Shortly before the U.S. men’s national basketball team took the floor for its first exhibition game on Thursday against the Dominican Republic, Coach Mike Krzyzewski pulled aside Kevin Durant and informed perhaps the second-best player in basketball that he would need him to come off the bench for the star-studded Americans. In response, Krzyzewski got nodding acceptance.
Krzyzewski was honest and direct with Durant, who was the breakout star and leader of the gold medal-winning world championship squad in Turkey two years ago. After the United States thrashed the Dominican Republic by 54 points, with Durant scoring a game-high 24, the District native joked with his Oklahoma City and U.S. teammate James Harden, the NBA sixth man of the year last season, that he was going to ask Thunder Coach Scott Brooks to come off the bench next season in the NBA.
“But I don’t think that’s going to work out too well,” Durant said with a laugh. “It felt good to come off the bench for the first time. I was looking forward to having different roles, playing for USA, so it was actually fun for me.”
Durant’s willingness to accept what some would consider a less-glamorous role speaks to his character but is not out of line with any members of the 12-man Olympic team, which features nine all-stars and two league most valuable players and will host Brazil in an exhibition on Monday at Verizon Center.
USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo created that selfless culture when selecting each player on the team, but Krzyzewski has maintained an environment of sacrifice and culpability by encouraging players to taper responsibilities from their respective NBA teams without losing their individual identities.
Before Durant, Krzyzewski made the same request of Dwyane Wade, who was the sixth man at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 despite being one of just two players on the roster with an NBA championship ring. Wade went on to lead the Americans in scoring for the tournament, and notched a game-high 27 in the gold medal conquest of Spain.
“When he came off the bench, he didn’t come out like an off-the-bench player. He came off the bench like Dwyane Wade,” Krzyzewski said. “And that’s what we’re trying to tell the guys.”
As a show of respect for the job Krzyzewski did, the members of the 2008 Olympic team all placed their gold medals around his neck (coaches do not receive medals). And, after watching Krzyzewski meld a unit of superstars and lead American basketball back to the top with grace and class, Colangelo could only think of asking one man to direct Team USA for another three-year run, culminating in what Krzyzewski said would be his last as head coach of the Olympic team.
Over a deep-dish pizza and a few bottles of wine, Colangelo sat across from Krzyzewski at a hotel in Chicago in the fall of 2008. Krzyzewski had to consider the sacrifices he had already made, both with his family and his prestigious college basketball program at Duke, but he couldn’t resist the lure of winning on the world’s grandest stages and with its best basketball players.
“When you look at the history of sports teams that are the most successful, in any sport, it’s continuity. It’s leadership at the top. Players come and go, but somebody has got to be there and he is so much a leader in every respect,” Colangelo said of Krzyzewski. “He was the right choice when I made the choice the first time, and he earned the second go at it. He wanted to go one more time.”
Krzyzewski admitted to being a little intimidated when he served as an assistant under Chuck Daly on the original Dream Team in 1992. But after working with 11 Hall of Famers, including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, he hasn’t had any problem managing egos and maximizing talent.
“You got to be smart, you have to be sharp. You have to know what you’re talking about. Which he does,” Kobe Bryant said. “From that standpoint, it’s been very easy for guys to buy in, because he knows his stuff.”
Colangelo and several of the U.S. players describe Krzyzewski as a “great communicator,” but Krzyzewski — who ranks first all-time among NCAA Division I men’s coaches in career victories and has claimed four national championships at Duke — believes that there is another reason that he has been able to connect so well with them.
“The fact of being a college coach helps you, because I never have to compete against them. So I can be their coach and it helps a lot,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve coached 10 of these guys. We have great relationships.”
Since an initial stumble in 2006, when the United States lost to Greece in the semifinals of the world championships in Japan — a loss he still considers the worst of his career — Krzyzewski has guided the Americans to 37 consecutive wins in international games and exhibitions and captured gold medals in the FIBA Americas championship, Beijing Olympics and the world championships in Istanbul.
“He’s an unbelievable motivator,” said Chris Paul, who is on his third team with Krzyzewski. “You have a collection of 12 of the best players in the world and every time he talks, he fully grabs our attention. Part of it is the fact that he’s been so successful. You look at his track record and guys respect him. Another thing is, he has a lot of things in common with us. We’re confident without being arrogant and Coach K is as confident as you can be — and he should be — and there is a way to do it, without being arrogant.”
The current Olympic team features five players from Beijing, five others from Istanbul, Harden and New Orleans Hornets No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, who could serve as a bridge to the 2016 team if FIBA adopts a 23-and-under rule for Olympic competition. Krzyzewski is again the man responsible for bringing it all together.
“He let us know, just to be ourselves,” Durant said. “We know we can’t do that without having a team concept. It’s not about who is the best scorer or the best passer. It’s how we can come together as a group. Guys are willing to sacrifice. Minutes, points, shots, rebounds, whatever, they are willing to sacrifice and that’s the best thing. We all want to win.”
More on the London Olympics:
Men’s hoops: Practice has midnight madness feel
Women’s hoops: ‘It’s like U-Conn. on steroids’
Women’s hoops: Parker-Fowles-Charles a versatile post trio