By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007
LAS VEGAS, Aug. 31 -- In the summer of 2005, Jerry Colangelo rounded up more than two dozen basketball legends for a brainstorming session in Chicago to reconstruct the foundering U.S. men's basketball program. When the discussion turned to coaches, Colangelo posted several names on a projection screen.
After some deliberation among the participants, which included Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Dean Smith and Larry Bird, two candidates emerged: Mike Krzyzewski, who had won three national titles at Duke, and Gregg Popovich, who was on the verge of winning his third NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs.
"Two different people. Classy individuals. Both winners," Colangelo said this week. "I don't think I could've gone wrong either way."
Colangelo, the managing director of the national team, made his decision after telephone conversations with Popovich and Krzyzewski. "Pop was coming off a less-than-happy experience of Athens and sounded a little bit tired. He wasn't quite sure at the time," Colangelo said of Popovich, an assistant on Larry Brown's bronze medal team in 2004. "Mike was really enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity."
Krzyzewski was hired in October 2005 and given the responsibility of reclaiming the gold medal the United States hasn't won in any major international competition since 2000. He's closer to that goal with the United States set to face Puerto Rico on Saturday night in the semifinals of the FIBA Americas Championship. An American victory clinches a berth in the Beijing Olympics.
Krzyzewski was also asked to restore the image of American basketball, which has lost its luster after finishing third in the 2004 Olympics and sixth in the 2002 world championships.
The return to world domination, though, didn't go as smoothly as planned. At last summer's world championships, the U.S. team ran roughshod over its first eight opponents, winning by an average of 21.9 points. Then came the semifinals, where it finally had one bad game -- essentially two bad quarters -- against Greece. After that loss, the Americans, led by such young stars as Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, had to beat Argentina just to win the bronze medal.
"Obviously, anytime you lose for any team you're going to feel bad. If you lose and you are representing your country, it takes on the highest level of feeling bad," Krzyzewski said. "You feel like you let down a whole country."
Krzyzewski anguished over the loss, believing that that team was good enough, but later admitted "we weren't quite ready to win the world championship, but the groundwork was laid out."
The failure led to this summer school course in Las Vegas, where the U.S. squad has been more dominant than any since the 1992 Dream Team. It won the first eight games in this Olympic qualifying tournament by an average of 39.3 points. "We still need to get better," Krzyzewski said, "not just in this weekend but next summer when we play in China."
Magic Johnson, a member of the original Dream Team, had a front-row seat for the United States' 91-76 victory over Argentina on Thursday and said it is obvious the players have bought into what Krzyzewski is selling. "Once your superstars, LeBron, Kobe, buy into the team concept, everyone else buys in," Johnson said. "Right coach. Right players. Everything is working."
Bryant considered going to Duke out of high school and lobbied for Krzyzewski to coach the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004. Now that he has the opportunity to play for him, Bryant said the experience "has been everything that I thought it would be."
There is irony in Krzyzewski coaching a team with five players who never played college basketball: James, Bryant, Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler. "Coach K, his mind-set is like a pro coach. He's just not in the NBA," Johnson said.
Not everyone believes that the task of coaching this talent-rich team is that difficult. "I think when you got the kind of pro players Krzyzewski has, all he has to do is supervise. What is he going to teach?" said Nolan Richardson, the Mexican national team coach who led Arkansas to the 1994 NCAA title with a victory over Duke. "Somebody's got to be crazy to say that Krzyzewski is going to teach them to play basketball. They already know how to play. They're like the Dream Team with Magic, Bird and those guys."
But after several players clashed with George Karl in 2002, and resisted Brown's controlling style in 2004, coaching talented teams to a gold medal is hardly a given. "He's done a terrific job of motivating us every game, getting us up for each game," Michael Redd said. "But more than anything, he respects the fact that we're all professional and we all know what time it is. It's not about what you do for your team, it's this team."
"I'm very happy with the job that Coach K has done," Colangelo said. "We share something. He's 60, I'm 67. We've known each other a long time. We're at the end of our careers, whatever that means. We're really motivated to win a gold medal."