The last two years have brought nothing but success for Mike Krzyzewski, better known as “Coach K.” In 2008, he guided the United States men’s national team to an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, and in 2010 — on his regular day job — he led Duke University to another NCAA championship. In between, Coach K landed some of the top high school recruiting classes in the country, and is committed to coaching Team USA through the 2012 Olympics at least, ensuring the winning won’t stop anytime soon.
Whether working with the pros or the college kids, Coach K is perhaps the most respected leader in the basketball business. We got up with him before this week’s World Basketball Festival in an interview that also appears in our special all-WBF issue of Bounce Magazine:
Dime: With the Olympics, you’ve coached some of the greatest players in the world. How is it managing all those egos?
Mike Krzyzewski: It’s been fairly easy. These guys should have big egos. They’re asked to do incredible things, so you wouldn’t want somebody to have a small ego. But when they play for the U.S., you want the overall ego to be the one for the U.S., and they have no conflict with that — they want that and you have conflict if you want something and someone else doesn’t want that. We want the same thing. We wanted a gold medal, we wanted to represent our country in the right way, so they were terrific guys to work with.
Dime: Along the same lines, what makes you a good coach is your ability and desire to teach. Does your approach differ when teaching the college game versus teaching NBA players who are at the top of their games?
MK: Well yeah, it has to change some because they’re already professionals and they’re accomplished in what they do, and you learn from them, too. Like with Jason Kidd, who’s so terrific on our team, he’s really got a good mind for the game like, “What do you think about how to defend this situation?” “What about the matchup?” “Kobe, how would you guard this guy?” “LeBron, what about this?” They tell you how they would do it and you tell them how you were going to do it. You kind of adapt to one another and you learn from doing that, so it’s not me asking them to do my thing — we’re trying to do our thing — and that’s how I’ll do it going forward.
If it’s a younger player in the pros, they will not only learn some from our coaching staff, they’ll really learn from the other players: How to work, how to prepare, you know, the professionalism that’s involved. I thought that happened on our team where everybody got better; coaches, players got better, but we were open to that.
And now going forward we have to make sure that everyone is still open to that, because if you stop learning then you’re a fool. Whether you’re a player or a coach, if you think you know it all then you’re a fool, because you don’t. There’s no way you know everything.
Dime: You just mentioned Jason Kidd. After the 2008 Olympics he retired from international play, so you presumably have a third point guard spot to fill. But with a lot of the new talent and the expanded roster, you have Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose … you really have a lot of options at the point. How do you go about filling that position and what do you look forward to most about coaching these younger players?
MK: First of all, we have a pool of players. There’s right now about 31. Then you’re not sure with contracts, family situations, and injury who you will have available. So to say we only have one spot to fill … We have 12 to fill for the World Championships, and we’ll see how it all falls into place. … But we’re sensitive to these guys, you know, they need to take care of their business. We’re OK if they don’t play when they’re taking care of their business. And then that may open up more than one spot, you know, there will be opportunities.
Kevin Durant HAS TO BE on the team. Whether everyone comes back or not. … Some people explode on the scene. Kevin actually, he was there for all the Select team stuff — he almost made the team last time so that’s an interesting — it’s an evolving process. It’s not like filling in one spot for a particular team, so that’s why Jerry Colangelo came up with this concept of a pool. So that when 12 guys are selected, it’s not like somebody didn’t make the team — these are the 12 we’re taking from the pool.
Dime: In the gold medal game you faced a really tough team in Spain, but also behind them you’ve got Greece, Argentina, Australia, even Turkey. All these teams are really getting much better. Who should we look forward to in the World Championship?
MK: Well, a lot of it depends on who shows up. You know, because I think what’s happened now is 20 percent of the NBA is international, so that means that a complete international team might be all NBA players. Not just the U.S. team or the top eight, so they are making the same decisions as our guys — contractually, injury, personal. If everybody showed up, you know Spain has to be right in there. Argentina has their guys … Brazil … Greece doesn’t have NBA players, but they have the same guys over and over so their continuity is there. Teams like Slovenia have an incredible number of NBA players.
Dime: Goran Dragic…
MK: Yeah. I mean, when these guys play for their country they’re even better. As good as Pau Gasol is with the Lakers, when he’s with his country he’s even better. He’s one of the Top 10 players in the world. So the World Championships will be interesting. We’re going to be back here in New York for four or five days before we go over and we’re actually going to play France here and we’re going to scrimmage China and do some things here (in New York) in preparation, and hopefully by that time we’ll have about 15 guys. I don’t know who those guys will be, but they’ll be good and they’ll all want to be playing for the U.S., which is a good thing.
Dime: Do you feel that the desire wasn’t there before? Because there have been some disappointing World Championship showings…
MK: I don’t think there’s been the organization that there was before. Even when we just took over, we lost in the World Championships. We weren’t ready yet. But now at least we’re ready and prepared. We were going into those competitions not prepared to the level of our competition. It’s different if you have this talent differential that’s so much you might not have to prepare to win. But the talent differential is not that — we’re still the best, the most talented — but the differential isn’t that great to where you can just not prepare. That’s where it is right now, that’s why the (’08 Olympics) gold medal game was so exciting.