It’s not often you see LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony be second-best at something and even rarer to see them third-best. Especially when that thing is basketball.
But in 2004, this contingent of all-stars-in-the-making—alongside NBA greats like Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan—should have alley-ooped and 360-dunked itself comfortably to another gold medal in Athens. Instead it stood shocked on the low end of the podium with heads hung low and ambitions unsatisfied. There was no national anthem, no celebrations and no medal-biting. As evidenced by its record thereafter and Netflix’s recent documentary The Redeem Team, however, that was about to change.
Since the legendary 1992 Olympics where the all-time Dream Team, spearheaded by Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, John Stockton and Magic Johnson, among others, scorched earth-ed its way to a gold medal victory by 32 points, many American basketball fans felt that success was a given and that no country could compete with their supposedly superior talent.
Again, though, when James, Wade, Anthony, Duncan and Iverson got third in 2004 after being thoroughly outclassed by Argentina and its stunning fluidity, it became pretty clear that success wasn’t a given after all.
So, where did USA Basketball go after that?
There was only one way it could go. Forward.
Following the appointment of former Phoenix Suns executive Jerry Colangelo to oversee Team USA’s rebrand, the first step was to hire a new coach that could get this group of talented individuals to play as well together as they could on their own.
Colangelo had a plethora of options to choose from in both the professional and college games, but ultimately made his decision based on the advice of North Carolina’s legendary coach and stadium namesake, Dean Smith. According to Colangelo, Smith said “there [was] only one coach who could get the job done, who [had] the respect of all the players. He stands alone, he’s the only one.”
And that man was Mike Krzyzewski.
Despite his undisputed success with Duke since his appointment in 1980, many saw Krzyzewski as a risky hire, largely due to questions about his ability to manage and motivate NBA All-Stars instead of college students. The early months weren’t easy for the then-three-time NCAA Championship-winning coach, and balancing the monumental egos of James, Wade and Anthony, among others, proved a tall order.
“Growing up in the inner city, you hate Duke,” James said of Krzyzewski’s appointment. “You hate Christian Laettner, you hate JJ Redick, you hate Coach K, you hate the damn Blue Devil. There was no excitement when Coach K was appointed at that position with team USA.”
Instead of fighting the ego that made so many of the United States’ players legends of the game, however, Krzyzewski instead tried to stoke it.
“First thing that surprised me about Coach K was that he didn’t give a f--- about my resume, but he always did it with respect,” James said. “I’ve always gotten the best out of myself playing for someone that holds everybody accountable.”
“From day one, [Krzyzewski] established himself as that guy,” Anthony added.
As a West Point graduate and a former Army officer, Krzyzewski sought inspiration from his time in the military to motivate Team USA and teach it the responsibility it had to repay the sacrifices so many had made to preserve the safety and sovereignty of their nation.
In one particular talk, Krzyzewski brought in an army officer and a soldier who had lost both of his eyes in combat. They presented the team the same American flag patches that were emblazoned onto every combat uniform in the U.S. military in Iraq to show the group that their performance on the court wasn’t just about the score, but about representing their nation.
He also brought Doug Collins, who played in the Americans’ controversial last-second loss to the Soviet Union in the final of the 1972 Games, to speak to the team and encourage them to avoid the heartbreak of losing while representing the U.S. Krzyzewski also sat the team down to listen to Marvin Gaye’s famous and soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner—widely considered one of the best—as inspiration to hear the song at the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
For Krzyzewski, his perspective remained grounded in this purpose: He wasn’t just the Olympic coach but the national one, and his team was to be the same.
“Coach K is a motivator,” Anthony said. “And that’s what he did.”
On the court, Krzyzewski also brought Kobe Bryant back into the national fold, seeing a need for leadership in a group that had yet to play cohesively. This proved a master stroke on and off the hardwood, as Bryant played a key role in powering the U.S. through the 2008 Games and inspired the team to follow his schedule and example, including early morning workouts and a burning desire to win above all else.
After a tooth-and-nail victory over a resolute Spain team in the final of the Beijing Games, the entire team took off their gold medals and piled them on Krzyzewski’s neck. A fitting gesture for the coach that helped bring glory and respect back to the American basketball brand, to be sure.
Much like he did with the Blue Devils, Krzyzewski transformed a shaken team and brought it back to its best: its best game, its best attitude, its best results. By the end of 2008, many were considering Krzyzewski’s team the most pleasing on the eye, dynamic and confident group of American players ever. Gold medals in 2012 and 2016 with Krzyzewski at the helm certainly put some stock in that sentiment.
“There’s no better feeling than winning a gold medal,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s your country. It's the world. It’s the Olympics. There’s no greater moment.”
“Our goal was to win the respect of our country and win the respect of the world,” he added.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.