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Cadets look on as members of the United States men's national basketball team practice on Aug. 18 at Christl Arena at the U.S. Military Academy. (Mike Groll / AP)
United States' men's national basketball team's Andre Drummond, of the Detroit Pistons, takes a shot Aug. 18 during basketball practice at Christl Arena at the U.S. Military Academy. (Mike Groll / AP)
WEST POINT, N.Y. — In front of ESPN cameras and super-sized shoe-company logos Monday at West Point’s Christl Arena, the U.S. men’s basketball team put on a show for a near-capacity crowd — impromptu dunk contests, 3-point shootouts with Army hoops players, autographed cadet covers, and so on.
Earlier in the day, in another gymnasium with no paying customers, the team of NBA stars saw a show of their own — one the squad’s leader hopes will stick with them as they prepare for the FIBA Basketball World Cup later this month in Spain.
As the elite players gathered in the center of Hayes Gymnasium (established 1910), a pair of cadets demonstrated the indoor obstacle course test (established 1944) — a test of strength, agility and guile that stays with cadets long after they leave school.
“You’re standing in a living piece of history,” Col. Greg Daniels, head of the U.S. Military Academy’s physical education department — a position better known as “Master of the Sword” — told the players, who watched cadets Josh Bassette and Madaline Kenyon torch the course, handling the climb, beam, rope, tire jump, medicine-ball carry and other obstacles with ease. Bassette’s 2-minute, 6-second pass dropped the most jaws.
When the cadets finished, Daniels turned to the man with possibly the largest smile in the gym and said, “Coach, you want to add this to the repertoire?”
Former Capt. Mike Krzyzewski, West Point Class of 1969, was direct: “No, no.”
More than homecoming
Krzyzewski, a three-year letter-winner at Army who returned to West Point as head coach for five seasons (1975-1980) before taking the same job at Duke, brought his national team to his alma matter for the day to do more than put on a two-hour televised showcase.
“You can’t talk about this place, see a movie about this place — you have to feel this place,” Krzyzewski said after the workout. “You go to a place like this, you get it.”
They began with a visit to West Point Cemetery, meeting family members of fallen soldiers in a private setting. Then came the trip to Hayes, part of the Arvin Cadet Physical Development Center. While at Arvin, they joked in front of a series of plaques honoring Krzyzewski and the award the school gives out yearly in his honor to those who “teach character through sport.”
The display included plenty of photos of Krzyzewski in his 1970s glory days; some players tried to imitate the coach’s shooting technique, while the coach himself showed up at the gathering late, offered a quick word of advice to Cleveland Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving (“Kyrie, don’t make jokes”) and shuffled through the crowded hallway for about 30 seconds before saying “OK, let’s get out of here.”
Krzyzewski “embodies everything we’re trying to do in this program,” Daniels told reporters.
After a stop at the Combat Water Survival Swim Lab — part wave pool, part rave, part car crash, all battlefield simulator — the team headed to lunch at Washington Hall, where they met up with cadets in the middle of their first day of class and with Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the superintendent, who greeted Krzyzewski on the steps outside.
But before Krzyzewski and the team arrived, Caslen, West Point Class of 1975, had a question for a staffer who’d been on the tour: “Anybody take them up on the IOCT?”
First Captain Austin Welch summed up the mood of the cadets toward the visit at lunch before the team even made it into Washington Hall.
“This is huge,” said the senior cadet, a Chicago native who got some face time with Bulls star Derrick Rose. “People are stressed out [as classes begin], but this is awesome.”
Reaction in the hall was mixed, with some cadets eagerly wading through the crowd of USA Basketball officials and media to get their meals and others waiving down stars for selfies and autographs. Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, who led Team USA with 20 points in an exhibition win over Brazil before the West Point visit, was one of the more popular targets.
After a quick stop at Trophy Point and an abbreviated history lesson from Welch — Krzyzewski asked the only questions — the teams took the bus to Christl Arena. There, after short talks by the coach, Caslen and ESPN’s Jay Bilas, the workout began.
A large but less-than-capacity crowd, including cadets at both ends of the court, watched as:
■ The team’s layup line turned into a dunk contest, with Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets hitting a through-the-legs jam, Brooklyn Nets center Mason Plumlee drawing cheers for a 360 slam, and many other players missing on wild alley-oop attempts.
■ Irving began taking on all comers in makeshift one-on-one schoolyard sessions during breaks in the official workout, including any teammates he could find, youth basketball campers who came up to his waist and the occasional Army women’s basketball team member.
■ Speaking of the Black Knights, two-time Patriot League MVP Kelsey Minato challenged Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry to a 3-point shooting contest, appearing to lose 15-12 before Krzyzewski ruled Curry had stepped over the line five times. Afterward, Minato called the experience “surreal” and said she found out about her on-court role just a few weeks before Monday’s event — “I would’ve been fine with just watching it. It was really amazing.”
■ Cadets and other fans clamored for autographs, with at least one Army hoops player asking for a signature during a drill and rushing the souvenir to a friend in the stands for safekeeping.
■ A scrimmage that featured six-minute quarters, TV timeouts and not a whole lot of defense. As Krzyzewski put it during a speech to the crowd, “They’e not going to go and kill themselves, all right?”
After the event, Caslen gave a coin to Krzyzewski at midcourt. The coach gave the superintendent a hug.
“A day like today is one of our most important days,” Krzyzewski said. “If [your team goes] to the best leadership school in the world, something’s gotta rub off.”