LAS VEGAS -- On the court, Kobe Bryant has been a ferocious defender for Mike Krzyzewski in the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament. Off the court, Krzyzewski is an equally strong defender of Bryant.
The bond between player and coach was formed when Bryant considered coming to Duke rather than jumping directly from high school to the pros. It was strengthened when Krzyzewski considered leaving Duke to coach the Lakers after Phil Jackson's departure in 2004.
And it has been sealed now that they are finally united on the U.S. basketball team.
While Bryant has been heavily criticized for his meltdown after the NBA season, when he went back and forth on his desire to remain a Laker, Krzyzewski is sympathetic.
"I would always want guys who would want to win," Krzyzewski said. "The fact that he's frustrated because they are not winning at the level he would like, I think that's a good problem. I'm sure the Lakers will work things out. The thing about Kobe is that every thing he does is so public. It's the scrutiny placed on an individual who has won three world championships and is considered the best player in the world. That goes with the territory."
Krzyzewski says he has been there for Bryant behind the scenes.
"It's not so much you give advice," said the coach, "because to give advice, you have to have knowledge of the situation. What you want to do is give support, say, 'I'm behind you. Stay steadfast in what you want to do.' "
The two also spoke when it was Krzyzewski's future that was uncertain.
"When I was considering the Laker situation," Krzyzewski said, "he told me he loved the Laker organization and if that's what I wanted to do, he wanted to work with me. No pressure or anything like that. What came across during that time was his love of L.A. and his love of the Laker organization."
Any second thoughts about turning down the Lakers?
"It was a serious consideration," Krzyzewski said, "but I'm the kind of a person, once I make a decision, I don't look back. I've been married 38 years and I don't write to my old girlfriends. It was an honor and I thank them for giving me that opportunity.
"I'm 60 years old. I'm going to do what I do at Duke and I am not going to coach in the pros. Besides coaching college basketball, I love Duke. I just love the university. It was too much to give up."
Krzyzewski said turning pro was too much for Bryant to give up.
"I don't think he was that close to going to college," Krzyzewski said. "I think it was always on his mind to go to the pros. We kind of knew, if he did go to college, he would come to Duke, but we never really counted on it because he was so good and we knew that he would be a very, very high pick.
"We've developed an even closer relationship now. I really like Kobe a lot. He's easy to coach. He buys into everything. He's doing all the unselfish things, playing hard defensively, not really caring about who scores. It's all about winning.
"He'll do whatever he thinks he needs to do to bring about a championship. He's proven it and he wants to prove it again. There are lot of people who prove it once and never want to do it again. He's uncommon. He wants to prove it over and over again. There is nothing bad about Kobe Bryant."
With Carmelo Anthony, the U.S. team's scoring leader, out with a bruised left heel, LeBron James led the way with 26 points Wednesday in a 118-79 victory over Uruguay. James scored all his points in the first half at Thomas & Mack Center, then sat out the second half.
The victory sets up tonight's showdown against Argentina, both teams unbeaten through seven games. Argentina kept its perfect record intact by beating Brazil, 86-79, in overtime on Wednesday.
Krzyzewski said Anthony was kept on the bench as a "precautionary" measure, but he would play tonight. The U.S. is already guaranteed a spot in Saturday's semifinals.