Monday, August 13, 2012

LeBron James, Mike Krzyzewski get gold, and their due

By Bill Plaschke
Los Angeles Times
August 13, 2012

LONDON — At one end of the hug, his face and shirt soaking in the respect of a champion, was one of basketball's most polarizing coaches.

At the other end of the hug, his eyes the size of gold-medal saucers, was one of basketball's most polarizing players.

Separately, they have accounted for years of boos and criticism, their success wrinkled around the edges by their methods and manners. Separately, they have been hated as much as loved.

Yet together, on this final day of the Olympics, their hug was showered by a single cheer that united not only them, but those who have questioned them.

If you're going to chant "U-S-A!" then you're going to finally have to give it up for Coach K and The King.

Mike Krzyzewski and LeBron James didn't really need this hassle, but six years ago they committed to it, and on Sunday they continued their journey to keep the U.S. on top of the world with a 107-100 victory over Spain for a second consecutive USA Olympic men's basketball gold medal.

After which, appropriately, it was James who doused Krzyzewski with a cooler of water, royalty crowning royalty.

Said Krzyzewski: "Those are good moments."

Said James: "We've been through it all."

Their ensuing hug ended an afternoon that was surprisingly scary, with the U.S. leading by only a point at the end of the third quarter before James landed a soaring dunk, then sank a three-pointer, to put the Americans in control. Chris Paul then finished the Spaniards by drawing an offensive foul and sneaking past Spain's defense for a layup.

It all proved too much for Krzyzewski or James to handle, with both of them gleefully leaping out of their seats. The only jump anybody is going to remember, of course, is the much-replayed one by Krzyzewski.

"I wish I could have seen that," Kobe Bryant said with a grin.

Take a good look, because you won't see Krzyzewski in this environment again. He was coaching his last USA game, finishing his international career with a 62-1 record, two Olympic championships, one world championship, and affection from the strangest places.

"When I joined this team, I tried to figure out how in the world I was going to play for a coach from Duke," said Paul, who attended college at ACC rival Wake Forest. "Today, it's tough for me to say from my lips, but I love that guy."

James, meanwhile, is finishing one of the greatest individual seasons in basketball history, joining Michael Jordan as the only players to win NBA regular-season and Finals MVP awards, an NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. This Olympic team might not have beaten Lithuania earlier in the Games if he had not taken control, and his aggressiveness despite four fouls set the tone Sunday.

"I've seen him grow immensely," Krzyzewski said. "He's the best player, he's the best leader, he's as smart as anyone playing the game right now."

At various times I've criticized them both, as have others. I think Krzyzewski often lets an important message about the power of true student-athletes get lost in Duke's holier-than-thou hubris. I think James allowed an incredible talent to get lost in The Decision, then I questioned his repeated fourth-quarter failures that were exonerated only this year with the Miami Heat NBA championship.

Folks also have thought it was so easy to be them. I know I have.

Regarding Krzyzewski, I even tweeted Friday night about how it must be nice to be able to jump off the bench during an opponent's rally, turn right, and point to James and Kevin Durant on your bench. But it's one thing to be able to call upon them, it's another thing to get them to listen to you. The USA program was a shambles when Krzyzewski was picked to lead it in 2006, having finished sixth in the 2002 world championships, then losing by 19 to Puerto Rico in a 2004 Olympics preliminary game and by eight to Argentina in the semifinals before finishing third.

"He's brilliant, he's funny, he has a great sense of coaching we all enjoyed immensely," said Bryant, who scored 17 points in his final Olympic game.

Regarding James, the pressure on him was embodied in his response last week to a question about potentially losing.

"I am not allowed to lose," he said. "That's just the way it is. I am not allowed to lose."

And so he didn't lose. And so, together with Krzyzewski, it was if they couldn't lose.

At halftime, with the U.S. leading by only one point, the players all wondering what Coach K would say to them, he pretty much said nothing.

"He told us to be who we had been the entire tournament," Bryant said.

Thus in the fourth quarter, James decided to be James, and the country that invented the game decided to own it once again, and those who complain that these highly paid superstars should not be playing here should have been watching them dance around with their flags like children who had just won the YMCA winter league.

Then came the dumping of the water, after which the pristinely composed Coach K appeared to be a drowned rat, while the scowling King James appeared to be a mischievous teen.

We've rarely seen either of them like that before. It was a different look. It was a good look.

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