The old college try: Krzyzewski shows he can connect with NBA players

Friday, September 1, 2006

SAITAMA, Japan -- As practice wound down, Mike Krzyzewski approached LeBron James, who was shooting baskets alone on a side court.

James listened intently as the coach spoke and motioned to a spot in the lane. The two talked for about 10 minutes before Krzyzewski rejoined his staff on another court and James went back to shooting.

Who said NBA stars would never listen to a college coach?

"You know the high-intensity coach that you see on TV," James said later. "You get a chance to see the warm side of him a little bit now on this trip. You get a chance to really know him."

When USA Basketball appointed Krzyzewski coach last October, skeptics wondered whether a college coach, even one as respected as Duke's Hall of Famer, would be able to connect with pampered pros. But those questions have subsided as Krzyzewski has led the U.S. to the semifinals of the world championships.

The Americans, who played Greece in the semifinals early this morning, have advanced farther than they did in the 2002 worlds, when they finished a demoralizing sixth in Indianapolis. While the U.S. hopes to win this tournament, the ultimate goal is to bring home the gold in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. If Krzyzewski does that, his considerable reputation will have grown exponentially.

For Krzyzewski, success with the U.S. team may bring renewed interest from the NBA. But having spurned a reported $40 million offer from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, Krzyzewski said he has no interest in coaching in the pros, even though he's enjoyed dealing with the NBA stars at the worlds.

"This is an incredible, unique experience, and I love that experience," Krzyzewski said after a recent practice. "But I'm not going to be going to the NBA. I love coaching in college. Whenever I get through coaching in college, that'll be it, whenever that is. I'm not saying that it's imminent."

The 59-year-old Krzyzewski, a West Point graduate, accepted this job because he wanted to restore the U.S. to prominence in world basketball. Krzyzewski has won 753 games and three national titles in 26 years at Duke and five at Army. But he hasn't led a team to an Olympic gold medal, although he was an assistant on the gold medal-winning Dream Team in 1992.

U.S. forward Shane Battier played for Krzyzewski at Duke and sees in his coach the same vigor at the worlds.

"He's enjoyed the journey because it is so different from what he's been doing the last 30 years," Battier said. "And he is an individual who really gets off on those sorts of experiences and those challenges."

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