The U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team’s listless bronze-medal finish in Athens in 2004 led USA Basketball to put longtime NBA executive Jerry Colangelo in charge of returning the luster to its national team program. Colangelo in turn hired his fellow Chicagoan, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, as head coach. If it was a risk to choose a college coach for a team of pros, that gamble has paid off. The Rio Olympics will mark the end of Coach K’s nearly 12 years in charge, including three Olympic cycles, and during that time Team USA has gone 52-1 in major FIBA events, collecting four of a possible five gold medals.
Is a fifth in its future? While Krzyzewski has restored the American mystique, the days of guaranteed romps are over. The U.S. beat Spain by only seven points in the gold-medal game at the 2012 Olympics in London, and the team that suits up in Rio will feature only two players, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, with prior Olympic experience. For a variety of reasons, a raft of vets—including LeBron James, Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook—decided to sit out these Games.
Before heading to Brazil, between training camp sessions in Las Vegas, Krzyzewski sat down with SI’s Alexander Wolff to look back at his journey. He talked about building a national team culture, the evolution of the global game, Anthony’s development into an unlikely elder statesman, and the value of following Paul George’s Instagram feed. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
I imagine you’ve learned a lot over these dozen years from international coaches and players, and wonder if you could share anything specific you’ve taken back to the U.S. team or to Duke.
The game is alive and well worldwide, obviously, with 20 to 25 percent of the NBA being international. You have teams that have been together 10, 12, 15 years, like the Argentine team, with their spirit and togetherness, continuity and system.
I remember in 2008 in Beijing, Spain had just beaten Lithuania in the semifinals. We were getting ready to go out on the court in the tunnel, where the crowd couldn't see you. Our guys are psyched up, we're going to play Argentina. About 50 to 75 feet behind us, again spectators can't see it, is the Argentina team, dancing and hugging. It was amazing. I remember walking out on the court with Mike D’Antoni, one of the assistants, and saying, “Mike, forget the scouting report. That's what we have to beat.”
The commitment these men have to their countries and to one another, the brotherhood, that’s what happens when you have continuity, commitment and talent. So many of these countries have that. That's what we tried to do with the U.S. program, to try to develop a feeling of who we're playing for, not just of wearing the jersey. I've tried to apply it to my own program at Duke.
This ties in with that: I've wondered how you can take a guy like, say, Paul George, who hasn't played in a FIBA Worlds or an Olympics for you yet, and just slot him into the national team. How do you really get to know someone like Paul when he's not on that elite team?
In Paul's case, and the case of guys from the select team [from which the national team is chosen], they become part of our pool of players. The pool of players has been key to our establishment of family, continuity, where you're part of it—ownership.
With a number of these guys, I'm not in constant contact with them [other than with] an occasional text. I follow a lot of them on Instagram. So if I see something—like Paul's a fisherman, he loves to fish, he’s proud of it—I might put out something to him. Then all of a sudden he's chosen for the Olympic team, he's not coming in cold turkey with me. And once we know they're chosen, I do a bit more with them before they come to the camp—again, not to intrude on their privacy, but to let them know that I can have this relationship.
A very important aspect of all this is that I don't coach against these guys. I think it's one of the hidden things that Jerry Colangelo and I have found out. [When] we started this union, [Jerrry and I] never really talked about that aspect of it, that I can be their friend. Take Kevin Durant. He would consider me one of his coaches, not more important than Oklahoma City or the Warriors or whatever. You keep that relationship. It's not just the continuity of a system of offense and defense, it's the continuity of friendship, of trust.
Kyrie Irving is a guy you recruited to Duke and he played, what, about half a season?
“I told Kyrie Irving, One day you could be the U.S. Olympic starting guard. When he accepted an invite, I asked him, Do you remember our conversation? He said, Of course I do.”
You had him at the World Cup two years ago, and you just added him to the Olympic team as a freshly minted NBA champion. What’s it like to pick up with someone so many years later?
Kyrie was born in Australia. [After he arrived at Duke] he was asked to play in Australia for an 18- or 19-and-under team, and he was asked to play for a U.S. team. Once you make a decision as to the country you play for, you can't change that five or six years later. I said, You'd be a great player for them. I [also] said, One day you could be the [U.S.] Olympic starting guard. I really believed it then.
