Winning the 2008 Olympic Gold wasn’t as simple as putting USA jerseys on all the top American basketball talent and telling them to play ball. A ridiculous collection of superstars meant a whole lot of ego to control. The man in charge of the delicate balancing act was Mike Krzyzewski, and his skills were tested when two of the greatest players on that team, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, came to an impasse.
Pass the ball!
In Ian O’Connor’s book “Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski,” he detailed one of the early trials of the 2008 Team USA Men’s Basketball squad. In particular, in the Redeem Team’s exhibition game victory over Australia, Kobe jacked up some low-percentage shots, and James wasn’t too keen on this, especially since Coach K’s system espoused a team-first approach.
A Team USA staffer explained that players usually police themselves and are not shy to deal with someone playing selfish basketball. But when you don't have a pecking order established, the coach has to step in. LeBron fired a warning shot across the bow while passing by Coach K on his way to the bench.
Krzyzewski was visibly nervous because “he knew he had to do it.”
I got it
And so Coach K called up Kobe. He popped open his laptop, and they watched some game film. Coach K pointed out Bryant’s “bulls*** shots” and told him there has to be more fluidity in the offense. The message was simple - other players are as good as you offensively.
“Bryant just looked right at him and said, ‘I got it, Coach. I got it. Don’t worry about it. Sorry about that,’” a team source told O’Connor.
As they say, the rest is history. The 2008 USA squad cruised their way to victory after victory. They finally took the gold back to American soil after taking home the silver in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
That seemingly insignificant moment shows the many elements that have to go right to attain glory. Talent was not scarce in that group. There was an overflow of skill, creating some tension early on. Props to LeBron for not letting Kobe get a free pass.
Kobe should also get some credit for not taking things personally. Perhaps his fallout with Shaq taught him something: you must trust your teammates if you want the gold. There’s nothing wrong with passing the ball to a fellow generational talent.