Coach K Not Ready To Pass The National Team Baton Quite Yet
How does it feel to step away from USA Basketball? Coach Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t know, he said, because that day is still a month away, and in between now and then there’s a lot of work to do to ensure that the USA Men’s National Team ends his coaching tenure on top.
“I’m not nostalgic until something’s over,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s one of the biggest mistakes any competitor can make, is to be in only your moment. … So I’ve got to coach them like it’s my first time and that’s the way we’re going to do it.”
Over 10 years leading USA Basketball’s top men’s team, Krzyzewski has compiled a record of 52-1 in FIBA or FIBA Americas competitions entering next month’s Rio Olympic Games. That one loss in 2006 may still sting a bit — managing director Jerry Colangelo said he waited two years to watch the tape and still got upset — but at this point it only proves that Krzyzewski and company are actually mortal.
The Duke coach joined Colangelo shortly after he was selected in 2005, and together they have forged an identity and a sense of accountability that has enabled USA Basketball to thrive no matter the lineup. It’s something everyone wants to see continue through the post-Olympics coaching change, and that’s why the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, who will replace Krzyzewski at the helm of the national team, is in training camp this week at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center.
“Obviously, they’ve done a great job for about a decade now so it would be ignorant on my part not to be able to glean everything I can from them,” Popovich said. “… This is like getting a leg up and getting a head start to understand how the program works.”
This week, Popovich has been in charge of the 24-man USA Select Team, which features younger players who help the USA Men’s National Team prepare for the games ahead. Eventually, some of those players will work their way into roster spots on FIBA World Cup or Olympic teams, which means now is as good a time as any for Popovich to begin his own evaluations.
“They’re all good players, but that’s not the point,” Popovich said. “The point of them being here is to prepare the Olympic team and help them, but also understand what’s expected and see how these guys conduct themselves, how focused they are and how committed they are. We have to find out in that group who fits that mold.”
Krzyzewski, an Army grad, said he and Popovich, an Air Force grad, have been hanging out every night and that Popovich is in every meeting. Their relationship goes back decades but this shared experience has drawn them even closer.
“The fact that we’re both military guys, we both understand that I have command of the unit right now and he’s going to take command over the unit, and we both want the unit to do well,” K said. “We understand that. We’ve been good friends but this has been great for me, and I think for him, for us to bond even more.”
And while Popovich is plenty capable as a successor, Krzyzewski won’t be too far away for advice if Colangelo gets his way.
“When he’s finished in Rio, hopefully with another gold medal, my intention always was to have him stay involved with USA Basketball,” said Colangelo, who joked that he and Krzyzewski have been attached at the hip since 2005. “My commitment is through the next quad and I want him to be part of it. Gregg Popovich of course is the next coach, but at my age I need an assistant. So coach K is going to be that guy.”
So how does it feel to leave USA Basketball?
“I’ll tell you that when it’s over,” Krzyzewski said.
Just don’t expect the nostalgia anytime soon. There’s work to be done.