When he accepted [an invitation to play for the Olympic team], I called him and said, Do you remember [our conversation]?
He said, Of course I do.
I said, Isn't it crazy that this is going to happen? And I love it 'cause I've known him since he was 17. To see him develop into really as good a guard as there is in the world, that's where he's at right now. . . . You know, if we win this thing, that will be a pretty darn good story.
Including exhibitions, your record with this team is 80-1. The one loss occurred pretty early in the whole journey, at the 2006 Worlds in Japan. I think Greece was the team.
Sometimes losses clarify things. You learn more from losses than victories.
It was a loss that put us in a position of reality. We learned from it. They were older. They knew their game better. We were not as physical. . . . Did we scout them? Yes. But not like you could. So we really reflected on everything we did. You take responsibility for what you’ve done, but you also take responsibility for what you will do as a result of what you learn.
This started the [select team] pool concept. We were too young when we lost to Greece, so we knew we had to have a combination of youth, medium [age] and old. Now we scout tournaments all over the world, [so] we know everything about the players. Then we incorporated international officials more, so instead of complaining about how the nuances of our game might be better, and why aren't [officials whistling this or] that, well, we're not going to do that, because we're not playing [the American] game. We should learn [the international] game better. So we have. And our goal in doing that was to win the gold medal, but also to win . . . the respect of the world by giving them the due they should be given.
They play really good basketball. There are terrific players and coaches all over the world. We should learn from them and not think like isolationists, like it's “our game.” It's the world's game. We play it really well, but you know what? They do too.
Over those dozen years, how has the international game changed or improved? You remember not so long ago people said that foreign players were “mechanical.”
Even their big guys are very skilled with the ball and can play away from the basket. In their club system they don't have a college basketball organization. A young Pau Gasol in Spain or a Manu Ginobili in Argentina is in a club, learning from and playing against men, learning the entire game. There are no restrictions on how many hours a week you can work with them like we have in the NCAA. There's no AAU. And they’re always playing for their country. There's a sense of nationalism that's developed for all these teams that we have a harder time finding, because we like the Cubs and the Lakers, the Blackhawks, the Rangers, the Patriots. . . . Those players we play against feel who they play for. They own it. We have to figure out how we can get that across to our own team.
The Argentines in the tunnel . . .
Or the brotherhood that the Spanish team has. They've been playing together since they were 18, 19, a number of them. They want to be together. That's their family. We’re trying to create a family atmosphere so when our guys come back, they trust, they know their environment, they can be themselves and renew acquaintances with a number of the players but also the people who work with them.
“We should learn from international teams and not think like isolationists, like it's ‘our game.’ It's the world's game. We play it really well, but you know what? They do too.”
I think it was between the 2010 Worlds that you guys won and the 2012 Olympics, the same guys wanted to come back and play with one another.
We won [the Olympics] in 2008. In 2010 in Istanbul [at the Worlds] we had an entirely different team. I think a lot of it had to do with the U.S. not completely [understanding] the value or the importance of the World Championships [which FIBA has since rebranded as the World Cup], so we had to try to teach that.
We won [the 2010 Worlds] with a really young team, with five or six guys who were 21 years old. That's where Kevin Durant took off. He was the MVP, averaged 33 points a game in the medal round. So in '12, for London, we brought together guys who were gold medal winners in Beijing, and guys who were gold medal winners in Istanbul. You always add people. There's always attrition, for human reasons: contract, injury, age.
When people say, Well, somebody didn't play—we've never been a full complement. There's [always] somebody who can't play for some reason. Thank goodness we have enough people who want to play, really want to play, to still have an outstanding team.
We may never see that moment again where all the other teams in an Olympics or World Cup are essentially tourists the way they were in Barcelona, where they wanted to pose for pictures with the Dream Team. It did seem in 2012 and ‘08 that a little bit of that aura was starting to attach to the U.S. team again. Do you think you've created a new mystique around Team USA that makes it less vulnerable?
Well, I think in 2008 and ‘12 we were vulnerable.
Pretty close final with Spain.
Yeah, we almost lost to Lithuania in London. If you go back to 1992 and the Dream Team, everyone in the world thinks that there was just this wide gap between the U.S. and everyone else. That wasn't the case.
