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Coach K lays down the rules

NO one feels the pressure more than the five Chinese players on the basketball court facing the Blue Devils of Duke University.

The visiting American team are playing a typical "Coach K" style. And you'd better get used to it or swallowed by it.

The Polish man from Chicago is sitting on the bench, his feet firmly planted on the hardwood of a brand new stadium in Kunshan City, in Shanghai's neighboring Jiangsu Province his jaw locked with intensity.

The last one to catch up with his team doing the warm-up before the game in Kunshan, Mike Krzyzewski, nicknamed Coach K, does not talk to his team too much. It seems he does not need to.

"They've already had their inspiration," said Krzyzewski, with a soft smile.

For 31 years, Krzyzewski has been making his name with the Blue Devils and establishing his unique character by committing to one team and refusing to coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA) several times, though some fans may still have problems pronouncing and spelling his name.

It is the first time Coach K has come to China with his college men's basketball team. They're here to play friendly games with the Chinese Olympic Basketball Team, and the US college boys, aged between 18 to 23, beat their opponents once in Kunshan last Wednesday, and again in Shanghai on Thursday.

Although he calls the game a training session, Krzyzewski clearly does not want to lose.

"What? Foul again?" the smile gone, he shouts at the referees and rushes on to the court, his face turning red. He soon turns away as his demands are ignored.

Clicking his fingers toward the bench, the coach soon makes a player substitution.

"I define passion as extreme emotion," said Krzyzewski, who regards himself more a leader than a coach.

"I don't look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball."

This spirit largely led Team USA, with Krzyzewski as the head coach, to a gold medal during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

"I did fall in love with China in 2008," said the coach, adding he had a lot respect for the Chinese team which played against the USA in 2008. "I'm sure our Duke group will do that this summer."

A good friend of Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming, who recently announced he is retiring this year, Krzyzewski said he will miss watching Yao play and leading the Chinese team.

"If China has another Yao, please tell me," said Krzyzewski. "I hope he can play for Duke."

A point guard himself back in high school, Krzyzewski did not attract scholarship offers from the big basketball powers. Instead he ended up playing in the military at West Point under famous coach Bob Knight.

Command and control

Despite never wanting to be a soldier, Krzyzewski learnt to be one and finally became the head coach at West Point from where his "command-and-control" style formed.

"A player should learn discipline as early as possible," said the coach who resigned as captain in 1974 before beginning his coaching career in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). "A good player should allow to be coached."

Krzyzewski joined Duke as coach in 1980 but his early years there did not go well. "During critical periods, a leader is not allowed to feel sorry for himself, to be down, to be angry, or to be weak. Leaders must beat back these emotions," he said.

It is this leadership that has resulted in four national championships in NCAA and a 900-284 record in 36 years of coaching, achieved in the head-on ways which have always made Duke the rival team fans love to hate.

A father of three adult children, all daughters, means that the Duke coach has long been in a world of women. That's why, to some extent, some would say his approach to leadership, despite the unquestioned authority he commands, his style on balance, is more feminine and a unique part of leadership mostly learned from the family.

"A player should always remember that you play for the words printed on the front of the shirt, which is the team name, not the ones on the back, which is your name."

An advocate of the strong basketball culture at college, Krzyzewski also hopes more young Chinese players will "come to the United States and join the college basketball circuit and even the high school one" to have a taste of "seeing all the crowds that go crazy for the games."

"College basketball will gain more exposure," said the coach talking about the ongoing NBA lockout, an odd but fun way to express love for the college game.

To players who may leave after a year or two for the NBA, he says: "If you come here, for however long, you're going to unpack your suitcase. We're going to form a bond and you're going to be part of this family."

When he recruits a player, Krzyzewski tells him: "We're developing a relationship here, and if you're not interested, tell me sooner rather than later." That word - relationship - is one he uses frequently.

For their current tour of China, the coach and the university said they would like to extend the relationship with Kunshan where a branch of Duke will be finished by next year.

"The city's further development is bonded with the level-up of education, culture and sports as well," said Guan Aiguo, the Party secretary of the city. "Hopefully more will be known about Kunshan by the public besides the renowned crab and Kunqu Opera," added Guan.


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