BDL Interview: Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski

Trey Kerby

You can hate Duke University as much as you want — and most people want to hate that team a lot — but never doubt that Mike Krzyzewski is a great basketball coach. Four NCAA titles, a gold medal with Team USA in 2008 and every coaching award you can imagine prove that. And as I found out Wednesday morning, he's very candid about how Team USA was built, what he's learned from the international game and how he gets ready for big tournaments. That's pretty cool.

Trey Kerby: Coaching internationally is obviously a lot different than coaching in college, but another big adjustment that you have to make is coaching pros. What is the biggest difference when you're coaching pros internationally, compared to when you're coaching at Duke?

Mike Krzyzewski: Well, the biggest difference is the experience factor. These guys are already professionals, and they have what I call "established egos" as players. They're not bad. I'm just saying they know who they are, and because this is what they do all the time they absorb things quicker. They're not going to school. They're not becoming 19.

TK: They just play basketball.

MK: They just play basketball, so they can absorb more and they know what it is — the commitment — already, for what they have to do. So in that respect they're easier to coach.

TK: How do you prepare differently in college and when you're over in Turkey playing a ton of games in just a few weeks?

MK: The biggest difference is that we're not a team yet. You know, when I'm preparing my Duke team, we have a lot more time that by the time we play in the NCAA tournament, we've had a lot of time. Here, we've just had our fifth practice. At our first one, somebody asked me last week when I was at an event, they said, "how long has your team been put together?" I said, "four days." So that's not a lot of time. Where as, some of the other countries have this continuity with guys playing together all the time. That's the biggest obstacle we face, is the continuity that another country might have with their unit.

TK: When you say that NBA players have established egos and that's not a bad thing, with you coming in and not being as familiar with the way they play until you get 'em in the gym, does that allow to experiment with those players?

MK: You do, and in some respects that's good for them. It takes them out of the role they have on their own team, and they can learn more. But you also don't want them to completely adapt to you, you want to adapt to them, also. So what we try to do is adapt to one another. Like if we know there are certain things that a guy likes to do or a way they play, we'll try to incorporate that into how we're playing. The game is instinctive, and if we take their instincts away then we're not doing a good job of coaching.

TK: Since you're coaching internationally and say that you're adapting to the players, does learning to adapt to those players teach you anything that you can use at the college level?

MK: Yeah, it does. I've learned with every experience I've had coaching USA basketball. From the coaches, first of all. You know, I'm coaching with really good guys — Jim Boeheim, Mike D'Antoni, Nate McMillan, Jay Triano — they're very good. So you share ideas and you watch the work habits of the players, but you also in game preparation try to solicit views from them on how to defend certain things and their viewpoints. You grow in the game constantly. There's not one way of doing this game.

TK: One of the things that's a big difference playing internationally is the trapezoidal lane. Is that one reason that the team has less traditional big guys? Is that because that lane opens things up and you need guys that can be on the perimeter?

MK: It does have a bearing on the game. You know, we would still rather have more big guys, and we should have. It's just a matter of how many guys want to play, and we're willing to make the commitment to play. But this should be the last time they'll use the lane. Once this competition is over, then they'll go to the rectangular lane, more like the NBA.

TK: Is taking the time to coach Team USA a nice break from doing college year-round?

MK: I don't know if I'd call it a nice break, but I would call it a very unique opportunity. And although you give up quite a bit of time, you do learn a lot. And it's a tremendous honor to coach our country's team. No question about that.

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Thanks to Coach K for explaining how he views coaching Team USA, and thanks to Shelly Peng and Niketown for hooking this up.