Colangelo points to Dean assist for USA Basketball turnaround
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Colangelo points to Dean assist for USA Basketball turnaround

Colangelo offers 'fly-on-wall' story of when Dean Smith recommended Coach K to lead Olympic team.

Photo: North Carolina and Duke coaches and players honored Dean Smith at center court.

One constant throughout tributes to Dean Smith focused on words of a great man with humble deeds rather than a great coach that won games and titles.

That was true in the initial comments from players, colleagues and media retrospectives following the legendary North Carolina basketball coach’s death on Feb. 7 and through Sunday’s memorial that filled the campus arena named for him, the Dean Smith Student Activities Center.

Jerry Colangelo, Managing Director of USA Basketball, offered his contribution on how doing the right thing defined Smith.

He pointed to an assist from Smith – pun intended for the coach who taught players to acknowledge the teammate who passed the ball after a basket – as he explained how he settled on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to turn around USA Basketball.

Colangelo took over USA Basketball in 2005 following debacles of the U.S. finishing fifth in the 2002 World Championships on U.S. soil in Indianapolis and settling for a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. 

The first thing Colangelo did was call a meeting of the nation’s top basketball minds; he wanted a sounding board on many issues, most importantly naming a head coach. About 35 coaches and players with international basketball experience attended, including Smith, who directed the Americans to the 1976 Montreal Olympic gold medal that followed the 1972 Munich debacle of a silver medal loss to the Soviet Union. The roster of veteran players included Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

“As we discussed coaches, I had a group of college coaches up on the board and some pro coaches,” Colangelo said. “But Dean Smith said, ‘Look, there is only one college coach on that board who can get the job done. And that’s Coach K.’ ”

Colangelo wasn’t surprised Krzyzewski was considered a prime candidate. His wonder was that Smith endorsed his school’s fiercest rival.

“Now that was a special moment,” Colangelo said. “If you were a basketball fly, that’s the wall you wanted to be on that day. With all that discussion, with all the great basketball minds that were there that day, that was special – his biggest rival supporting him. That was a special moment for me.”

Think about Colangelo being touched and offering the awe of a “fly-on-the-wall” experience to the rest of us mortals. His career as a power broker in American business extends far beyond former ownership of Phoenix’s NBA franchise and Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks.

“We all have special moments in life,” Colangelo said.

Krzyzewski, we know by now, was the right choice. His record is 75-1 since he was named head coach of USA Basketball on Oct. 26, 2005. The U.S. has won two Olympic gold medals, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Olympics, and three World Championships in 2007, 2010, 2012. The lone loss was part of the turnaround process, a bronze medal in 2006.

Coach K’s tenure has drawn the full gambit of reactions. When North Carolina added a 2009 NCAA title to 2005's crown, Duke fans questioned if Krzyzewsk was distracted by the national team.

But now that Duke has won a national title in 2010 and Coach K has landed a string of the most highly recruited players, rivals have questioned if he has an advantage. Kentucky coach John Calipari is believed to be among the sources in a "Yahoo" story that cited access to the USA Under-19 team helped land three of the nation’s top freshmen on this year’s Duke team, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow.

“You know, there are a lot of things that go into what you hear from various sources that he has an advantage,” Colangelo said, “but I don’t think it’s true. I think he separates those responsibilities right down the middle.”

The fair-minded man that is Coach K also demonstrated he has a lot of Dean Smith in him.

Following Smith’s death on Feb. 7, North Carolina’s next scheduled games were on the road Feb. 14 at Pitt and Feb. 18 at Duke. The Tar Heels wouldn’t have a chance to honor Smith at home until Feb. 21 against Georgia Tech.

Krzyzewski suggested to North Carolina coach Roy Williams a chance to remember Smith before the Feb. 18 tipoff at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Arm-in-arm at center court bowed Coach K and Williams and Blue Devils and Tar Heels players. Only Dean Smith’s memory could have brought together such a moment seconds before tipoff of a fierce rivalry game.

Krzyzewski and Williams thought it was the right thing to do.

You might run out of words to describe Smith’s 1976 Olympic gold medal, two NCAA titles, 17 ACC regular-season titles, 13 ACC tournament titles and 879 career victories in 36 years, but you won’t run out of stories on how he taught people to do the right thing.


Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

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