You have to understand that the two best programs internationally during that time were Yugoslavia, which was in a golden age of outstanding players, and [the Soviet Union]. Yugoslavia, before the '92 Olympics, got split up into a number of countries. And [the Soviets] got split up. Half its team was Lithuanian, and Lithuania won the bronze in Barcelona.
Would we have beaten [a unified Yugoslavia or Soviet Union]? I think we would have. Would it have been as [easy]? I don't think so. So there was a false sense going forward. And those pros in '92 brought something that we have had to develop [from] 2006 ’til now—a culture, a pride. Those guys who were on the '92 team, unbelievable guys, had helped build the NBA. They were proud and brought that professionalism and culture.
“A very important aspect of all this is that I don't coach against the players on Team USA. I think it's one of the hidden things that Jerry Colangelo and I have found out.”
After that, although we won big in '96, it was a house that wasn't built on a foundation, a foundation of culture. The world was closer than people think. But then we didn't do anything, and that's all of our responsibilities. We, the U.S. basketball community, did not do the things necessary. Jerry taking over really was a significant moment in the history of basketball for our country. It's not only made USA Basketball better internationally, it's made USA Basketball better in the United States.
When USA Basketball brings 50 freshmen and sophomores to Colorado Springs every October to get indoctrinated, they're proud to wear the U.S. uniform but also all the gear. That speaks to the example set by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, who all wanted to play on the U.S. team. And how they handled themselves, and the fun you could see when they did win.
All of those are things that, in 2005, when Jerry took over, he could have never imagined. But that’s happened. What we have to do is continue to show the international community the respect of [our] intense preparation.
“The commitment the international players have to their countries and to one another, the brotherhood, that’s what happens when you have continuity, commitment and talent. So many of these countries have that.”
When you were an assistant to Chuck Daly on the Dream Team, was there something you observed that you've gone back to?
The tremendous pride and professionalism of the players, how much they wanted to be there. . . . They were proud to play for the United States, they were team guys.
How do we do that now? A big thing for us was the development of an association with our military. How would you teach selfless service? We talk to our servicemen and women. We developed this relationship, [using] them as an example of what selfless service means.
The very first person to ever talk to our team was one of my former players [at West Point], Bob Brown. He was a colonel. He's now a four-star general. He brought three wounded warriors, guys who served—Scottie Smiley, who is blind, and other guys who had different injuries—and in an emotional manner they talked to our team about selfless service. The key factor in that was that all these wounded warriors wanted to serve again. And my guys, Dwyane Wade and these guys, they're crying. They’re not only hearing and seeing what it was; we’d found a way for them to feel. The military has helped us tremendously in helping our guys feel what it is to serve on a basketball court for our country, instead of on battlefields. And you don't skip steps. For each team, we don't say, We've already done that. So we're in the process of doing it for our 2016 Olympic team, making sure that we allow them to feel what they're doing.
In 2005, around the same time Jerry chooses you to resurrect USA Basketball, you're also being pursued by the Lakers.
July 4th week, because there was nothing else going on, I still remember being on TV all the time. We were hunkered down in our home, trying to decide, because it's a lot of money and all that. I was on TV. All of a sudden my daughter walks by and says, Dad, you're on again. I said, What? It's not my fault.
“I never had an NBA itch. More than anything, I've had an itch to coach great players.”
Was that the perfect time in your career to take the national team position? You can stay at Duke and still scratch an NBA itch?
I never had an NBA itch. I've had an itch to coach great players more than anything. I've been lucky at Duke to have a lot of great players. Ninety-two, the Dream Team, to be with those great players, learn from them. But that need to coach a great player wasn’t greater than the need to continue to coach at Duke and be in the college community. That's what I love. Some people have asked, When you were asked to do the national team, did it fill a void? I had no void.
I did it because [to turn it down] you've got to be nuts. This is the craziest, highest honor you could get.
One guy on that '04 Athens team who has since won two Olympic golds is Carmelo Anthony. As someone who has been in the news lately for his advocacy on issues dealing with urban violence and guns, he has traced quite a journey from being a 20-year-old Olympian.
I've seen Carmelo step up before. After our loss to Greece in 2006, at the press conference after the game, you had both coaches and a player from each team. Carmelo was that player with me. You know we're going to get it from our own country, what we didn't accomplish. Carmelo was so eloquent and good about giving praise to that Greek team, not blaming anybody. Collective responsibility is one of the fundamental values we’ve built our program on. We win and we lose together. He was fantastic. I'm [thinking], We’ve got something here. In that moment, this is good. There was no finger pointing for the next few months. . . . We took it as a group.
