There were really three moments when it sunk in for me that the gold medal game in Rio would be Coach K’s last as National Team head coach.
The first was the night of the semifinals, after we beat Spain. The game was earlier in the day, and myself and the other scouts stayed at the arena to watch Serbia against Australia. We got back to the boat late that night and they were in the room watching tape: Coach, Thibs, Monty and Coach Boeheim.
It ended up being a really late night at the end of a really long day. Toward the end of the night, some of the guys had gone to their rooms and the rest of us were still watching tape and talking basketball. At one point, I snapped a picture because I realized, “This is Coach’s last film session as the U.S. coach.”
The second was the day of the gold medal game against Serbia. We met with the guys to go over last-minute scouting report stuff and then we played what Coach had introduced as the U.S. National Team fight song – Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem. At that point, it kind of hit me that it was a huge moment. Obviously, it was huge for our country, but also for Coach.
The last moment was after we’d won the gold medal. I was able to be down on the floor when they were giving our guys their medals and playing our national anthem. Seeing the emotion and sense of accomplishment that Coach was feeling at that moment was special for me and it really sunk in that he’d coached his last game for the National Team.
The fact that the Olympics was Coach’s last tournament as National Team head coach wasn’t something that he ever talked about. We didn’t talk about it as a staff. In fact, he’d tell us, “I don’t want people thinking about how it’s my last time or Carmelo’s last time. This is this team’s moment. This is our moment as a country.”
I think the ability to be in the moment is something Coach grew up with. I’ve known Coach for a long time, and when you know him, you’re able to understand things a little bit better because you know what he’s made of.
The big thing that he’s talked about is selfless service. He talks about how he really learned what that meant at West Point. When you listen to him more, it becomes clear that he learned it at home.
He learned it from his mom and the selfless service that she gave to her family and people in the community. Any time you hear Coach talk about his mother, you hear the reverence in his voice.
As a lot of people know, Coach’s older brother Bill was a firefighter. Coach was born into that environment of selfless service. His time at West Point helped him take it to another level.
That attitude of selfless service isn’t something Coach has developed and sustained. It’s who he is. He’s a man of principles and values. He’s a man of discipline. At the core, that’s who he is.
In any walk of life, the most effective leaders are those who care about people. People have to know you care about them, not about what they can do for you.
Coach genuinely cares about people. It’s not something you say; it’s something you do. You have to be selfless. You have to get into moments with people. People have to know you care. The best way to do that is to be in someone’s moment.
From the very beginning, this USA team knew Coach was in their moment. It was always about the team and what the team had to do in order to be the last team standing in Rio.
We had 10 players who had never experienced the Olympics. A number of the players had never experienced international basketball. There was excellent leadership from guys like Carmelo and Mr. Colangelo, but the guy with the biggest voice was Coach. You can say the same things about our teams here at Duke. He’s won five national championships and over a thousand games. He’s done things no other coach in history has done, but it’s not about the past. It’s about being in the moment with the guys you have in your program.
That’s why guys love playing for him, whether it’s at Duke or with USA Basketball.
There are players who aren’t fans of Duke or have a perception of Duke. When they get around Coach, they understand that some of the things they thought don’t ring true. He’s funny, he’s selfless, he’s about trying to help guys be better.
Coach has a tremendous knowledge from a lifetime in basketball, and he’s willing to share it. At the same time, he wants to continue to learn. He tries to learn why the guys on the National Team do certain things and what motivates them. Those are things he tries to bring back to our program.
This Olympic journey was amazing. It was very different from the 2014 FIBA World Cup. From listening to some people who have been there through Coach’s entire tenure with the National Team, this one was perhaps the most challenging because there were so many new guys. It also may have been the most rewarding because of how the team grew.
It’s always amazing to watch Coach operate in that setting. To see him with the very best players in the world, to see his relationships with them, to see how much he cares about how he can help guys is incredible.
I know how much coaching the National Team and representing the United States means to Coach. The thing that’s always been fascinating to me is how many people think it’s easy. Handling the expectations of the entire country is anything but easy.
Every day, as a coach, you have to be at your best because those guys are tremendous and they deserve that.
I’ve had a chance to be with Coach when he became the winningest coach in men’s college basketball, when he won his 1,000th game and now when he’s coached his final game for the U.S. National Team and won an unprecedented third gold medal.
Now that we’re back in the States, it’s time to make the shift back into the moment with this year’s Duke team. That’s not a difficult shift to make because of how important it is to Coach, to all of us.
The guys in our program came to Duke to get us, as a coaching staff, at our best. That’s what they deserve.
Fortunately for us, we have a great staff that was here with the players all summer. Jon, Nate and Nolan did an amazing job while we were gone. It helps that those guys played for Coach, especially with Jon and Nolan being here as players when Coach was away with USA Basketball.
We’re excited to be back. We’re excited to be in this moment. It’s time to go to work.