Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Basketball [Print without images]

Saturday, August 11, 2012
Updated: August 12, 2:09 PM ET
If this is it, Coach K going out in style

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

Coach K
After capturing gold in 2008, a win over Spain would be the perfect sendoff for Coach K.

LONDON -- It is the only coaching job he could have taken, probably anywhere in the world, where the expectations can actually dwarf those back in Durham.

What's it like coaching a team of NBA superstars with a nightly margin for error that makes Duke's seem Shaq-sized?

Let Johnny Bach, assistant coach to Henry Iba on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, give you a glimpse into life on the Team USA bench Mike Krzyzewski has bossed for his country's past 62 senior national-team games.

"We invented the game, so people expect us to win every single [international] game we play," Bach said this week by phone from Chicago, where the 88-year-old lives in retirement.

"That's the way it's always been and that's the way it'll always be."

Perhaps USA Basketball won't be sentenced to that fate forever, but those are still the ground rules in play for program chairman Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski entering the gold-medal game here Sunday afternoon against Spain that'll wrap up an 18-day stay at the London Games.

Vowing to leave the U.S. bench after these Olympics, no matter what happens in Sunday's finale, Krzyzewski was only half-kidding when he said, "It's a great job if we win this whole thing."

In his less fatalistic moments, Coach K has mostly loved these past seven years, not only for the major successes -- gold in Beijing in 2008 followed by triumph at the 2010 worlds in Turkey and that gaudy overall record of 61-1 -- but also because they've allowed him to satiate any yearnings he's had to coach in the NBA. He doesn't need to entertain that thought ever again, or play what-if games in his head about leaving his Duke empire, because he already knows what it's like to coach the most talented players in the world and take them places they haven't been.

Yet the whole enterprise, as Colangelo describes it, is an undeniable "drain," this grind of coaching game after game in which anything less than a double-digit win, never mind losing, triggers a full-blown domestic crisis. Back in Dallas in May, as part of the USOC's quadrennial media summit before every Olympics, Krzyzewski made it clear that he'd be stepping down post-London after a run of four straight major tournaments.

"When I watch Duke games, I'm an absolute wreck because I just know the pressure on them to win every game," said Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins, who is here in London calling Team USA's games for NBC and whose son, Chris, serves as an assistant to Krzyzewski both with the Blue Devils and with Team USA.

You can quickly deduce where Collins was going with that thought.

So imagine what this is like.

"It takes something out of you as a coach," Colangelo acknowledged. "It has to."

Some of Team USA's prominent players nonetheless plan to try to convince Krzyzewski to keep going, at least through the 2014 World Cup of Basketball in Spain, since pretty much all of them hold the 65-year-old in such high regard. One of those stalwarts, Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, told ESPN.com: "I'm sure we can get him to come back."

USAB officials, however, aren't nearly that optimistic. Colangelo has said repeatedly this week that he'll make one more run at it, after giving Krzyzewski some time to decompress when this is all over, but sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich have indeed already moved to the top of the list to take over in 2013 for Krzyzewski, who is expected to remain with the program as a top aide to Colangelo if he can't be convinced to extend his coaching tenure.

Sources say Louisville coach Rick Pitino has also expressed strong interest in the position, but the general expectation in USAB circles is that Krzyzewski will be succeeded by an NBA coach. Current Team USA assistants Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan, meanwhile, are regarded as long-shot contenders in part because both are out of work at present, meaning it would likely be too much to ask either of them -- when they do inevitably resurface in the NBA in the near future -- to take on the national team in addition to the rigors of a new pro job.

Colangelo, whose own loose timetable calls for resolving the coaching situation by the start of 2013, said Saturday that he still remembers the meeting back in 2005 in which North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith, surveying all the various names on Colangelo's blackboard from every segment of the coaching population as a USAB consultant, said there was only one man in the college game who could handle all those NBA millionaires.

"This was [Krzyzewski's] big rival," Colangelo reminded. "That was one of those [unforgettable] moments."

Krzyzewski, to Colangelo, was simply "the right guy at the right time." You'll hear the same thing from the small-ballers who'll be trying to offset Sunday's significant size disadvantage against the Spaniards.

"He's been the perfect guy," Team USA elder statesman Kobe Bryant said. "He's not an 'it's my way or the highway' kind of guy. He's going to figure out the best way to do things with [the personnel] he's got. He's adapted to us. It's been an honor to play for him. He'll go down in history for what he's done [with Team USA]."

Said LeBron James, whose first Team USA experience was miserable one under Larry Brown in 2004 in Athens, where the Americans finished with a mere bronze: "He's made his mark. He's reshaped this program."

Durant, not typically prone to such hyberbole, went so far as to brand Coach K "as just the coolest guy in the world" Friday night, at a postgame news conference where Krzyzewski, for the first time all summer, had to stifle a more biting response when a television news reporter from back home in the States asked how much coaching really has to be done with players this good.

That naturally didn't thrill Krzyzewski, who did say: "None. You got it. Absolutely none. I'm out every night with my family, drunk as a skunk. Wait until you see me tonight. I'll get in at 6 a.m. and you all are invited to come out with me. We just roll out the damn ball and that's it. You got it. I don't know how you figured that out."

The truth, of course, is that Team USA's coaches wound up staying up well past 4 a.m. after Friday night's semifinal rout of Argentina, studying film of Spain to prepare for Sunday's rematch of the 2008 gold-medal game that was so uncomfortably close in Beijing.

"We're supposed to win every game," Krzyzewski said. "We know that. But we accept that challenge. We want to win every game, too."

When asked Saturday to rate his chances of convincing Krzyzewski to reconsider his exit strategy, after Coach K's involvement on 12 different USA Basketball coaching staffs since 1979, Colangelo said: "Chances are not. But we'll have to have that conversation on an official basis. He's said this is it and I'll respect his choice. But knowing me as I know me, I'll have that conversation and we'll see."

Countered Krzyzewski: "If we don't win tomorrow, he'll let me go real quick."