In the wake of his final victory with the United States, Mike Krzyzewski’s mind jumped to an unlikely spot. He looked back to his only loss with the national team.
It was in Japan in 2006, a semifinal loss to Greece at the World Championships, Krzyzewski’s first tournament as the U.S. coach. Carmelo Anthony was there, too. And what Anthony said after that loss stuck with Krzyzewski so much that he used it to sum up his time with USA Basketball a decade later.
“He didn’t make any excuses, he took responsibility for the loss, he gave credit to the Greek team,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve built on that. I call it character. At that moment, sometimes in a loss, you find out a deep character in someone and that’s what happened with Carmelo. And then the commitment from LeBron (James), Kobe (Bryant) and all these guys, Chris (Paul), Kevin (Durant), all these guys have great character. It’s just built to now where we have great, great culture.”
The tone was set then. From there, it was a straight line to Sunday’s 96-66 win over Serbia for a third straight Olympic gold, completing the Duke coach’s tenure with the national team on the highest of notes.
For Krzyzewski, this wasn’t about one Olympics or two months or eight games. As much as he talks about being in his players’ moment, this was more than a moment. This was the completion of a 10-year quest to restore U.S. basketball to its proper place atop world basketball, having already delivered Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012. A third gold Sunday validated the entire endeavor, not only for Krzyzewski but Anthony, a member of all three teams and the first three-time gold medalist in Olympic men’s basketball history.
“In 2006, we really started to have a culture,” Anthony said. “To be alongside Coach K, he sacrificed so much of his time, his family, coming from the collegiate level, instilling his trust into NBA players and being the face of USA Basketball. I just want to say thanks for that, and I appreciate that.”
Not only did the United States win gold, it did it in a manner that put an exclamation point on the process. It took until their final game together but these players finally delivered as promised, with dogged defense, a dominant Durant and the kind of togetherness and hustle – going to the floor for at least three first-half loose balls – that used to be how the international teams got an edge on NBA talent.
The last U.S. points of the first half came after a four-pass sequence around the perimeter with at least two extra passes that got the ball back in Durant’s hands for a wide-open 3-pointer to put the United States up 52-29 and leave the Serbians dizzy. Nine days ago, the Serbians did that kind of thing to the U.S. players. Sunday, they beat them at their own game. That will, for Krzyzewski, be as satisfying as anything else.
Because this one was different than the other two. Tougher. Harder. Unlike 2008 and 2012, when the gold-medal games were the toughest, the gold-medal game was one of the easiest of all after a difficult group stage that included a three-point win over these same Serbians. This wasn’t the best Olympic team Krzyzewski coached, but that only reinforced the triumph of the long-term vision.
“It was hard,” said Jim Boeheim, Krzyzewski’s consigliere for all three Olympics. “We had an easier ride in our last two. We never had this many games like this. We’d have one someplace, but this was a lot of games that were very difficult. We never quite could get it together, but the key is to win and get it together when you get to the medal round. That’s what Mike did. He got this team together when it counted.”
Hard to believe when Krzyzewski was simultaneously recruiting Harrison Barnes (unsuccessfully) and Kyrie Irving (successfully) that they would all end up winning gold together less than seven years later. Neither Barnes at North Carolina nor Irving at Duke won a national title or went to a Final Four, but they both have won NBA titles and united with Krzyzewski in Rio to win the international game’s ultimate prize.
With the victory, Krzyzewski’s legacy with the national team is assured and incomparable: a 24-0 record in the Olympics and 88-1 overall, three gold medals and above all else the stabilization of a USA Basketball program that had lost its way.
“Where he has it, and what he’s done, and to still have the drive and the hunger to continue to do great things, it says how special he is,” said Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who was on Krzyzewski’s staff for the first time. “It’s the mark of greatness. If you can do something at such a high level for such a long time, that’s great. You can have a great season, but to do it for many, many years, it says a lot. There’s no one like him.”
Krzyzewski doesn’t get an official medal of his own, but as he hugged Durant in the immediate aftermath, the American flag Durant was holding tangled around them. As Krzyzewski’s time coaching the United States came to an end, in resounding victory, he found himself literally wrapped in the American flag.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock