Commentary

Coach K didn't have to take this gig, which is why he should be lauded for it

Updated: August 25, 2008, 2:57 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- They introduce the United States basketball team before each game, and every time it's the same.

Roars for Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Enthusiastic cheers for the rest of the roster. Silence for coach Mike Krzyzewski.

It's a long way from the collegiate love bubble of Cameron Indoor Stadium to NBA-crazy China. The idolatry Krzyzewski is accustomed to at Duke is lost in translation here. A billion Chinese really don't give a damn who coaches this collection of superstars.

[+] EnlargeCoach K
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesMike Krzyzewski has led Team USA to an unbeaten record, and a trip to the gold-medal game, in Beijing.

But that silence is exactly the role reversal he signed up for when he answered Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo's call to coach America back to its rightful place atop the world. Coach K's mission was to go from college basketball emperor to Olympic facilitator. From the guy with every answer to the guy with everything to lose.

They've called this the Redeem Team, but Krzyzewski needed no redemption. His basketball legacy is secure: three national titles, Hall of Fame membership, status as the most accomplished and authoritative active coach in college basketball. He's in the thick of the debate over who is the all-time greatest college coach not named John Wooden.

Despite all that, the 60-year-old voluntarily stepped out of his considerable comfort zone and put his rep on the line alongside the 12 guys wearing the uniforms.

"He has a lot invested in this," point guard Chris Paul said Friday after the Americans gained vengeance on Argentina, the country that knocked the U.S. out of the gold-medal round in 2004 and changed the way it approaches Olympic basketball. "Just as this defines [the players], it also defines him. Even though he's won a lot as a college coach, he needs to win."

If the U.S. does win the gold medal Sunday against Spain, the credit will go to the players, who have done everything right these Games. They'll deserve it. They've played with passion, togetherness, respect for the ability of their opponents and appreciation for what the Olympics are all about.

Krzyzewski? He'll receive some ancillary praise for his caretaker's role.

But if the U.S. loses, repudiation will rain down on the college guy who somehow found a way to screw up a royal flush of professional talent. These days, the loser always gets killed for being outcoached -- and if the loser has LeBron and Kobe, he definitely won't be the guy with lesser talent.

So that's why it took guts for Colangelo to make the call to K, and guts for K to answer it. He wasn't exactly stepping into a no-win situation; it is a no-credit situation.

He took the job anyway.

"He was up for the challenge," Colangelo said. "He wasn't worried about legacy, that's not who he is. He was trying to right the ship.

"He was my pick because I thought he was the right guy for what we were trying to accomplish. He bleeds red, white and blue, and he was as passionate as I was about what needed to be done. He's done a terrific job."

Putting a college coach in charge of a dozen pros playing against international competition was a leap of faith. It required a belief that the multimillionaires wouldn't tune out a guy accustomed to communicating with and motivating teenagers. It required a belief that Krzyzewski could tailor his message to a different athletic audience and still get through.

And it required a relinquishing of some control. K has always let his Duke teams play without micromanaging every possession, but he's also had his fingerprints on every aspect of the program off the court -- no matter how small.

At the Olympics, as in the NBA, there is no such thing as total coaching control. You must relax your grip, trust your players, go with the unusual international flow.

So far, so very good. The U.S. has won its seven games by an average margin of 30.3 points, and there are no signs of unhappy campers on the American roster. Hell, the All-Star subs are on their feet and cheering as much as the walk-on Dookies Krzyzewski coaches during the winter.

Larry Brown's alienation of a few key players in 2004 certainly hasn't been reprised here. Krzyzewski and his staff have their guys sharing the minutes (eight guys averaging between 16 and 24 per game) and the basketball (only Bryant is averaging more than 10.4 field goal attempts per game). The guy who has taken the fewest shots (Jason Kidd, six) also happens to be a starter and the team captain.

Power forward Carlos Boozer played for Krzyzewski at Duke and is playing for him now. He said that what K does well with collegians is still what he's doing well with Olympians.

"He's more similar than different," Boozer said. "He's extremely passionate, still teaches a great deal."

And now he's 40 minutes away from joining his former mentor, Bob Knight, as the owner of three NCAA titles and one gold medal. Only a monumental collapse could stop the completion of this redemption mission.

When America does beat Spain on Sunday, there once again doesn't figure to be any appreciable applause for Mike Krzyzewski in Beijing. But he'll deserve it, for taking a greater risk and accepting a lesser reward.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.