LAS VEGAS — Mike Krzyzewski has five national championships and 970 victories — the most in NCAA history.
But he says that if it weren’t for Kobe Bryant, he wouldn’t be able to add two Olympic gold medals (and possibly a third next month) to his resume.
“In London, he was also an integral part of what we were doing and a key guy,” Krzyzewski said at USA Basketball training camp on Tuesday. “But if we lose in Beijing, you’re not interviewing me right now. So I recognize that.”
That run at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 holds particular meaning for Krzyzewski, who recalled how the legendary Laker saved his team in the gold medal game against Spain.
In the fourth quarter, Bryant turned a one-possession game into a 118-107 victory by orchestrating one of the many clutch performances in his career. He scored 13 points with two assists in the final period, leading the “Redeem Team” to gold after the 2004 team came home from Athens with only bronze to show.
“With less than nine minutes to go, we’re up by two against Spain — there’s a lot of pressure on him,” Krzyzewski said. “He comes out and he was the Mamba.”
Krzyzewski implies that he might not have stayed on as the national team’s head coach if Bryant and Dwyane Wade hadn’t pushed the Americans to victory in China. After all, gold is the only medal that matters to the country that is not only the birthplace of basketball, but has won five of the last six Olympic titles dating back to the Dream Team in 1992.
Now, while preparing for his final Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Krzyzewski is able to look back on what Bryant brought to the program during his five years in red, white and blue.
Krzyzewski places Bryant on a list of current superstars who play the game with extraordinary intelligence that separates them from their competition. This common thread, he says, runs through the likes of Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving.
But Bryant’s influence didn’t stop now that Team USA is preparing for its first Olympics without him since that collapse back in 2004.
Krzyzewski credits his fellow two-time gold medalist with helping establish the group of stars that have continued to represent the country at the Olympics and FIBA World Cup.
“He was the alpha dog during ’08,” Krzyzewski said. “And we had a lot of other aspiring alpha dogs: LeBron, Carmelo and those guys. So how do you get that era and this era together? They did.
“And then in London, you start adding (Kevin Durant) and (Russell) Westbrook. Now you have three eras of alpha dogs, and they got it together. But Kobe set an example for that. He’s smart. Really smart and good. I love him.”