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July 7, 2008
Summer heat no sweat for Duke's Krzyzewski
AKRON, Ohio – Here in the busiest and perhaps most pressured summer of his professional life, Mike Krzyzewski sat in the last row of a half-filled bleacher Sunday, scouting some of the best high school players in America.
He was back to duty as Duke's head coach here at a summer talent camp; the sausage making part of college basketball that's far from the bright lights and big moments of winter. In this case, he was eyeing the every move of Andre Dawkins, a junior to be from Virginia who has already committed to being a Blue Devil.
Just days ago he helped put the finishing touches on the U.S. Olympic team roster he'll coach next month in China.
Soon enough, as he watched his long-term college future, his short-term Olympic one came bounding up the bleachers. LeBron James, who's hosting this all-star event here in his hometown, plopped down next to him and said, "Hey, coach."
Krzyzewski is a legendary multi-tasker and as focused and organized as you'd expect a West Point grad to be. This summer, however, will test his talents at an entirely new level.
With three national championships, 10 Final Four appearances and a Hall of Fame enshrinement already on the resume, Krzyzewski, 61, would seemingly have nothing left to prove as a coach.
By taking the Olympic job though, he has put at least part of his legacy on the line in Beijing.
The United States hasn't won a major world competition since the 2000 Olympics in Australia. Krzyzewski was the hand-picked coach to team up with Phoenix Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo to turn those fortunes around.
If he wins, he's a conquering hero. If not, he'll be second guessed, at least on this performance, forever.
For a coach who has thrived in the thrilling cut-throat nature of the NCAA tournament, this is the ultimate one and done.
There will be no next year, no next time and no next wave of young recruits at the next shoe company camp for Coach K. Next month he either succeeds – gold or broke – or he doesn't.
"This is it," he said Sunday. "It does not get any more important that (the Olympics). We've been in a lot of situations but nothing like this."
After all these years and all these games, this is a new challenge for Krzyzewski, a whole new pressure to deal with.
"I think for people who watch it they look at it as pressure," he said. "But this is what these guys (such as LeBron) do. Now they have the biggest stage in the world to do it. Same thing for me.
"Pressure can either excite and make you do better or it can inhibit. I really think this is the kind that can excite us."
After 29 years at Duke and five prior to that at Army, it is easy for a coach to get burned out. Many a legend has seen his professional fortunes fade late in his career, be it from a lack of energy, disconnect with the young player or simply a dulling of the competitive fire.
Often veteran coaches speak of the rejuvenation that a year off – even if it is forced – provides in rekindling that drive.
Krzyzewski has had no such rest and relaxation of late – he's worked two jobs for the past three years as the national team coach. "It's definitely not a year off," he laughed.
It may have had the same effect though, he admits. The new challenge of working with our best basketball talent, building a team, managing adult egos and learning from the players themselves as they come together to attack a single goal has proven invigorating, he said.
It may be the next best thing to the vacation or three he surely could use.
"It's like having a Ph.D (and) getting another one."
For 34 years Krzyzewski has been the boss. He still is with USA Basketball, only in a different way. James and the rest are grown men and the respect and openness he offers those players is certainly different than his college players. The back and forth he and LeBron had Sunday is probably not the same as he'd offer one of his Duke freshmen.
"I've learned from (the players)" he said. "They all have their work ethics because they've had experience whether it is on a certain play, how to defend a pick and roll, how to just prepare.
"They're professionals. They're the best or a number of them are the best. I'm really lucky I've been given this opportunity."
Duke has been knocked out of the NCAA tournament early the last two years and failed to reach the Final Four since 2004 – a drought that wouldn't be worth noting if not for the program's dominant history.
The Blue Devils have been very good the past few years, just not as good as they have before. Krzyzewski insists that isn't because of the double duty of USA Basketball. If anything, he's working as hard as ever.
He doesn't just have five-star recruits in each of the next three recruiting classes – including incoming guard Elliot Williams – the trend appears to be a return to the ultra athletic perimeter play that once drove the Blue Devils.
Krzyzewski was no doubt pleased with what he saw Sunday night from Dawkins, who slashed to the hole seemingly at will.
That was the long-term at one job though. While watching it, he had to speak to LeBron about the immediate future at his other one. Presumably, he hoped all those star players here looked up and noticed the visual – if James wants Coach K's guidance, why shouldn't they?
"Are you kidding me?" K smiled, "(I get to) coach our nation's team. This has just been a great experience for me."
One month until perhaps the most pressure-filled tournament of Mike Krzyzewski's career, one month to the ultimate one and done and he, indeed, looked excited, not inhibited by the challenge.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.