The Way of K

7 minute read
Sean Gregory

Mike Krzyzewski fancies himself a business guru. And why not? Coach K has built Duke into a hoops dynasty (they’ve won a ridiculous 78% of their games over 26 seasons) and is a highly sought speaker on the corporate lecture circuit. But now, as the coach of the confederacy of millionaires also known as the U.S. national team, he’s the CEO of a daunting turnaround project to restore America’s basketball and sporting pride. And despite his outward cool, he was scared stiff when he signed on. “Because it’s not Duke now, I’m saying, ‘Will they actually listen?'” says Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-shef-skee) in the nasal baritone of a high school chemistry teacher. It’s a demeanor that deftly shades one of the fiercest competitors in sports. “If you don’t have anxieties, you might as well drop in the old coffin.”

There, he’d find recent versions of America’s national basketball teams, champion underachievers. In 2002 the U.S. finished an astounding sixth place–behind even New Zealand–at the World Championships, held on home turf in Indianapolis. The ’04 Olympic team was so stillborn that even the classy, three-time NBA champ Tim Duncan looked as if he’d have preferred, say, a skin rash rather than march in the opening ceremonies. After a first game drubbing by Puerto Rico, and less-than-professional conduct from several players and then coach Larry Brown, winning bronze in Athens actually seemed like an achievement.

Throw in other recent high-profile U.S. failures in global sports (see box), and the basketball World Championship, which starts Aug. 19 in Japan, takes on added urgency. The Americans desperately need a lift and for Coach K, frightened or not, to lead the way. “This is a new beginning,” says Rick Carlisle, coach of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, who believes that Krzyzewski’s stature trumps any skepticism pro players might have about a college coach. “We all expect great things.”

Led by former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo (the man who hired Krzyzewski) the entire process of picking the U.S. team has been revamped. In the ’90s, USA Basketball, the sport’s governing body, would cobble together a group of big-name NBA standouts, give them a few days to practice and expect gold at the Worlds and Olympics. Other national teams, whose players often compete together from the time they try on their first size 2s, are now so good that they can’t expect to win with such slipshod organization. This time USA Basketball has asked a pool of 24 NBA players to give up three summers to prepare for this year’s World’s, next year’s Olympic qualifiers, if needed, and the 2008 Games in Beijing. This group balances perhaps the three best players on the globe–the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who’s sidelined for Japan by knee surgery– with non-ball-hogging role players like Bruce Bowen and Shane Battier.

The pressing question: Can a college coach who has been able to impose tight control over pliant 18-year-olds meld the egos of millionaire NBA megastars? After all, several top college coaches have fired air balls in the pros. Krzyzewski’s favorite wink-wink reply: “I’m a millionaire too.” The early results look good; the team has bought into Krzyzewski’s selfless, defense-first philosophy, evidenced in blowouts of China and Puerto Rico and a gritty 90-86 win over Brazil in warm-up games. The ex-Army point guard from Chicago has mixed in motivational ploys–a speech by a soldier blinded in Iraq moved many players to tears– while being careful not to overdo the rah-rah stuff. “We haven’t gone on a canoe trip,” quips K. “We’ll bond on the court.”

The players say Coach K is a breath of fresh air after Larry Brown’s reign as national- team coach. “There are no restraints on this team,” says Wade, an Athens vet who contends that Brown discouraged him from trying to score too much. “That was kind of our problem in ’04. One guy could do this, another guy couldn’t.” Krzyzewski’s vibe has fired up the team; the practices are crisp and competitive. “The way he can connect with everybody, it’s unbelievable,” says Brad Miller, Team USA big man (at 7 ft.), who plays for the Sacramento Kings. “I’d have our [NBA] team pay him a couple of grand to talk to us.”

He’d have to up the ante–Krzyzewski commands up to $100,000 a speech, and his name even graces an academic arm, the Fuqua/ Coach K Center of Leadership & Ethics at Duke. All this for a guy who teaches men in shorts how to toss balls through a hoop. “He talks about character issues that are soulful,” says Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, whose managing directors–“a pretty cynical group,” he notes– raved about a recent Krzyzewski talk. “It’s about honesty, it’s about love, and often times, in the big world, you don’t see many leaders get up and talk about things like that.” Mack equates Krzyzewski’s leadership skills to those of legends like IBM’s Lou Gerstner and GE’s Jack Welch.

Krzyzewski’s ease in the boardroom wins him praise, but critics claim that it was his silence in the wake of Duke’s lacrosse scandal this past March that spoke volumes. Three lacrosse players have been charged with raping a woman at a raunchy team party, costing the team its season and hurting Duke’s image. Where was Coach K, who serves as special assistant to the university’s president and is the most visible man in Durham, N.C.? Krzyzewski says he worked behind the scenes to help the school handle the crisis. But publicly, he stayed mum and was criticized for it. He says that interjecting himself into the case would have inflamed the anti-Duke, anti-K contingent, especially at the University of North Carolina and other competing schools. “In [the Durham] area, I am like a lightning rod for some things, because there are a lot of Carolina fans or whatever,” he says, a few hours before his first address to the “K Academy,” a four-day adult fantasy camp for all things Duke basketball (cost: $10,000). “I would not want whatever I said to polarize the community because, ‘Well, I don’t like him anyway.'” Krzyzewski broke his silence in June, questioning the findings of a committee that called on Duke to rethink its aggressive recruitment of athletes. He promises to be more vocal this fall.

Besides working to repair Duke’s prestige, he’ll continue trying to restore America’s sporting pride. The first step would be a gold in Japan. To that end, Krzyzewski plans to shuffle different starting lineups during the World Championship, a bit of a risk since pros tend to want to know their roles. And the competition is getting stronger–defending Olympic gold medalist Argentina, starring Manu Ginobili of the Spurs, is back, and France has the Spurs’ Tony Parker and Boris Diaw of the Phoenix Suns.

“When you watched the World Cup for these countries, there was an outpouring of emotion,” says Krzyzewski. “Win or lose, we want an outpouring of emotion.” Coach K’s players appear to have bought in, but if he wants tears of joy from American sports fans, he’ll need to bring back what moves them most: hardware.

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