Mike Krzyzewski fancies himself a business guru. And why not? Coach K has built Duke into a hoops dynasty (they've won a ridiculous 78% of their games over 26 seasons) and is a highly sought speaker on the corporate lecture circuit. But now, as the coach of the confederacy of millionaires also known as the U.S. national team, he's the CEO of a daunting turnaround project to restore America's basketball and sporting pride. And despite his outward cool, he was scared stiff when he signed on. "Because it's not Duke now, I'm saying, 'Will they actually listen?'" says Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-shef-skee) in the nasal baritone of a high school chemistry teacher. It's a demeanor that deftly shades one of the fiercest competitors in sports. "If you don't have anxieties, you might as well drop in the old coffin."
There, he'd find recent versions of America's national basketball teams, champion underachievers. In 2002 the U.S. finished an astounding sixth place--behind even New Zealand--at the World Championships, held on home turf in Indianapolis. The '04 Olympic team was so stillborn that even the classy, three-time NBA champ Tim Duncan looked as if he'd have preferred, say, a skin rash rather than march in the opening ceremonies. After a first game drubbing by Puerto Rico, and less-than-professional conduct from several players and then coach Larry Brown, winning bronze in Athens actually seemed like an achievement.
Throw in other recent high-profile U.S. failures in global sports (see box), and the basketball World Championship, which starts Aug. 19 in Japan, takes on added urgency. The Americans desperately need a lift and for Coach K, frightened or not, to lead the way. "This is a new beginning," says Rick Carlisle, coach of the NBA's Indiana Pacers, who believes that Krzyzewski's stature trumps any skepticism pro players might have about a college coach. "We all expect great things."
Led by former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo (the man who hired Krzyzewski) the entire process of picking the U.S. team has been revamped. In the '90s, USA Basketball, the sport's governing body, would cobble together a group of big-name NBA standouts, give them a few days to practice and expect gold at the Worlds and Olympics. Other national teams, whose players often compete together from the time they try on their first size 2s, are now so good that they can't expect to win with such slipshod organization. This time USA Basketball has asked a pool of 24 NBA players to give up three summers to prepare for this year's World's, next year's Olympic qualifiers, if needed, and the 2008 Games in Beijing. This group balances perhaps the three best players on the globe--the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade, the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who's sidelined for Japan by knee surgery-- with non-ball-hogging role players like Bruce Bowen and Shane Battier.