Say what you will about the brilliance of Missy Franklin or Michael Phelps or Gabby Douglas, but the best single performance by a member of a United States team at the London Olympics was turned in by Mike Krzyzewski.
Franklin and Phelps and Douglas accomplished the improbable in their respective sports. Krzyzewski did the impossible, molding the 12 biggest egos in the ego-driven NBA into a basketball team that played like a slap-happy group of collegians.
In guiding the United States to a gold medal, Krzyzewski proved once again what we already knew. He is the greatest coach in the history of the game, possessed with an innate ability to teach a group of men that team accomplishments trump individual triumphs.
Basketball fans around the world saw all they needed to from the United States team during a preliminary round game. At one point, center Kevin Love went to the floor with an injured knee and every member of the bench rushed to his aid. On another play, Chris Paul dived to the floor for a loose ball out of bounds. Again, his teammates were there to pick him up and push him back on the floor.
After Carmelo Anthony scored a United States Olympic-record 37 points against Nigeria, he shrugged off the mark in an on-court TV interview by saying what was most important was how the Americans played as a “team.” This from the New York Knick who is considered among the most selfish players in the NBA.
Anthony and his teammates bought into playing the Krzyzewski way, which means a complete giving up of one’s self for the benefit of the team. That way has worked for Krzyzewski at Duke for decades where he accumulated more wins than any men’s coach in NCAA history while collecting four national championships.
Selling those principles to a group of college players is one thing. Peddling it to a collection of jaded, highly paid professionals is another. Yet it is exactly what the United States needed.
From 1936 until 1984, the United States was nearly perfect in Olympic basketball competition. It won gold every time, save for a controversial loss to the Soviet Union in the 1972 gold-medal game and a boycott kept it from the 1980 Games.
Then came a bronze-medal finish in 1988 that proved the United States could no longer compete against professional-laden clubs from around the world while using only amateur (college) players. So, the United States went to NBA players and formed the Dream Team in 1992.
The United States romped in ’92 and ’96, then struggled to the gold medal in 2000. The world again caught up to the United States in basketball in 2004. A dysfunctional U.S. team of NBA players could manage only a bronze medal.
U.S. officials recognized some significant occurrences in Olympic competition. First, more and more NBA players began competing for other countries. Second, other countries began developing their teams over a four-year period.
The 1992 Dream Team included more than half of the 17 NBA players — or former NBA players — on the rosters of the Barcelona Olympics field. This year, there were 39 NBA players and 18 former NBA players of the 144 players on Olympic rosters, including 11 current players on the United States roster.
It was no surprise that Spain gave the United States fits in the gold-medal game before losing 107-100. Five players on the Spain roster make a living in the NBA.
Spain, like many of the United States’ opponents in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, played like a cohesive unit. Spain shared the ball, played team defense and found the hot hand.
The United States matched Spain’s unity because that is what Krzyzewski demanded, just as he did in 2008.
Given the support of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Krzyzewski has spent the past eight years shaping his teams. This year, the United States team spent five weeks together from the start of practice through the gold-medal game.
Sure, the United States fielded the world’s best players. But in any competition, the best players do not always win. In this caseKrzyzewski taught his stars how to play with the drive and enthusiasm of college kids.
Shortly after defeating Spain, the Americans hugged one another and jumped up and down to celebrate as if they had just won an NCAA championship.
Krzyzewski had worked his magic with a performance as impressive as any in London.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)