Perhaps the greatest college basketball coach of all time, Mike Krzyzewski, also known as Coach K, has won five NCAA titles and made 12 Final Four appearances as Head Coach of the Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team. But that’s far from where his resume ends. In addition to being a Hall of Fame college coach, Coach K has been the head coach of USA Basketball since 2006 and in that time, he coached the team to back-to-back gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, as well as back-to-back International Basketball Federation World Championships in 2010 and 2014.
On Monday, ESPN reported that the famed coach would be stepping down as USA Basketball coach after the 2016 Olympics. As the United States is undoubtedly the favorite in next year’s Olympic games, everyone is hoping to send off Coach K with a third gold medal, a fitting end to what has been a resurrection of USA Basketball.
In reality, going from bronze to gold is far from a resurrection, but, relative to past performances, Coach K rescued USA Basketball from being a punchline and helped transform international basketball into a serious competition, rather than a personal playground for the United States.
In 1992, with the formation of the storied Dream Team, and again in 1996 with the Dream Team II, USA Basketball was simply unbeatable and demolished its competition en route to two easy gold medals. In 2000, USA Basketball took home the gold again. However, in 2004, with an extremely talented team that included a young LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Jr. and Carmelo Anthony, USA Basketball found themselves dismantled in the semifinals behind an upstart Argentina team led by Manu Ginobili.
Though the United States salvaged some semblance of pride, every USA Basketball fan saw that 2004 team as a disappointment. Every fan outside the United States began to murmur about the evened-out playing field and other countries possibly taking the United States’ position as the number one basketball country in the world. Enter Mike Krzyzewski.
The reason USA Basketball embarrassed itself in 2004 was because it was considered a joke and waste of time to play for the Olympic team. The players put in no effort and there was no team chemistry.
The reason Duke basketball continually finds itself at the top of the polls and regularly makes deep tournament runs is because it is considered an honor and privilege to play under Coach K’s tutelage. The players put in maximum effort, and Coach K preaches nothing but chemistry and cohesion.
As Krzyzewski infused USA Basketball with his vision, he slowly instilled pride in playing for the USA. In his vision, he saw the revitalization starting with the NBA’s superstars; if he could get Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on board with being proud to play for the United States, he could get everyone else on board as well. And that’s exactly what he did.
The 2008 Olympic team featured all three superstars, along with an excellent complementary cast — the cream of the crop from the NBA. But it wasn’t just the talent of the team that allowed Coach K to masterfully lead a group of 12 stars to gold; it was the way they played together. Fans have often questioned why players like Andre Iguodala or Tayshaun Prince were on the national team, but Coach K, along with Head of USA Basketball Jerry Coangelo, select teams based on fit and how certain players can fill certain roles.
The two masterminds studied the way the international game is played (along with its various rule differences from the NBA) and continually formed teams best suited to dominate along those guidelines.
More important, however, is the fact that this rigorously intense process put the rest of the world on notice as well. Though other international teams’ chemistries remained significantly better than the chemistry of the United States in 2008, Coach K’s team began taking itself seriously during international competitions and brought the level of play to new heights. Though Spain and Argentina have always been the two biggest threats to the USA Basketball’s reign as king of the basketball world, teams like Australia, Canada and France are all on the rise while Spain and Argentina remain formidable challengers.
Over the past 10 years, Coach K has worked tirelessly to bring an importance and credibility to USA Basketball that did not exist before, so much so that nearly 40 NBA players get training camp invites and any NBA player who doesn’t make the final 12-man roster works and improves his game in hopes of making it the following year.
There’s no better way to say it: Coach K has made USA Basketball what it is today, and while the end of the Krzyzewski era looms on the horizon, the likelihood of its success is due in large part to what he has done for the players, the program and most importantly, his country.
Paolo Santamaria is a sophomore in Georgetown College. Saxa Synergy appears every Friday.