The end had come, and it was victorious. When Mike Krzyzewski coached his last game with the United States, winning gold in London in 2012, he showed uncharacteristic exuberance on knees we now know were on their last legs.
Two new knees and four years later, he’s back at the same spot, in Brazil this time, convinced to return for one last go at gold. There will be no change of heart this time around. Gregg Popovich will take over, win or lose.
When the United States plays Serbia for gold today, this is, unavoidably, K’s last shot.
“I don’t go into it thinking about ‘Is the last? or ‘Is this the second?’ ’’ Krzyzewski said. “I was just really excited about winning that gold medal in London. We won a great game. This Olympics, I feel the same.”
Very little has been the same this time around, other than the results. He’s had to push this team harder, teach more, be more flexible, adjust to unfamiliar players as much as they’ve had to adjust to him. If 2008 was about restoring confidence, and 2012 was about restoring dominance, 2016 is about establishing continuity, proving the United States can survive the kind of roster turnover other countries don’t have. That’s only one win away.
The next challenge will be proving the United States can also survive coaching turnover, but that isn’t Krzyzewski’s problem anymore. He did what he could over 10 years to establish a foundation that would last beyond him: “The future will take care of itself if we do the necessary steps right now,” he said before the Olympics. Popovich was at the training camp in Las Vegas in July. Monday morning, the keys belong to him.
Even as Krzyzewski exits the USA Basketball coaching seat, he will no doubt remain on the scene. At some point, he is expected to assume some or all of USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo’s duties as managing director of the national team, whether that’s while he’s still at Duke or after he retires, whenever that may be.
And there’s always Duke, where the Blue Devils will be the likely preseason No. 1, adding a recruiting class loaded with potential future Team USA players to a core that already includes Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson. Classes start a week from Monday. Krzyzewski will be busy again, quickly, and Duke will, for the first time in a decade, have his undivided attention.
“USA Basketball is a nice fix for him,” Duke assistant coach Nate James said earlier this summer. “We all know Duke is his baby.”
That was true in 2012 as well, when he returned to a team loaded with talent — Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon — and got within a game of the Final Four. Two months later, Colangelo talked him into coming back for 2016, a conversation that will not be repeated.
After winning gold in London, Krzyzewski returned to a welcome at the airport akin to a conquering general returning home from the wars. Victory was once again his, and for the last time. Or so he thought. Or so we thought.
This time there is no doubt.
After three Olympics, one more than expected, the end has come. As he said about the absent LeBron James, he has served. His duty is nearly complete. His final celebrations awaits.
“We’ll see if we win,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m sure I’ll jump around a little bit.”
He may have chances to celebrate a championship with Duke again, maybe even this spring. He won’t have another at the Olympics. After two gold medals, a third is within reach.
A third and, for real this time, final.
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