Coach K Is Exactly Where He Wants To Be
Mike Krzyzewski is fresh off his fifth NCAA Championship, more than three decades deep in a historic career, and seemingly in no hurry to do anything but coach.
Photo by Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
To watch sports is to watch time pass, in more ways than one. There's the running clock in the corner of the screen, but there is also another one that ticks on a longer timeline—we watch athletes grow up, grow old, and retire. The games age us, but they also date us.
On Friday night at the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden, the sons of Alonzo Mourning and Reggie Williams, two players I'd seen star in college, played for the Georgetown Hoyas, their fathers' alma mater. Georgetown's coach is John Thompson III, the son of the man who coached Mourning, Williams, and a generation of Georgetown legends; Patrick Ewing Jr. is among Thompson's assistants. Time goes on, as it does.
But not so at Duke. There, Mike Krzyzewski remains, 30 years after taking his first team to a Final Four, more than 1,000 victories into his coaching career, and fresh off yet another national title, his fifth. Look quickly, and little has changed—Krzyzewski in the dark blue suit, his hair jet black, scowling and serious and seemingly everywhere. He's over to an official to question a call, back to his huddle, on one knee and then back up, pointing, motioning, conducting, turning a tight 180 degrees to see who'll go into the game next. Familiar faces from past Duke teams cycle through as his assistants, but Coach K is the one thing in college basketball that has resisted time, even with his 69th birthday looming in February.
There is no debate anymore over whether Krzyzewski is one of the greatest coaches ever. The bigger question is simpler, and more daunting: why? What drives someone who just won his fifth national title, earned his 1000th win—something no Division I coach has ever done—has a close and loving relationship with his family and absolutely nothing to prove in his profession? What would make someone like that want to keep doing this stressful job?
"I call it pursuing moments," he told Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News last month. "What's the next moment?" It's clear that K is not referring to cutting down the nets, or not just to that. Even for someone as successful as Krzyzewski, that pinnacle is visited relatively few times in a lifetime. It is the little moments of growth, of seeing coaching turn talent into performance and physical capability into skill, that stand out—for Krzyzewski and those who have watched him do this job for all these years.
Those moments happened twice on Friday night.
By Duke standards, Krzyzewski's current team is not especially stacked, and notably lacking in depth. He played seven people against a VCU team whose pressure wears down most opponents, and he left Grayson Allen, the sophomore he needs to produce a lion's share of the team's offense, on the bench to start the game. But just the start—Allen ultimately played 37 minutes on Friday night, scored 30 points, grabbed six rebounds, and pushed aside the poor performance he'd given Duke just three nights earlier against Kentucky.
The other part of Krzyzewski's chess move was to place freshman Derryck Thornton into the starting lineup. Thornton, the roster's only true point guard, who graduated early from high school, and as a result didn't even join the team this summer, is bereft of experience, even by the one-and-done standard of today's college stars. Krzyzewski gave him as tough a test as exists in college basketball—point guard against HAVOC, the VCU legacy system instituted by former coach Shaka Smart and run well by his successor, Will Wade.
Thornton scored 19, dished out four assists, and committed only three turnovers in 31 minutes. And midway through the second half, at precisely the moment when deeper teams than Duke have wilted through the years against the Rams, the Blue Devils took control of the game, turning a 52-50 deficit into a 68-58 lead with 6:05 left, and working out a win. An undermanned young team performed with the poise of a veteran team. Krzyzewski treated it like business as usual, if only because it was.
Here's what it looks like when Mike Krzyzewski wins. Nothing to give the slightest celebration that might show up an opponent on the floor. His first move, after making the trek along the sideline to greet his vanquished opponent, is a quick, jutting congratulatory handshake for Derryck Thornton. And then onto an extended handshake and greeting with VCU coach Will Wade, born in November 1982, just as Krzyzewski began his second season in Durham. Then Krzyzewski stopped Mo Alie-Cox, the VCU big man, and told him it was an honor to face his team.
When he entered the press conference, Krzyzewski was positively beaming. He's 68 years old, and had traveled with his team from Durham to Chicago to New York over the previous six days. Nobody had more energy in that room—not reporters who'd merely covered a doubleheader, not even the players on either side of him, each less than a third his age. It was more than palpable—it was impossible to miss. "I'm proud of my team," Coach K beamed, leaning forward. "That was a hard-fought win. I thought we played better than they did in those last 15 minutes. I'd be happy to answer any questions you have."
And then he did it, in a way I've never quite seen a coach do it. Some 13 minutes into his press conference—late on a Friday night, after travel and games in three states over two time zones with more to come ahead of a Sunday afternoon game—Krzyzewski responded to a reporter who asked him what he meant by Allen looking to score, rather than looking to get his shot off, with a detailed response complete with illustrative hand gestures. He wasn't fulfilling the obligations of the medium. He was coaching the reporter on a fine point of the game.
According to Allen—and Thornton echoed this—Krzyzewski's influence is a constant presence within the lessons, in practice and in the game. "You're always learning when you're being coached by him," Allen said of the process. "There's always something new just because he has so much experience as a coach. As players, we're never going to know as much as him on the basketball court, so we're always learning from him. When we think we have experience, he has more experience."
The details and the moments matter—it was no accident that Krzyzewski was in position to shake his point guard's hand the moment the final horn sounded—but the people that populate them matter more. "You're into the kids," Krzyzewski said later. "And that kid had a hell of a game. There's a lot of game pressure on him, and physical pressure. And I thought he was terrific." Krzyzewski detailed at length all the specific things Thornton did well, segued into some additional praise of VCU, then returned to the moment he'd created. "So Derryck playing that well in that type of game: he needs to be congratulated."
Krzyzewski stayed long after his players headed back to the locker room—"Go get hydrated," he instructed them as they left—and then doubled back on his way out of the room, twice, to make sure he greeted some senior members of the media. He was in no hurry to be anywhere else.