WEST POINT, N.Y. —On the first day of classes at the United States Military Academy, he was clearly the big man on campus.
In much of the basketball world, he’s Coach K.
Around here, he’s Mike Krzyzewski, Army class of 1969.
Krzyzewski returned to his alma mater on Monday with the U.S. national team, which toured the campus, ate lunch with cadets in the mess hall and held an open practice for military personnel and families.
The basketball was limited on a day Krzyzewski spent more time addressing the crowd than his players during practice. But even with the Basketball World Cup opener just 12 days away, he thought the trip benefited his team no matter how much work the players did.
“To spend a day here is better than any offensive or defensive drill you could have,” Krzyzewski said. “It bonds the team together and that’s what today was about.”
The team traveled about 90 minutes by bus Monday morning from New York to the upstate campus where Krzyzewski played under Bob Knight and later returned to coach the Black Knights. He gets back here at least once a year for a ceremony where an award named in his honor is given, but it’s hard to imagine he’s ever more popular on campus than he was Monday, when he received a loud ovation in the mess hall and was cheered louder than any of the 16 NBA players on the roster before practice.
“To come and see, one, how much people love him here — his picture on the wall, they have an award named after him — I don’t know if this is the exact gym he played in, but just to kind of live his life for a day was pretty awesome,” All-Star guard Stephen Curry said.
USA Basketball has prioritized its relationship with the military and the Hoops for Troops program under managing director Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski, visiting Arlington National Cemetery and hosting an open practice at a Washington armory with the 2012 Olympic team.
This time, players watched cadets perform an indoor obstacle test and train in the combat pool survival swim lab, then visited a wall honoring Krzyzewski and the award that’s given for “teaching character through sport.”
“Don’t make jokes,” he said as players pulled out their phones and snapped photos of the wall, which featured a nearly half-century old picture of Krzyzewski from his academy days.
The Americans also visited the West Point Cemetery and posed for a team picture on the steps of the mess hall, creating a bit of commotion as some cadets stopped to take pictures before being ordered to get back in formation.
Fans attending the practice didn’t get to see Derrick Rose play, as the Chicago Bulls point guard was given a planned day off as he works his way back into shape after missing nearly two full seasons with knee injuries. But the biggest star probably would’ve been Krzyzewski anyway.
He spoke frequently to the crowd, introducing a couple of former teammates and one of his former players who were in the stands. At one point, he even led a “USA! USA!” chant.
It was clear how much Krzyzewski, who said he always wears his West Point ring, enjoyed being back at what he called the “best leadership school in the world.”
“You walk around this place and you just feel, you feel good about being an American, and you feel a little bit more proud of being a USA basketball player or coach,” he said, “and that’s what we wanted our guys to get today.”
It seems they did.
“For sure, it was a special, special day,” Curry said. “I won’t ever forget my first time to West Point. This was definitely worth the trip.”