The method of restoring the United States to a dominant position in international men’s basketball existed all along, even as a series of embarrassing defeats made the triumphant Barcelona Games seem like a distant memory. The ideas were in the heart and mind of Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the Duke University Blue Devils. All USA Basketball had to do was ask.
"There needs to be a plan on how to do this," Krzyzewski said on the Duke campus in the summer of 2005, when asked if he was interested in becoming the coach. "It's like a business that just dominated a market. Sometimes they don't have plans, and then the business doesn't do so well."
He described the subtle but significant difference between NBA and international rules and the influence that difference would play in the selection process.
"You can't play 12 guys in a 40-minute (international) game unless you're winning by a lot or losing by a lot," Krzyzewski said. "There have to be definite roles, and you have to have eight or nine players who are there and three or four players who will come off the bench if you need them. Or they're going to be supportive and hungry if you don't use them. When you're putting a team together, you've got to develop it to play 30 seconds of defense each time. And people who are committed. You have to have more time to put it together."
As the Americans prepare for Sunday’s gold-medal game against Spain, the result has been a commitment that stands one game away from bookend gold medals and one of the most dominant Olympic tournament runs in history. When USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo said professional experience would not be a requirement for the coach in 2005, there were questions of whether an outsider could deal with the NBA culture. The unselfishness of Krzyzewski’s teams in Beijing and London has become the answer.
“I think guys are coming out and sacrificing shots for the betterment of the team,” said Kevin Durant, one of several long-range shooters to create game-changing offensive bursts. “Nobody has an ego. You don’t see guys coming to the bench mad…It’s really cool to see guys on the bench getting up and cheering.”
The Americans have averaged 116.7 points and a 33.7-point victory margin. By comparison, the 1992 team, at the start of the NBA era, won by an average of 43.8 points. The team at the 1960 Games – with Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas – won by an average of 42.5. The overlooked 1996 champions won by an average of 32.3 points, and the 1984 group led by Michael Jordan had a 32-point victory margin.
Jordan played an important role in the summit meeting in Chicago the year after the three defeats in Athens. Some of the greatest minds in the game, including Dean Smith, Jordan’s coach at the University of North Carolina, and the late Dave Gavitt gathered to search for solutions.
“We can’t compete when (international) guys are very versatile,” Jordan said that evening. “We have to reevaluate our approach.”
The 2012 team has been characterized by interchangeable roles creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. “Unconventional,” is the description Krzyzewski offered. “When Tyson (Chandler) goes out, we really have no center,” he said. “We had to develop a style of play that suits those guys.”
The style has emerged within a culture of unselfishness that Krzyzewski cultivated years ago. “He keeps us calm,” Durant said. “He’s the coolest guy in the world. He’s going to make sure we’re ready.”
Which made a question following the semifinal victory over Argentina difficult to comprehend: How much coaching is involved in this process?
Had the question been asked in an Atlantic Coast Conference arena during a contentious winter, the tone of the response might have been more harsh. But the U.S. Military Academy graduate was representing his country, so Krzyzewski chose to smile.
“None,” he said. “None. You got it. Absolutely none. I’m out every night with my family, drunk as a skunk. Wait ‘til you see me tonight. I’ll get in at 6 a.m. You are all invited to come out with me. We just roll out the damn ball and that’s it.”
Not long afterwards, Krzyzewski was careful to explain he had been joking. The authentic response had taken place on the court, not long after the spot in the final had been secured. Krzyzewski stood alone after he had congratulated each of his players. As he turned to leave the court, he paused and allowed himself a mini-celebration – a single, emphatic clap – before he headed for a dressing room and the chance to complete his work.