The USA men’s basketball team’s well-documented shortcomings in 2002, 2004 and 2006 created a stone-cold sober climate before the Beijing Games in 2008. Players and coaches approached their commitment to winning gold with a sense of gravity largely absent from the years marred by defeat. However, amid all of the seriousness of Team USA’s run through Beijing, there were moments away from the media spotlight in which these 14 guys loosened up and became a team.
We sat down with the Redeem Team’s gold-medal winning coach, Duke living legend Mike Krzyzewski, for DIME 50 to talk about those lighter times when laughter and smiles became the backbone for gold. Some of these stories and many others can be found in Coach K’s book The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team, which he co-authored with his daughter Jamie K. Spatola.
Dime: LeBron has a reputation as a bit of a goof, always joking around and trying to keep things light. In what ways did he do that with you?
Coach K: LeBron is really funnyâ€”whenever there was a dull moment he would make light of something, maybe start singing or performing. So we always goofed around. I decided to play a joke on him. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “LeBron, I think I’m going to get a tattoo.” He looked back at me confused and asked, “What are you thinking about?” I told him that I’m going to get “Chosen 1″ tattooed across my back. He laughed, and then bent over and said, “Coach, there’s only one Chosen 1.”
Dime: Your family was in Beijing at points. Did the players ever interact with them?
Coach K: When we were there in Beijing, we’d all eat together in one big room. Our families ate with usâ€”it was really nice. So one day my entire family was there: all of my daughters, my five grandchildren. LeBron walked inâ€”he always makes a bit of an entranceâ€”it was really neat how they showed respect to everyone, hugging and kissing the whole group. When Kobe came in, he did the same thing, but he stopped when he got to my five-year-old twin granddaughters. I believe he bent over and took Carly’s hand and told her it was a pleasure to meet her. He then said, “Is it OK if I call you princess?” She just melted right there.
Dime: Kobe is the one guy people never seem to be able to completely figure out. What was your experience like with him?
Coach K: With Kobe, it wasn’t just in Beijing. I remember the very first day, he came early and (assistant coach) Johnny Dawkins went to go work him out just before eight in the morning. We had a coaches meeting at 10:30 and Johnny never showed. Then our coaches meeting is over and it’s noon, we break the meeting and I finally see Johnny. I ask him, “What happened?” And he said, “Coach he just worked out for four hours and he could’ve worked out for four more hours. He didn’t take breaks. I haven’t seen anything like it.”
Dime: Who grew the most during your time together?
Coach K: LeBron James grew more than any other player during the three-year period. I loved my association with LeBron James. This year he’s having one of the great years in the history of the NBA. I think a lot of that is because of the situations he put himself in. In developing my relationship with LeBron, the second summer before we started to have practice, I flew to Akron to meet with him. I just wanted to be part of a little event he was doing. We talked about the team. I asked him, “What do you think about our team?” He said, “Coach, I love our team. It’s going to be great playing with all of those guys. I’m going to be able to learn from those guys.” I said, “Well, give me an example.” He said, “Well, J-Kidd.” I asked, “What about him?” LeBron said, “He’s the best passer. I think I’m a good passer, but he’s the best. I want to learn what he sees. I want to find out if I can see the things he does and how he goes about learning that.” So for that summer and the next summer, wherever you saw Jason Kidd, you saw LeBron.
Dime: How different is it working with the best pro basketball players in the world as opposed to some of the best players in college basketball?
Coach K: About four years ago, I was almost the coach of the Lakers. I was really close to taking that job. So a part of me was quite excited about the opportunity to coach Kobe again. I’ve known him since he was about 18 years old. We recruited him to Duke University, and now I was getting the chance to finally do so. During one of our meetings before we really got into the flow in Beijing, he stopped me and said, “Coach.” Then he gave one of those long Kobe stares and said, “I want to guard the best player on the perimeter of every team we play.” He stopped. And then said, “And I will destroy them.”
Dime: Was he that serious on the practice court, too?
Coach K: Our first practice together, Kobe went through the entire time without taking a shot. This was a guy who had just scored 50 points about 10 times during the season, and he didn’t take a single shot when everyone played together. I think that he just wanted to prove to everyone that he would do whatever he needed to for the team.
Dime: Could you get a feel for just how much this meant to Kobe?
Coach K: Kobe comes to his uniform, it’s laying out on a chair. Before he touches the jersey with his name, number and “USA” on it, he just stands there. As he’s standing there he starts crying. You wouldn’t ever think of him crying. The guy who’s helping with the equipment asked Kobe, “What’s wrong?” He said, “You don’t understand. I’ve always dreamed of playing for my country. I’ve always dreamed of putting a ‘USA’ uniform on.” You look at these guys like superstars, but they’re people just like yourself. You can’t accept that when they’re scoring 50 points. But they have dreams, they work hard.
Dime: Did anyone tell you how much this meant to them after winning gold?
Coach K: Dwyane Wade was injured right around this time the previous summer (2007). During that time, I called him about once a week to say that no matter what happened, I knew he’d be back and that he was my guy. I think he appreciated that, because immediately after we won the gold medal, he came up and gave me a hug. It was then that he whispered in my ear, “Thanks for believing in me.”