By JIM LITKE, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — They collected their rewards half a world away, in front of a crowd packed with enough big shots to rival the shine of the gold hanging from their necks.
But the road that ended on the top step of a medal platform Sunday afternoon at the London Olympics began in far less glittering locales: a pizza parlor in Chicago, where Mike Krzyzewski first made his commitment to USA Basketball chief Jerry Colangelo, and the loading dock of a stadium in Phoenix, where not too long after Kobe Bryant did the same.
The "K Boys" came in as the pillars of a rebuilding effort following a disastrous performance at the 2004 Olympics. So there was something fitting about the fact that they left on the same afternoon as back-to-back Olympic champions. It was a final scene that notables ranging from NBA commissioner David Stern and IOC boss Jacques Rogge to David Beckham and Arnold Schwarzengger wanted to be on hand to witness for themselves. Yet by the end, there was little doubt who the biggest stars were.
"It's very emotional. Very emotional," Bryant said, searching for the words. "You just kind of think back on the journey, so to speak. Being here for your last go-around, wearing USA on your chest, it's very emotional.
"You understand how fleeting time is," he added, "and you enjoy every single moment of it."
Krzyzewski suggested trying to choose the best moment in that run would be like choosing between his three daughters.
"As a matter of fact, each team that we've had, the '08 (Beijing Olympics), '10 (world championship) and '12 are different," he began. "A shared experience and a championship moment — those are the best that a coach or a player could ever have.
"They are the ultimate," Krzyzewski added, "so it's tough to differentiate among them."
In the bowels of the North Greenwich Arena, Colangelo wasn't about to try. Instead, he recalled how he recruited both men, how he insisted on seeing for himself whether each was prepared for the work necessary to return a proud program back to the top. Both already had full-time commitments, Krzyzewski to Duke University and Bryant to the Lakers. So Colangelo didn't call their agents or schedule a meeting, he just waited until an opening turned up and then pounced.
First, he grabbed Krzyzewski over a deep dish pie and a few glasses of wine when both Chicago natives were back home to see family in 2005; next, he sidled up to Bryant in early 2006 as he stepped off the Lakers' bus before a game against the Suns.
"It was a couple days after he'd scored 81 (points in a game) and I was just pulling his chain a little bit," Colangelo recalled. " So I said, 'I may ask you to distribute rather than shoot.' And he said, 'I'll do whatever it takes.'
"But I'm sure he had a chuckle going at the same time," Colangelo added.
"Eyeball-to-eyeball" is how Colangelo described those meetings. And now, his own eyes getting a little misty, he tried to measure the contribution each had made.
"The last eight years have been incredible. The best eight years of my life and I know a lot of guys feel the same way," he began.
Colangelo insisted Krzyzewski, 65, would be back at his side, in some capacity, but not as the coach.
"He's stated he's done with that, and I accept that it's final. And if not," he added with an impish grin, "we'll have another pizza and glass of wine and see what happens."
Colangelo knew he wasn't likely to talk Bryant into coming back. Just getting him here healthy was tough enough. Bryant turns 34 this month, but he's already played in the NBA for half his life, going straight from high school to the pros.
"Kobe was not at the top of his game when we started this competition. I think the plan was he was playing himself into shape," Colangelo said.
"But we all felt when the time came, he would deliver, and that's exactly what he's done."
Colangelo didn't read off Bryant's line for the last three games because he didn't need to; suffice it to say Bryant submarined Australia in the quarterfinals with four 3-point baskets in a 66-second span, then scored 11 in the first quarter to set the tone against Argentina and finally, 17 against Spain.
"Kobe," Colangelo said, "was Kobe when he needed to be."
Yet neither he nor Coach K — the two "old-school" guys — will be there in 2016. LeBron James, who stepped forward in a leadership role even as Bryant stepped back, wasn't sure whether he'd be in Rio de Janeiro four years from now, either. But he agreed that if this was the last Olympic go-round for him, too, it couldn't have gone much better.
"We've had a great ride. We had ups and downs, but the best thing about it is we had more ups than we had downs," he said. "And I'm happy to be on the floor with such a great and legendary coach.'
Kevin Durant, on the other hand, is almost certain to return. And he knows exactly what he'll miss most: Krzyzewski's even — make that mostly even — temperament.
"We come back to the bench, we might have a bad stretch giving up seven or eight points in a row. He keeps us calm. That's what we need from our coach. He's just the coolest guy in the world."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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