIBA World Championship,The USA now has a chance this summer to become just the first USA team and only the third team ever to win consecutive FIBA world titles.

As Krzyzewski prepares to join the USA national squad in Las Vegas, caught up with the legendary coach:

What are you most looking forward to as the FIBA World Cup approaches?

Well, the main thing is that it’s what the world thinks is the biggest competition. There are 24 countries that compete for the World Cup and only 12 compete in the Olympics. So it’s a different type of competition. And it’s only basketball. We were fortunate enough to win it in Istanbul in 2010, and it was a thrill to beat Turkey in a gold medal game. I think the world celebrates the game at a high level during this competition, and it’s an honor for us to be part of it.

Especially with soccer’s World Cup just ending, does FIBA’s premier event take on a special meaning now that it’s being called the World Cup?

It’s a great way for FIBA to brand this championship, by making it the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Certainly the amazing amount of interest that has been shown for soccer worldwide is incredible. The nationalism, the spirit, the great play … for basketball, it’s also a world sport. To name it and brand it in this manner is appropriate. When I’ve competed in it as a coach, I‘ve seen that spirit, that worldwide spirit. That spirit of nationalism and representing your country go to the highest level. And as a result, some great games are played.

Since this tournament began in 1950, only Brazil (1959, 1963) and Yugoslavia (1998, 2002) have been repeat champions. As the defending champion, is that something you will use to motivate your USA team?

What we try do is to educate them on international basketball, and the immense pride that these players have in representing their countries. Many countries have won the World Championship. In our country, up until this last decade … our country looked at the Olympics. Other countries look at the Olympics, too – but they look at the World Cup as their basketball championship. And we’re going to try to get that message across to our players.

For us, to win two in a row – and four straight in FIBA competitions, with the two Olympic golds – that would be an amazing accomplishment.

When your second stint as Men's National Team head coach ended following the 2012 Olympics, there was a thought you might not be back. Why did you accept USA Basketball's invitation to return for 2013 through 2016?

The main thing is the continuity that Jerry Colangelo, Sean Ford, Jim Tooley and the people at USA Basketball provide. They talked to me about having that same continuity with coaching, and it paid off for us in Beijing, Istanbul and London. The reason I thought of not returning again is that I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue to coach, even on the collegiate level. But I’ve made that decision that I’m not ready to give it up for a while, and they still afforded me the opportunity to continue, so I seized that opportunity. I’m thankful for that opportunity again to represent my country.

How long do you plan to continue?

Well, for USA Basketball, I’m going to continue through Rio (2016 Olympics), and then for sure, whether I’m still coaching at Duke or not, that will be the end. I’ve been very fortunate to have done this now for nine years, to be the national coach, and it’s a tremendous honor.

Looking ahead to this summer, what are your thoughts about the team?

Well, first of all we had to figure out who’s going to come (to the initial National Team training in Las Vegas). That’s always the first thing we have to consider. We have a pool of almost 30 players that we invited from. We’ve even added a few more players to our National Team roster. Guys are not able to attend at times for a variety of reasons. One, injury. Two, they’re involved in contract negotiations. And three, just personal reasons. Family issues, a death in the family, a birth. So we’re anxious to see who will be at the camp, and we’ll have a selection process to go through. And we’re also putting together a system that we’ll build on once we get the final 12 going into Spain.

Are you looking forward to seeing some of the younger players who are new to the World Cup?

First of all, I applaud all the players who come – the veterans who have done it more than once, and the young guys – or the new guys, not all of them are young – that put forth an effort. It’s a sacrifice and it’s a huge commitment. We like to see returnees, because that’s continuity for us.

You love to see Kevin Durant back. And Kevin Love. We’re looking forward to the return of Derrick Rose. James Harden has been on the team before. But then there are guys who have not been on the team before and we’re looking forward to seeing how they’ll do. Blake Griffin would have been on the last Olympic team but he got hurt, so I’m anxious to see him. LaMarcus Aldridge is not a younger guy but he’s an All-Star. He has not been able to participate before, so we’re going to get a chance to coach him. Paul George is a very gifted player. Stephen Curry, who played in the World Championship in Istanbul is coming back. Then there’s Anthony Davis, Damien Lillard and Kyrie Irving. Certainly Klay Thompson. So there’s a mix, and that’s what you would like to see. So the older guys can help the newer guys adjust, because it is an adjustment.

Speaking of Kyrie Irving, are you harder or easier on the former Duke players you get to coach on the USA National Team?

Well, I only had him for 11 games, so I didn’t have a chance to be hard on him. But we’re excited about Kyrie being here and he’s just like anyone else – he’s got to make the team. I’m just happy that he’s made the commitment to come.

Having been in this position since 2005, can you talk about the dynamics of a college coach working with a roster of NBA players?

It’s been terrific. I think the very first thing is that I don’t look at it as a challenge. It’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to coach players of this caliber and coach players who are committed to playing for their country. That’s a neat position to be in.

The very first thing, being a collegiate coach, I never coach against these guys during the year. So I can actually be their coach. I’m not somebody they need to be guarded with. We can have our own relationship, and then I’m not competing with them during the year. I’m still their friend. I think that’s been a real big plus.

The second thing, the international game has a lot of similarities to the college game, especially with the help-side defense. You can't zone up in the pros, but you can zone up and not have a three-second call in college. I also think there's more continuity to offenses in international play than there are in the pros. It's more like collegiate setting.

Mike Krzyzewski

The thing that I have to adapt to is the fact that I’m coaching men who are accomplished, and therefore I have to adapt – it would be smart of me to adapt to the strengths that they exhibit, their knowledge of the game and how they like to play. Develop a system that’s based on their strengths, and not some system that I’ve devised and have them fit in. In college they have to adapt more to me – in fact, a lot to me – because they haven’t done it yet. For this, we try to adapt to each other, and then it creates a sense of ownership for all of us. It’s not Coach K, or the USA Basketball way of doing it. It’s what we’re going to do, what this team is going to do, and everyone has input.

What can you tell us about the West Point visit that’s scheduled for Aug. 18?

What we’ve tried to do with each of our teams these last three competitions is to have them not only hear and see things, but to feel things. Patriotism and selfless service are two really amazing concepts to feel. And I think you only do it by taking them to locations where they might feel it. Certainly, West Point is one of those locations. While we’re there that day, we hope for them not to just see and hear, but to feel what it’s like to be in an iconic place, a place that’s all about their country. Sometimes they’re moved to a different spot as a result of being in that experience. We’ve tried to do that over the years in different locations, and the military has been our partner – especially the United States Army – in helping us do that.

Having played and coached at Army, what will that trip mean to you?

For me, it’s my alma mater and it was my first coaching assignment. I still do quite a bit with the Academy. I believe in it. I believe it’s the best leadership school in the world. For me to be a leader of our national team and bring my team to my alma mater, and the place that I love, to try to show them a little bit about that place, that’s a dream come true.

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