STANBUL – In the end, it was the kind of desperate stunt that comes from a coach holding too little faith in his team, perhaps too little preparation. Behind the cover of some kind of nationalistic stand, Mike Krzyzewski used the platform of the world championships to impugn the integrity of a good coach’s name. In his haste to exploit that old American basketball gash, Krzyzewski created a fresh boogeyman for a post-Cold War game between the United States and Russia. David Blatt, American traitor.
That’s the implication for an American-Israeli coaching the old evil empire’s national team, and that’s a load of garbage. No one takes these national coaching jobs for simply national pride, but also the perks of privilege, access and residual gains. Team USA plays as much for Nike and David Stern’s imperialistic designs as it does the red, white and blue.
Krzyzewski knows that truth, and he went to such a low-brow, low-rent place on the eve of Team USA’s 89-79 victory over Russia that moved the Americans into Saturday’s semifinal against Lithuania.
“We’re friends,” Krzyzewski would say of Blatt as he brusquely marched past a reporter in the hallway outside his news conference. He didn’t want to hear the rest of a question on the subject and kept moving. Krzyzewski stopped for a second, turned around and passed on answering whether he had any regrets or had simply expressed his true belief that a differing perspective on the ’72 Olympic gold-medal game constituted some kind of patriotic treachery.
To get past the dogged, undermanned Russians, Krzyzewski riled up that old Russian hate for his players and the public. It sniffed of desperation, but Duke’s coach isn’t taking the chance of becoming the first national coach in history to fail in winning consecutive world championships. Never mind the myth of sportsmanship in international basketball, Krzyzewski used up and spit out a most disposable Blatt.
Krzyzewski played the patriotism card to his advantage with Team USA, and yet later didn’t want the accountability of its ownership.
“Hey, I said what I thought, and after that I didn’t get a whole lot of chance to say something,” Blatt said. “I don’t know how much gamesmanship I practiced. But it looks like the [USA] coach jumped on it and used it pretty good. His guys were awfully motivated and so was he.”
Sure, Krzyzewski has a soft spot for the ’72 team, and that’s understandable. His assistant coach, Chris Collins, is the son of Doug Collins. Mike Bantom travels with Team USA in his duties with the NBA league office. I happen to disagree with Blatt, and believe an unjust chain of events occurred that cost the U.S. the gold medal. Still, the U.S. coach, Henry Iba, was too far past his prime, and his antiquated, sluggish style never properly used the athleticism and talent of those Americans. They never should’ve been in a 51-50 death grip with the Russians, but that’s how it went with an icon propped up on the sidelines.
They weren’t the first Olympians to get robbed and they wouldn’t be the last. Eventually, reason should’ve taken over and they should’ve gone back and accepted those silver medals. This 38-year blood war with that loss has gone on long enough, and the Americans would’ve set a terrific example had they done what they would’ve told their kids to do: Be gracious, accept the medal and move on.
Yes, the ’72 saga strikes a human chord within the American basketball establishment. In an Olympics where Israeli athletes were murdered, the loss of a basketball tournament remains an ache for the ages. Before the quarterfinals game on Thursday, an inquisitive Chauncey Billups(notes) carried his breakfast over to Bantom and probed him on his memories of that fateful day in Munich.
Before they left the dining room, Billups told Bantom that nothing Team USA would do on Thursday would make that game right for him again, and yet maybe they could let him leave the arena with something of a smile.
Bantom didn’t need a victory over the Russians – not as badly as Krzyzewski did on Thursday. He would get it, but not before sacrificing the good name of Blatt. When it was over, Krzyzewski gushed about Blatt’s genius, but that was easy at the game’s end. He had tagged him as a non-American for coaching those Russians, and labels are hard to shake when they come out of the mouth of a Hall of Fame coach. Yes, we’re friends, Coach K said. Friends, indeed. What a desperate, low-rent stunt.