Coach K abhors arrogance
LAS VEGAS -- When you've been a reporter as long as I have, you always look for the moment when someone you're covering just blurts out the truth.
You never know when it's coming, but you recognize it when it's happening. Often, it's facilitated by someone catching the subject off guard, and he in turns drops his guard and tells it like it really is.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski had his "blurt it out" moment Thursday night after the United States defeated Argentina's "B team" 91-76. For the Americans, it is their final meaningless game of the Tournament of the Americas. The semifinal round, with a spot in the Olympics at stake, is Saturday, with the U.S. facing Puerto Rico (Argentina faces Brazil in the other semifinal).
Things got off to a bad start in the interview room when the Argentinean media and the Argentine coach were making a little too much noise in the back of the room as Coach K and Tayshaun Prince went to the podium to do their duties. It was a bit of an etiquette breach by the Argentines, who quickly corrected themselves and did their off-camera stuff on the correct side of the door.
But I watched Coach K and Tayshaun stare them down a little, and it made things a little uncomfortable as the postgame press conference finally got under way.
For a while, Coach K was his usual diplomatic self, but then he got irritated late in the Q-and-A when a reporter asked him about last year's loss to Greece. He had already answered that question once earlier in the press conference, and the reporter apologized and explained that he had arrived late.
Krzyzewski, to his credit, accepted the explanation and then reiterated his earlier answer. But his guard was down, and this time he spoke from the heart and blurted it out -- his whole gut feeling about where the level of expectations should be for Team USA, where the level of public knowledge is on that subject and how he truly feels deep down inside his American bones. (Trust me when I tell you that this is a guy who was humbled beyond belief by last summer's loss in Japan, and a guy who bends over backward at every step to represent his country the right way.)
Here's the key quote:
"The other teams are good. You can't be so arrogant to think that you're going to play perfect. These teams are good, and we know that. They're going to make you look bad at times, hopefully you make them look bad at times, and hopefully you do that to them more than they do that to you, and you win," Krzyzewski said.
The other teams are good. You can't be so arrogant to think that you're going to play perfect. These teams are good, and we know that.
--Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski
"Arrogance" is a word I've heard Coach K throw around a quite a bit lately, so I can tell it's on his mind.
He does not want to be arrogant, he does not want to come off as arrogant and he does not want Americans to be perceived as arrogant while he continues to be the face of the national team.
But arrogance is the thing he's fighting each and every day, and he's trying his best to get people to realize something: Yes, Team USA is great. But on any given day, his team is beatable. That's the way the world is these days, the way it has been for nearly a decade now, and he recognizes it.
He's humble, but he's coaching a team for whom humility is a foreign topic. The players want to be brash, bold and brazen, but they can't do that at the expense of playing the right way. He has to get that point through to them, and he is.
But dealing with the public, and the public's perceptions, is a much trickier equation. And every now and then, when the expectations are not in line with the reality of the situation, he blurts out the bottom-line truth: Look, these other teams are good, really good, and perfection ain't happening.
Perfection is so 1992. This is 2007, and the reality is this: The Americans are on a mission, but there's a chance they might lose along the way.
If it happens in the gold-medal game, it'll be a failure. But if it happens in a preliminary-round game, or here at the tournament of the Americas, or next summer in a warm-up game in Macao, it won't matter. It might just be a part of the process, and it'll be only one game.
What matters more is the last game in Beijing, or more specifically the last three games, when the format switches to single-elimination and the stakes are at their highest.
It would be arrogant to think the Americans will have a cakewalk when that time finally arrives. It's going to be difficult, and Coach K knows it. That's just the cold, hard truth, and Krzyzewski went and blurted it out right there in the bowels of the Thomas and Mack Center in the final hours of an otherwise nondescript late Thursday night.
So when you're watching these guys over the weekend, and next summer, heed Coach K's advice and swallow any arrogance you're feeling. Losing is always a possibility -- not a probability, but a possibility. To think otherwise is foolish, not to mention arrogant.
And Coach K abhors arrogance, a point that came though crystal clear on a night when a distraction here and another there made him drop his guard, bare his soul and speak the truth.
He is not seeking perfection. He is seeking a gold medal. And he knows it'll need to be earned.
To think otherwise would be foolish, and there's no place for foolishness in a country where the gold-medal drought is seven years running now. Maybe it'll end after eight years. Maybe it'll go to 10 or 12. We'll see.
But don't expect the gold to be a given. Coach K doesn't, nor should you.
There are no more Dream Teams. There are teams with dreams, and the U.S. is merely one of them. If they play the best, they'll be the best. And if they win the gold medal in Beijing, they'll have earned it. But do not approach the future thinking the gold is a lock. That would be arrogant, and there's no place for arrogance in this day and age.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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