The Pressure Is Finally Off U.S. Team
Sunday, August 24, 2008; 9:30 PM
Now, almost three years later, Mike Krzyzewski can take a deep breath. The Olympic gold medal in men's basketball belongs to the United States once again and Krzyzewski will not have to spend the rest of his life explaining what went wrong.
Because nothing did.
Oh sure, Spain made a valiant fourth-quarter run in the gold-medal game to cut the gap to 91-89 with a little more than eight minutes to play, but this group of Americans wasn't going to lose. Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade hit big shots, the defense held up and the U.S. won, 118-107. To some the relatively close score matters. To those who know basketball, all that matters is the victory.
To understand the pressure on Krzyzewski and this team, one must go back four years to Athens, to a Larry Brown-coached U.S. team that bickered its way to a 5-3 record in the Olympics and was lucky to escape with a bronze medal. That humiliation forced everyone involved in basketball in this country to take a step back and try to make sure nothing like it ever happened again.
Jerry Colangelo took over and organized a three-year program to reclaim the gold medal. Krzyzewski was hired to coach the team beginning with the World Championships in 2006, with the goal being to peak in Beijing in 2008. Players were asked to commit for at least two and even three summers. There would be no more throwing together a team in six weeks and figuring that would be good enough. Athens proved it wasn't nearly good enough.
There was one loss: to Greece in the semifinals of the World Championships on a night when the Greeks made everything and the pick-and-roll was clearly Greek to the U.S. defense. Because of that loss, the U.S. had to play in the Tournament of the Americas last summer to qualify for the Olympics. That turned out to be a good thing, because it gave Krzyzewski and his coaches more time to understand international play and the players more time to play with one another.
Every win at the Olympics was by double digits. The players were willing to work on defense every night, they were committed to the notion that winning was all that mattered, and the one time they were challenged -- in the final -- they dug in and did what they had to do to win.
Supremacy was re-established -- at least for the moment. Understand this, though: if Spain had stayed hot down the stretch and somehow pulled the upset, the gnashing of teeth would have begun again and Krzyzewski would have been blamed for not understanding the psyche of pro players.
That's the way of sports. If Michael Phelps hadn't gotten his fingernail on the wall just before Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly, the word "failure" would have appeared next to the name of someone who won seven Olympic gold medals. Rarely does anyone "win" a silver medal. You lose the gold. Krzyzewski knew that when he took the job. He took the gamble that his entire coaching legacy could have been damaged by an Olympic loss and the gamble has now paid off.
When we remember these Olympics, we will think about the so-called, "Redeem Team," but there is no question that the two dominant figures of these Games were Phelps and Usain Bolt, whose track performances were as stunning as Phelps's performances were in the pool. (Memo to Jacques Rogge, who criticized Bolt's postrace celebrations: Shut up).
The most stunning photo of the games was not the one of Bolt pulling up to celebrate in the 100 meters and still breaking the world record, but his finish in the 200, when he actually ran through the tape. There's not another soul in the photo of him at the finish line, because the other runners were so far behind.
Phelps and Bolt will both ¿ justifiably -- become quite wealthy because of their performances in Beijing. Both will no doubt be in London in four years and the expectations each will have to deal with will be extraordinary. That's another thing about sports: no one wants to talk about what you did last time; they want to know what you're going to do next time.