Coach K Gets Down to Business

  • Share
  • Read Later
Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced "Sha-shef-skee"), who over the last three decades has won a sick 78% of his games and three national championships, fancies himself a business guru. Why not? Coach K — his more familiar, and spellable, moniker — is a highly sought speaker on the corporate lecture circuit. So before his first day of practice as the new coach of the U.S. national team, this CEO in charge of a daunting turnaround project to restore America's basketball and sporting pride felt a pang that belies his outward cool, but is familiar to even the best execs. He was scared stiff. Because it's not Duke now, I'm saying, "Will they actually listen?" explains Krzyzewski in the nasal baritone of high school chemistry teacher. It's a demeanor that deftly shades one of the fiercest competitors in all sports. "If you don't have anxieties, you might as well drop in the old coffin."

It's there that he might find recent editions of U.S. basketball, champion underachievers. In 2002 the U.S. finished an astounding sixth place — mighty New Zealand finished ahead of us — at the World Championships, held on home turf in Indianapolis. The' 04 Olympic team team was uninspired from the start at times; even the classy Tim Duncan, three-time N.B.A. champ, looked like he would have preferred, say, a skin rash than to march in the opening ceremonies. The U.S., an ill mix of green young players and testy vets like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, never recovered from a 19-point drubbing by Puerto Rico in the first game, and scraped away with a bronze in Athens. American hoop dominance was done.

Throw in this year's high-profile failures in other global sports — the U.S. hockey team's freeze-up in Torino, baseball's loss to Canada (Canada!), in the World Baseball Classic, and the soccer team's struggles at the World Cup (did we mention Tour de France "champ" Floyd Landis and track star Justin Gatlin, both accused of doping?) — and the basketball World Championship, which starts Aug. 19th in Japan, takes on added urgency.

We desperately need a lift, and for Coach K, frightened or not, to lead the way. "Mike is one of those guys who, as a person and as a coach, transcends some definition of some level of the game, "says Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle." This is a new beginning, and we all expect great things."

The U.S. has revamped its method for selecting a national team. Since the early 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. The rest of the world, whose players often compete together since they've worn size 2s, is now too advanced for such slipshod organization.

USA Basketball has asked a pool of 24 NBA players to give up three summers to prepare for this year's Worlds, next year's Olympic qualifiers, if needed, and the 2008 Games in Beijing. This group includes, arguably, the three best players on the globe: Miami's Dwyane Wade, Cleveland's LeBron James, and L.A.'s Kobe Bryant (though knee surgery will keep Bryant on the sidelines for Japan), plus respected role players, like defensive stoppers Bruce Bowen and Shane Battier.

The pressing question: can a college coach, who typically imposes tight control over pliant 18-year-olds, meld the egos of millionaired NBA megastars? After all, several top college coaches have fired airballs in the pros, guys like Lon Kruger of Illinois, fired by the Atlanta Hawks, and Miami's Leonard Hamilton, a washout with the Washington Wizards. Krzyzewski's favorite wink-wink reply: "I'm a millionaire too."

The early results are sterling — the team has bought into Krzyzewski's selfless, defense-first philosophy, evidenced by blowouts of China and Puerto Rico and a gritty 90-86 win over Brazil in exhibition games. The plucky ex-Army point guard from Chicago has mixed in motivational ploys — a speech by a soldier blinded in Iraq moved many players to tears — but won't overdo the rah-rah stuff. "We haven't gone on a canoe trip," quips K when asked how he has united the team. "We'll bond on the court."

And he has adjusted to the looser NBA environment. "At Duke, we wouldn't allow guys to wear a hat in a meeting,"he says. "But we're dealing with an 18-year-old — there's a discipline factor. If these guys wear a hat in a meeting, that's fine. Don't get bogged down with stupid things like that."

The players appreciate the freedom. "There are no restraints on this team," notes Wade, another Athens vet who said then-U.S. coach Larry Brown discouraged him from scoring. "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. "I'd have our [NBA] team pay him a couple of grand to talk to us," says Brad Miller, a Team USA big man who plays for the Sacramento Kings. "The way he can connect with everybody, it's unbelievable."

Brad, you'll have to up your ante. Krzyzewski commands up to $100,000 per speech; his name even graces an academic arm, the Fuqua/Coach K Center of Leadership & Ethics at Duke. All this for a guy who manages tall people in shorts? "He talks about character issues that are soulful," says Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, whose managing directors — "a pretty cynical group," Mack notes — raved about a recent Krzyzewski speech. "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.

Excessive? Probably. And while Krzyzewski's boardroom ease wins him business praise, it makes many fellow college coaches, and the loud legion of Duke basketball haters (check out the "Anti-Duke Manifesto" on the Web. Bring a sandwich; it's nearly 6,500 words long), quite uncomfortable. During the 2005 NCAA tournament and into this year, American Express featured Krzyzewski in an ad campaign: "I look at myself as a leader who just happens to coach basketball," he says, standing in Duke's revered Cameron Indoor Stadium. Critics complained that the extra exposure is a recruiting advantage. "It's inconsequential," Krzyzewski says. "We've had more national players of the year here over the last 20 years than any other school. Before commercials."

The quotable coach also came under fire for his silence after the Duke lacrosse scandal broke in March. Three student lacrosse players have been charged with raping a woman at a raunchy team party, costing the team its season, and the university a hit to its prestigious image. Where was Coach K, in title a special assistant to the president, the most visible man in town?

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 believed that interjecting himself into the case would inflame the anti-Duke, anti-K contingent, especially at the University of North Carolina and other Atlantic Coast Conference schools. "In [the Durham] area, I am like a lighting rod for some things, because there are a lot of Carolina fans or whatever," he says in a conference room outside his Duke office, 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.

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.

But before helping repair Duke's prestige, he'll have to restore America's sporting pride. The first step is 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. "You can't allow anybody to lose his ego," he says. "That would be us beating us." The world keeps getting stronger; defending Olympic gold medalist Argentina, starring Manu Ginobili of the Spurs, is back, and France, with the Spurs' Tony Parker and Boris Diaw of the Phoenix Suns, will be among the tough outs.

"When you watched the [soccer] World Cup for these countries, there is an outpouring of emotion," says Krzyzewski. "Win or lose, we want an outpouring of emotion." Forget about the dancing in the streets, Coach K, we're not that demonstrative a people. We expect to win gold in basketball, our game. Krzyzewski doesn't have to start a celebration. He just needs to bring the hardware back home.