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Not Too Cool for School

July 25, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — People like to say you can't coach NBA players the way you coach college players, but watch Mike Krzyzewski try.

Before the first practice of the new-era approach to reclaiming U.S. dominance in international basketball after a string of embarrassing failures, Krzyzewski gave his roster of NBA millionaires a talk that sounded a lot like College Hoops 101.

"Each day before we come here, we talk about how we are going to conduct ourselves," Krzyzewski said. "We talk about what our standards are as far as how we're going to conduct ourselves on the court, off the court, how we react after a foul."

Inside the gym where the U.S. national team that includes LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade has been preparing for the FIBA World Championships in Japan next month, coaches "teach" and players "learn." Shirts are tucked and defense comes first, and so far there have been no reports of rolling eyes.

"No snickers at all, because people want to win, " said Elton Brand, the Clippers' forward who played for Krzyzewski at Duke. "If we were dominant the last five years, maybe there'd be some snickers or whatever. We lost. We need every advantage we can get."

With a stunning sixth-place finish in the 2002 world championships and a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics that included a loss to Puerto Rico, the U.S. is 11-6 in the last two premier international events. Krzyzewski seems to have everyone's attention even though he will be the first U.S. Olympic coach without any NBA experience since the Dream Team's debut in 1992.

Anthony, whose attitude landed him in Coach Larry Brown's doghouse for much of the Athens Games, sounds as if he is on board with "Coach K," as he already is calling him.

"The attitude has changed," Anthony said. "Everybody wanted to be here and is happy to be here. Nobody's moping around.

"Whatever I've got to do to make this team better, if it's scoring, rebounding, passing, whatever I've got to do, I want to do it."

Krzyzewski, asked about the difficulty of coaching millionaires, smiled slyly.

"I'm a millionaire, too," he said. "I'm not as millionaired as some of them."

If all of Krzyzewski's talk about "bonding" and "relationships" and "the journey" sounds as if it might have been a bit much with the Lakers had he taken that $40-million offer to become coach in 2004, well, there's no guarantee he would have played it quite the way he is playing it with the national team.

"Even if you were in the pros, you might coach the Pistons differently than Orlando," Krzyzewski said.

"This is a younger group. This group still has a learning curve in their profession. Dwyane Wade, who's amazing, is not even 25. I love the fact they want to learn."

The only player older than 30 is Bruce Bowen, the San Antonio Spurs' defensive specialist who is 35. Thirteen of the 24 players on the roster are 25 or younger.

Four didn't play in college, and when Krzyzewski, 59, asked Dwight Howard, a two-year veteran of the Orlando Magic, how old he was, he was stunned that Howard, 20, is two years younger than some of the players on last year's Duke team.

The roster is dotted with players Krzyzewski coached and coached against -- Chris Paul, the NBA rookie of the year and the probable point guard for the U.S. in Japan, went to Wake Forest -- and others he recruited. The most prominent of those is Kobe Bryant, who isn't playing this summer after minor knee surgery but has said he is enthusiastic about playing for Krzyzewski after turning down previous Olympic opportunities.

All of this lends Krzyzewski credibility few other college coaches would have. Already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he has won three NCAA titles. And, unlike any of these players, he has been part of an Olympic gold-medal-winning team -- as an assistant coach on the 1992 Dream Team that had Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and averaged 117 points a game, almost 44 more than its opponents.

"I don't think a lot of college coaches could do it, but he's had success and won the right way, and people respect you," said Shane Battier, another former Duke player. "They might not like you, as evidenced by the hatred of Duke out there, but they respect you. And just being around the guys, I think they really respect what Coach has done, his body of work."

Rudy Tomjanovich, the last coach to guide the U.S. team to a gold medal, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, agreed.

"He knows how to win, and he's also a guy who's had great relationships with players, and that always helps," said Tomjanovich, who was in camp as director of scouting for the U.S. team. "I think he's been very well received by the players."

Of course, the problem is bigger than one of respect or toning down the attitude issues that made Brown think about sending Stephon Marbury, among other players, home from the Olympics in 2004. It is also an Xs-and-O's problem.

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