In 2007 we had to go to the Tournament of the Americas to qualify for the Olympics. At our first meeting we talked about standards, about how we were going to live. I told everyone the story of Carmelo. I said, We had collective responsibility. We lost together. Let's have collective responsibility where we always win together. Let's do the things necessary to do that. Carmelo has been a key factor in making sure that has happened.
So him stepping forward today in something that’s really a huge problem for our country, where we're trying to find solutions . . . for him to step up at the ESPYs, where LeBron, Carmelo, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade were all there—four guys from our 2008 Olympic team—I’m so proud. They played for their country, and now they're trying to do something in whatever way they can for their country. C'mon, that's good stuff. That's really good stuff.
And on a lighter note. How has humor found its way on to the national team, and who has provided it?
One of the funniest is LeBron. A huge thing about getting our culture going was the relationship that he and Kobe had on the 2008 team. Kobe was the alpha dog of the league, the best player. In the NBA, generations are like three or four years apart, so you had the next tier, where the alpha dogs were Carmelo, Chris and LeBron. So those guys were going to look to see who Kobe was going to be. Kobe could not have been better. In private moments, where we're on team trips or at a team function with no one else there, LeBron would mimic [Kobe in front of him], and Kobe would laugh.
Those things were great. I didn't tell LeBron to do that. Jerry didn't tell him. Part of their greatness was they knew they needed to do that. So I'm amazed. Usually I have to tell my players everything. Here these guys, they understood: it's important for us to get along—that maybe this thing would be better if we did.
I can remember in '92, it's something Magic Johnson had too. One time we were going into practice and it's dead. You know this is going to be a bad practice. All of a sudden he starts singing while we’re stretching. And all of a sudden guys are hitting [their shots], and all of a sudden we had a good practice.
I've seen great players not just perform great on the court, but instinctively perform great in the things that bond you so you can be great on the court. That's cool stuff. Where do you learn that? How lucky am I to be in these situations where these gifted guys show their gifts in other areas, not just the physical area?
You'll soon be passing the USA clipboard to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. It’s no secret that back in ’05 there was some grumbling in the pro coaching ranks that a college coach had been chosen to coach a team of pros. What are your thoughts on that?
There’s grumbling all the time about everything. It's not about whose turn it is. It's about what USA Basketball feels would be best. So it just turned out that I've coached this long. But USA Basketball named Gregg Popovich well before my time was done, and I love that he's going to do it. The credibility that he’ll bring to our program as we go forward is immense, besides his talents.
We've talked about this, because we both have military backgrounds: In the military you never have a unit for your whole life. A tour of duty in command might be a year, 18 months, two years, and then somebody always takes your place. In the military it's like a creed: You make that group better than the guy before, and then you do everything necessary to help the guy after you make it better than you, or at least as [good]. We kind of laugh about it, because what some people think would be, I don't know, an ego thing, whatever they might think—it’s not that. It's just the opposite.
One last question. I think I have this right: Hernia surgery in May. Both ankles operated on in June. Left hip, right hip, then the left knee, if I have all your orthopedic replacements correct and in the proper order. How much longer will that one surviving original knee keep a 69-year-old guy on the sideline?
[When I leave] it won't be because of that. Actually, when you get these replacement parts, it gives you more shelf life, because you're not crooked, you're not in pain, whatever.
I've never known age in how I relate to somebody. I try to be in the moment of the person I'm coaching, so it keeps you young. I still have a passion not to win X number of games or championships, [but] to be in a moment with a group that is much younger than me in the pursuit of a special moment that they want.
“When I leave it won't be because of the surgeries [knee, hip, hernia, ankles]. Actually, when you get these replacement parts, it gives you more shelf life, because you're not crooked, you're not in pain, whatever.”
For me to be on that bus with them, that's how I've looked at it. At Duke, it's not about winning the next championship for me. It's about winning that championship together. Same thing with the Olympics. It's about being in this moment with them.
I learned that a number of years ago. It's the best way for me to be doing this. I can make money in other ways. At the end of the day someone's going to win more than you or whatever. It's not about some record. It's about living, for crying out loud. It's about living in that moment. That's what I want to do with this Olympic team.