USA Staff Finds Strength In Numbers
When a FIBA World Championship gold medal is at stake, then more is better – as in more coaches.
The USA coaching staff already boasts of an incredible wealth of knowledge, including two Naismith Hall of Fame coaches in head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Duke University) and assistant coach Jim Boeheim (Syracuse University), as well as standout NBA talent in USA assistant coaches Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls) and Monty Williams (New Orleans Pelicans), both head mentors with their respective teams.
As Coach K and his staff direct the team through practice, however, they are well supported. You might see current Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel run players through shooting drills, Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin play dummy defense for USA post players and Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins fire off pass after pass to USA shooters.
The extra help wasn’t always a part of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team program.
“Really one of the biggest changes that we made in 2008 was to add the support coaches, guys who were unbelievably proficient in all the drills, and obviously you get more input from them too,” Krzyzewski said. “But with them our team workouts are better, our practices are better, because the older you get as a head coach the less you are able to really do with the drills at game speed.
“They have also helped with scouting, and they become real close with the players. Anytime there's a time where a guy wants extra shooting, extra work, these guys step forward and say. ‘I'm there.' I think it's been one of the great changes that was made in 2008, and a big reason we've been successful is really the work of all the support coaches.”
Capel, Griffin and Hopkins aren’t just along for the ride, they earn their keep.
“Whatever anyone needs,” Capel responded when asked what his role is with the team. “Working with guys after practice, being a sounding board in practice or in meetings, giving ideas, suggestions, doing whatever any of the coaches need us to do, or any of the players need us to do. Coming back getting them extra shots, whether it’s at night or early in the morning, just doing whatever the guys need us to do.”
Hopkins jokingly said he even would take out the trash. Undoubtedly he would, but beyond their willingness to embrace whatever it is that needs doing, these coaches are much more than lackeys.
“Coach K is wonderful,” said Griffin. “He encourages everyone on the staff to hone your opinion. Sometimes he will ask two or three times if no one says anything. You are thinking to yourself, ‘That’s Coach K; he certainly doesn’t need my opinion.’ But I think that’s why he is such a great coach, because he is so open-minded. He just loves the game. He is a great teacher and great motivator.”
In addition to their experience as players and coaches with their college and NBA teams, each brings valuable previous USA Basketball experience to the table.
Capel played in 1993 U.S. Olympic Festival as a high school athlete, was head coach of the 2010 FIBA Americas U18 Championship Team (5-0, gold) and an assistant coach for the 2005 World University Games Team (8-0, gold).
“Certainly the pride of what it means to represent the jersey,” said Capel when asked how his prior experience is a benefit to him in this setting. “Actually, I had Kyrie, he was my starting point guard on the 2010 U18 team, and we won a gold medal. Some of the same lessons that Coach K, Mr. Colangelo and Sean Ford (USA Men’s National Team Director) have built into the culture of the USA Basketball National Team, I know in 2010, we tried to reinforce those standards and values with the U18 team.”
Adrian Griffin was on the 1997 Tournament of the Americas Team (8-1, gold), and he pointed to the pride of wearing U-S-A on your chest.
“Any time you can represent your country, it’s such a great honor, in any capacity,” Griffin said. “Back in ’97, we were CBA players, and we got the opportunity to represent our nation because the USA already had qualified for the (1998) World Championship, and it was just such a great gesture for USA Basketball to allow the CBA guys to play. A lot of us were labeled as misfits or outcasts of the NBA, so that gave us great pride that we could represent our country. I remember that to this day as one of the best moments of my basketball career.”
Mike Hopkins has experience as a USA Basketball Men’s National Team staff assistant dating back to 2008, including as head coach of a 2012 USA Select Team that included 2014 USA World Cup Team members DeMarcus Cousins, DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson.
“That is what is fun, now is like the second or third time you’ve been around them, so you build strong bonds and strong relationships. That’s what I love about this business.”
The role also challenges them to step out of their routines.
“Here you got the best players on their team,” Griffin explained. “Back in Chicago we all have guys that we work out. Here it is a little different because everyone has their routines, and you just try to help them along in the short time we are together.”
The experience works two ways. While the staff assistants give of their time and energy to the players and coaches, they grow as coaches themselves.
“Every trip I take a journal, and I write every day what is being said and how decisions are made,” Hopkins said. “I’ve said it before, but it is like going to Harvard Business School for basketball. Having that opportunity is just amazing. But it’s the people, it’s the talks, it’s the strategy. It’s how to team-build. They treat everybody like they are a part of the success of the program, and they value people and that’s what is most amazing.”
Capel had similar sentiments, and he knows by what common measure each of the coaches will determine their success.
“What everyone sees is the finished product,” said Capel. “They don’t see the time and the sweat that goes in behind the scenes. I get to see that, so it’s pretty cool.
“Second of all, as a young coach, I feel like everyday I’m in a coaching clinic,” Capel continued. “Obviously, I’m around Coach K all the time but having the chance to be around coach Boeheim, coach Thibodeau, Monty Williams, Adrian Griffin, Mike Hopkins, and to exchange ideas, to learn from them. And then to be around all the wisdom of Mr. Colangelo, it’s been incredible. Hopefully all the hard work that everyone has put in will lead to something special, which is a gold medal.”