Skip to main content

Coach K leaves impact on Team USA that runs deeper than three Olympic gold medals

Every star wants an opportunity to play for the U.S. men's basketball team, and we have Coach Krzyzewski to thank for that culture shift.

RIO DE JANEIRO — There are days when Kevin Durant is the best player in the world, and the last day of the Olympics, with a gold medal on the line against Serbia, was one of them. But to understand what Mike Krzyzewski built over three Olympic cycles, don’t look at Durant. Look at Kyle Lowry.

Last spring, Lowry was the best player on a Toronto Raptors team that made the Eastern Conference finals. This summer, he was a backup point guard for Team USA. In the U.S.’s gold-medal victory over Serbia, Lowry took just five shots. Yet U.S. assistant coach Jim Boeheim said Lowry, “was the best team player out of everybody. He just really bought in and was a great leader and gave everything he had every time he went out there. That was important for our team.”

The Coach K revival is over, but the imprint lasts. As Krzyzewski hands the Olympic baton to Gregg Popovich, his achievement goes beyond three consecutive gold medals. Krzyzewski made it cool to be part of the American basketball team again. Every NBA star wants to play in the Olympics before he is through—even if, like Lowry, he must go from star to backup.

Carmelo Anthony says 2016 will be his last Olympics

Look at the roster, and you understand. Paul George suffered a horrific leg injury playing for Team USA and happily came back. Guys who get ripped in the NBA, like DeMarcus Cousins and Carmelo Anthony, are model players in the Olympics.

That culture led to this gold medal. It wasn’t just talent. Boeheim said that when the U.S. struggled in pool play, “We were all worried. We’re not accustomed to playing four-point, three-point games.” Media buzzards were preparing for takeoff, and one, Charles Barkley, was already in flight. Barkley said the U.S. team had too many ball-dominant players and not enough role players.

“I love Charles, but Charles has no clue what’s going on half the time, and just comes up with things,” Boeheim said. “We’ve always had star players and they’ve bought in.”

Still, Boeheim concedes: “We weren’t playing very good defense and our movement wasn’t very good.” There was no magic to the American turnaround. No strategic genius. No brilliant motivational ploy. But it was a moment when a team needs its culture to carry it, and the Coach K belief system came through.

There was also no infighting, as far as anybody can tell, and nobody looking for somebody to blame. Krzyzewski talks about “collective responsibility,” and his teams at Duke and in the Olympics display it. He has an unparalleled ability to get people to believe what he says and do what he wants, no matter how talented they are or how much money they make. That is the definition of great coaching.

The three who’ve won four: USA trio the pillars for another women’s hoops gold

Krzyzewski has undeniably benefited from coaching this team. He has learned even more about the game, and the connection has helped Duke’s recruiting. But part of his brilliance is that a generation of NBA players—Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Durant and others—believes he did them a favor.

“Instilling his trust into NBA players and being the face of USA basketball,” Anthony said Sunday, “I just want to say thanks of that.”

The Americans made this look easy against Serbia. OK, maybe it was easy against Serbia. But instilling pride in the program was not easy. Some people don’t like NBA players playing in the Olympics. There are NBA executives who worry their stars will get hurt in an event that does not properly compensate the NBA or its players. The Mavericks’ Mark Cuban has been vocal about this. You can be sure that some agents worry, too. Krzyzewski got his players to believe.

Boeheim, an assistant with all three Olympic teams led by Coach K, said he had some conversations with his friend about the end. They will never be on a ride quite like this, and they know it.

“He’s very emotional about it,” Boeheim said. “We had some rough spots. It was the most difficult one in terms of getting everyone to come together and do things. We did a little bit against Argentina, a little bit against Spain. But today everything really came together—offense and defense.”

Afterward, Kryzewski said, “What I’ve loved the most are these guys. It set the example for our younger generation in the United States, to where everybody is proud of USA. basketball.”

Kevin Durant backs up top billing to help USA Basketball stay golden in Rio

The 2004 Olympic team was sabotaged, in part, by the insecurities of its brilliant but tortured head coach, Larry Brown. Brown approved the whole roster, then complained that USA Basketball gave him players he didn’t want, then won bronze with a roster that included Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. What do I know, but that seems like a decent collection of talent to me.

There was no program then. There was just a roster. The 2004 Games showed that the U.S. needed more.

 “We may have the best players in the world but you’ve still gotta go play, and you’ve still gotta go do the hard things,” Boeheim said.

They have done the hard things for a solid decade. We probably won’t appreciate all this winning until the U.S. loses again. But Krzyzewski and Boeheim understand.

“We’ve had a few conversations and we always end up at the same place,” Boeheim said. “We’re very lucky.”