The wine-and-pizza evening when Jerry Colangelo talked Mike Krzyzewski into returning for a third Summer Olympics is nearly as much a part of USA Basketball lore as the Dream Team. Having won two gold medals, Krzyzewski was finished, headed back to Duke and Duke alone, only for Colangelo to convince him to give it a third go.
Whatever happens in Rio de Janeiro, there will not be a fourth. There isn’t enough wine or pizza for that. There’s also an anointed successor to Krzyzewski, ready to take over and guide the team toward 2020 after the Olympics - and even before them.
At the team’s training camp in Las Vegas earlier this month, wherever Krzyzewski went, Greg Popovich wasn’t far behind. That was entirely deliberate. The conveyance of leadership from the most honored active college coach to the most honored active NBA coach is a planned, orderly transition from one era to the next.
“There’s the passing of the baton, the torch, the Olympic torch, so to speak,” Krzyzewski said.
Just as Krzyzewski and Colangelo, the managing director of USA Basketball, laid out a long-term plan when Krzyzewski took the Olympic job in 2006, the transition of leadership has been carefully considered. Krzyzewski’s goal when taking over was to establish continuity within USA Basketball, to indoctrinate young players, to establish a culture, to build a player pool that could withstand injuries and last-second withdrawals, to remove the lurching from Olympics to Olympics that had set in after the initial euphoria of the Dream Team, with disastrous results.
“When we first started in 2006, USA Basketball was fragmented,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins, a former assistant to Krzyzewski both at Duke and with Team USA. “It wasn’t a program. We had the talent but there was no continuity, in terms of the coaches or in terms of the players that were playing, and we had struggled because of it.”
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It’s easy now, in the wake of the recent U.S. success, to underestimate the scale of the task. There was no questioning American basketball talent, but there was no team spirit - something international opponents, riding a wave of worldwide basketball growth, had in excess.
There were legitimate concerns about whether NBA players could put aside their partisan differences out of patriotism, especially in non-Olympic years, not to mention whether a college coach, no matter how successful, could reach professional players.
“I was there when the USA was not respected from a basketball standpoint and everyone was saying that the rest of the world had caught up to us,” said Carmelo Anthony, a member of all three of Krzyzewski’s Olympic teams. “We had to come out and regain that throne and redeem ourselves. In 2004, not just for me personally but as a country, we were down that year. It was a very embarrassing moment for us.”
With the exception of a single loss to Greece in the 2006 world championships, the program, 79-1 under Krzyzewski, has been a tremendous success. The United States won the FIBA World Cup in 2010 and 2014, as much an accomplishment as the gold medals in 2008 and 2012 because it proved that NBA players would be willing to make the same commitment to USA Basketball in non-Olympic years.
That process began immediately when Krzyzewski took over, and it was the willingness of stars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd to buy into the long-term goal, even if not from the very first moment, that built the foundation of success that has led straight into these Rio Games.
“They wanted to be there,” Krzyzewski said. “They put their DNA on this. Their fingerprints are all over this. That’s what we have to keep moving so whoever comes in new does it that way.”
The job is not finished yet. First, there’s Rio, where this team faces as much pressure as either of its predecessors under Krzyzewski to secure gold, to prove the strength of the continuity that has been established. Nor will it be finished even with gold in Rio. The real test, like any political system, will be an orderly transfer of leadership.
That’s why Colangelo deliberately selected Popovich, the polymath coach of the San Antonio Spurs, long before this Olympic team came together. Popovich won’t be in Brazil, but he has been closely involved with the Olympic preparations, by design.
“Here we are getting ready for Rio,” Colangelo said, “and I would have been inundated with ‘Who’s going to be the next guy?’ Well, that was already taken care of. That was the whole purpose in doing that. So I think it’s going to be a seamless transition.”
From the players’ perspective, it was an easy choice. If they needed some time to get used to Krzyzewski, and vice versa, Popovich’s reputation within the NBA was thoroughly established: “To go from Coach K to Pop, it ain’t getting any better than that,” Anthony said.
From Popovich’s perspective, once selected, his priority was not to waste any time.
“Having done this now, I’m able to be here and learn from Coach K and Jerry Colangelo how things are done,” Popovich said. “Obviously he’s done a great job for about a decade now, so it would be ignorant on my part not to glean everything I can from them. To do that after the fact, next September, October, would be wasting time. This is like getting a leg up, getting a head start to understand how the program works.”
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As for Krzyzewski’s future, with USA Basketball and Duke, there are some uncertainties and some definites. Colangelo wants Krzyzewski to remain involved on an executive level, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see Krzyzewski, 69, assuming the management role currently filled by Colangelo, 76, in the near future.
Whether that’s before or after Krzyzewski retires at Duke is anyone’s guess. He will entertain no speculation about how much longer he’ll be there, nor does his enthusiasm appear to be flagging despite his Olympic commitments.
If anything, Krzyzewski says, surgeries this offseason to replace his left knee, fix a hernia and repair damage to his left ankle will leave him in better physical shape this fall than the past few seasons, which twice saw him miss some or all of Atlantic Coast Conference games for health reasons.
“I’ll go into next season not having any of this,” Krzyzewski said, gesturing at his lower body, “which is a big thing.”
While his international involvement was once seen as a drain on Krzyzewski’s resources and a recruiting negative, that started to flip with the national title in 2010 and has been completely overturned since with a relentless wave of top-five recruiting classes that have generated eight first-round draft picks, starting with Kyrie Irving, Krzyzewski’s point guard in Rio, and including the 2014 incoming class that won a national championship the next March.
“Funny how a lot of narratives have changed and now it’s an advantage for us,” said Jeff Capel, Krzyzewski’s primary recruiter at Duke and lead scout with Team USA. “It’s only an advantage when you have success.”
Krzyzewski was wooed back to the fold once more, and he is headed to Brazil to complete his mission. There will not be a fourth time. His successor is in place. His appetite for wine and pizza can be sated elsewhere. His international coaching career will end soon. A high-powered team of returning veterans and talented freshmen awaits at Duke.
After 10 years, his freelancing is over. It’s back to his full-time job.
“USA Basketball is a nice fix for him,” Duke assistant coach Nate James said. “We all know Duke is his baby.”
No matter what happens in Rio, gold medal or not, Krzyzewski’s tenure is complete.
“It’s time to move on,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s time for someone else to do it.”
Luke DeCock is a sports columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer.