- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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“It’s tough for me to say it [from these] lips, but I love that guy. I love him.”
That’s Chris Paul, a former Wake Forest Demon Deacon, talking about the head coach of the Duke Blue Devils, Mike Krzyzewski, just after the United States men’s basketball team outlasted Spain to win yet another gold medal.
No wonder other coaches (fully 70 percent of those surveyed, according to our buddies at CBS) firmly believe Coach K has received an almost immeasurable recruiting boost from his time spent working with the best players in the world. A Demon Deacon saying -- gulp -- he loves Coach K? Just how popular is this guy, anyway?
But forget recruiting. Any recruiting benefit Coach K earned during his seven years at the helm of Team USA -- which included a 62–1 record and gold medals in London, Beijing and at the 2010 FIBA World Championships -- is dwarfed by comparison to what his guidance has meant for American basketball at the highest stage.
Before Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo took over in 2005, Team USA was a mess. Pundits around the world foretold of American basketball’s great leveling -- thanks to the Dream Team and globalization and a score of other factors -- the talent in Europe and South America was catching up, while the best American players lacked the fundamentals and cohesion needed (outside shooting, spacing, back cuts, zone defense, etc.) to win under international rules. They were no longer good enough to merely walk on the floor and win.
Some of that proved true. Spain’s athletic rise in the past decade has been fascinating to watch, and the Spaniards, for the second straight Olympics, provided a truly legitimate challenge to Team USA despite lacking a guard better than Jose Calderon. (That was thanks mostly to Team USA's injured-depleted lack of size, which forced LeBron James to guard the Gasols, but no matter -- Spain has great players and a great international team.)
But America’s international program is different now, too. It is more organized and less disparate. It devotes more time to the development of rising stars, a la the 2010 FIBAs, where a host of young players won gold (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Tyson Chandler, Andre Igoudala, the list goes on), built their résumés for future Olympics inclusion, and went back to their NBA teams noticeably improved for it. In the face of dwindling hegemony, Team USA started planning ahead.
Much of the above was Colangelo’s vision, but a vision is only so good as its implementation. That’s where Coach K came in. After close calls at the 2000 Olympics and the 2002 FIBA worlds, a talented NBA-rich roster agreed to suit up for the 2003 FIBA Americas, where it easily cruised to a win. Then, nine of those 12 players elected not to play in the 2004 Olympics. A group of rising stars (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudamire) were hurriedly slotted alongside veterans Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan, and the team never truly came together. Playing for Team USA was still an option, not a requirement; once it was complete, the hastily constructed 2004 roster fell to savvier, more prepared squads.
Coach K changed that in two key ways. He helped convince America’s best players that playing for a gold medal wasn’t an annoying waste of an offseason; rather, it was the highest calling for which an American basketball star could strive. Then, once all of the country’s best players agreed -- these were rival superstars who spend most of their time trying to topple each other -- he infused that larger calling into the on-court structure, getting the best players in the world to buy in (for lack of a less clichéd phrase) to a momentary collective spirit that cared less for minutes and points and shots and endorsements and more about representing America well, and successfully.
This was true in 2008 in Beijing, and it was true again in 2012. How many minutes did Kevin Durant and LeBron James play together this summer? How many times did James -- as he did during Team USA’s closing run on Sunday -- whip a one-handed pass to Durant on the wing (who in this case promptly drove to his left, elevated over Marc Gasol, and scored a gorgeous floater and a foul)? Just a few months ago, James and the Miami Heat robbed Durant and Russell Westbrook and James Harden of an NBA title in a heated series. But there was Durant and his teammates, hugging LeBron and jumping around at midcourt, as Team USA celebrated its win not as disparate factions or a bunch of stars but as just that -- a team.
There were just as many examples in 2008, when the Kobe-LeBron debate was at its peak. Throughout seven years of international basketball, Coach K has almost always had the best talent in the world. This has made it paradoxically both easier and more difficult to succeed. But he has balanced those competing influences as well as anyone could. In the process, he took a key role in restoring the world’s true basketball superpower to its rightful place on the gold medal stand.
The man has accomplished much in his basketball career: 927 wins, four national titles, 12 ACC regular-season and 13 ACC tournament championships, a plethora of coach of the year awards, you name it. Duke fans will always remember Coach K as the man who built and then sustained one of the nation’s most revered (and simultaneously loathed) college hoops institutions. UNC fans will always loathe him. But for my money, the past seven years of his career -- the two gold medals, the focus on youth development, the great redemption project that was USA Basketball -- are the important accomplishment of his career. Coach K, along with James and Bryant and Durant and Colangelo and all the rest, made American fans feel good about American basketball again.
Plus, the guy got Chris Paul to publicly confess his love. What more do you need?