It’s Senior Night, and for decades, this has been an annual rite of passage: Blue Devils luminaries – Danny Ferry to Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley to Shane Battier – address the crowd, discuss their four-year journey along Tobacco Road, share one last moment and maybe a few tears.
On this chilly Tuesday, Battier is in the second row with Mike Dunleavy Jr., his teammate on Duke’s 2001 national title team, and next to them sits NBA star Dwyane Wade. Former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler is a few sections away, and though they’ve gathered on a night honoring Brennan Besser and Antonio Vrankovic – the Blue Devils’ only seniors had, through most of four seasons, combined to average 5.1 minutes with zero career starts – this essentially is a farewell to Duke’s four superstar freshmen.
No formal plans have been announced, but it’s largely assumed that RJ Barrett, Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson – a group so astonishingly talented that LeBron James, Jay-Z and Barack Obama attended Duke games this season – will be “one and done,” bolting to the NBA after a single college basketball season.
On this night, the four youngsters applaud their older teammates on Coach K Court, whose namesake and the architect of all this once vowed that he’d never do it like … this.
“The world changed,” Mike Krzyzewski said, and not that long ago the Blue Devils coach decided he’d better change, too. It was that or admit defeat, to cede his place among the college game’s elite, and the 72-year-old Krzyzewski, a man who believes he can master any skill, has never been much good at the art of surrender. “We have to keep adapting.”
This is Krzyzewski’s 39th season at Duke, and that’s long enough to see trends come and go, to watch set-in-their-ways mentors and peers lose their footholds – and occasionally their jobs – in a sport that seems to change almost constantly. For the first three decades, Krzyzewski did it one way: Freshmen came to campus expressly to develop into juniors and seniors, and that stair-step development, combined with talent and ferocious man-to-man defense, worked well enough to deliver many of Krzyzewski’s dozen Final Fours and five national championships.
For a long time, Krzyzewski resisted changes in the game. Duke had been built to withstand new rules or trends, it once seemed, but then the NBA’s fast cash and overnight stardom – mixed, of course, with college basketball’s continuing insistence that its players remain amateurs – created an opponent too powerful even for the mighty Blue Devils. So Krzyzewski made a decision, influenced in part by his experience working alongside NBA players as coach of the U.S. national team, and he now says the one-and-done recruiting strategy became like broccoli – something he once hated before developing a taste for it.
“Talent still overcomes a lack of experience in a lot of cases,” said Jim Boeheim, Krzyzewski’s longtime friend and head coach of ACC rival Syracuse, though Boeheim points out the past three NCAA champions – since Duke won with a group of freshmen in 2015 – were packed with upperclassmen. “You have to build a culture from the ground up in one year.”
Some of Krzyzewski’s former players can’t help considering whether tradition has been lost by the coach’s pivot. Fan favorites regularly leave school early; the Duke program is more NBA factory than long-term talent developer; and Tommy Amaker, the overachieving former Blue Devils guard and current Harvard coach, wonders whether Krzyzewski would recruit a player like him now. Hurley, the colorful point guard of Duke’s first two national title teams, thinks about whether he’d get much playing time for today’s Blue Devils.
“I would be a little concerned going in, if I was a freshman,” said Hurley, now the silver-haired head coach at Arizona State. “We’re just in a different era.”
In the current one, with Krzyzewski as influential and polarizing as ever, Senior Night at Duke has nearly no seniors and celebrities hobnob in the bleachers as fans dry their tears. Then four freshmen, none of whom has been on campus for more than a few months, jog around the court’s perimeter and slap hands with students for what feels like the last time.
The right way
Shortly before his first championship, Krzyzewski was maybe the only staffer who thought Duke could win.
The Blue Devils’ opponent in a 1991 national semifinal, UNLV, had won 45 consecutive games – a streak that spanned more than a year and included, 12 months earlier, a 30-point beatdown of Krzyzewski’s team. All but two UNLV victories that season had been by double digits, and if Duke’s assistant coaches were realistic, their boss was hopeful.
“They’re never in close games. We’ll know how to act. They won’t,” Jay Bilas, an assistant on that year’s coaching staff, would recall Krzyzewski saying, and indeed Duke used an intriguing mix of ability and experience – junior Christian Laettner, sophomore Hurley, freshman star Grant Hill – to outlast the Runnin’ Rebels in a thriller.
Two days later, the Blue Devils finished off Kansas in the final, and eventually a banner commemorating the achievement was posted in Cameron Indoor Stadium’s rafters – a reminder that Krzyzewski’s optimism, and his uncommon method, were legitimate. Those players all returned to school, and Duke raised a second championship banner a year later, joining what would become reminders of seven Final Fours in nine seasons, and by then a central tenet had been accepted: The boss was right.
If Krzyzewski showed you the right way to dive after a loose ball, you’d better crash onto the hardwood just that way. If he wanted to demonstrate the proper way to take a charge, some poor soul would be expected to drill his middle-aged coach onto the hardwood as if he played for North Carolina. And if something cut against the coach’s wishes, some travel problem or a haphazardly worded question or an official’s questionable call, well …
“It got harsh,” said Bilas, now an ESPN basketball analyst. “It was like being barked at in the middle of combat, and you just dealt with it.”
So many years later, Krzyzewski shrugs.
“I was a micromanager,” he said. “A lot of that was a culture people were accustomed to: Parents were harder; teachers were given more latitude; there was more – I’m not saying abusive – but physical contact. There were all these things that were totally acceptable by each party.”
The years passed with more success. The things that built successful basketball programs evolved. But Krzyzewski didn’t, and he’d come to believe that’s why he needed major back surgery in 1994. It’s why, when doctors told him to take a month to recover, he was back at practice two weeks later; why, when he kept ignoring medical advice, he would lose feeling in his extremities, need counseling, step away for most of a year.
“I was the hub, and when I was gone, the wheel collapsed,” he said later, and that was one of the things back then that he truly believed because the banners up there – three more Final Fours in six years, that 2001 national title – proved him right.
They proved that basketball, as Krzyzewski believed, was a serious man’s game; that an average man-to-man defense was superior to an exceptional zone; that leaving Duke early not only betrayed the school but compromised the player’s future. When sophomore William Avery and freshman Corey Maggette departed for the 1999 draft, shortly after Elton Brand became the first Duke player to declare early, Krzyzewski supported Brand but publicly suggested Avery and Maggette had made a mistake. He added that his “feelings were hurt.”
“None of those guys are bigger than the program,” the coach said then, hardened by years and victories.
In 2005, when the NBA was considering a rule change that required players to be at least 19 before entering the draft, Krzyzewski was asked about the implications for Duke. In his mind, there were none.
“I would never recruit a kid who said, ‘I’m just coming for a year.’ I never have,” he told reporters then. “…For our school, we can’t do that. A kid says, ‘I’m going to come and use you for a year’ – that’s not what we should do.”
Before the first gathering of Team USA in 2005, the assembled NBA players were curious. Maybe a little skeptical. Their new leader wouldn’t be Gregg Popovich, the highly successful San Antonio Spurs coach who’d spent a lifetime in the pro game, but the no-nonsense college coach from the stuffy credit card commercial?
A year earlier during the Athens Olympics, loaded with NBA players, the team hadn’t just underachieved. It had embarrassed itself: three losses, including an opening blowout to tiny Puerto Rico, and more notable than who had suited up was who had not. Nine players, for various reasons, had left the team between the qualifying round and the Opening Ceremonies.
“We had lost respect,” said Jerry Colangelo, who as USA Basketball’s chairman selected Krzyzewski in part because former North Carolina coach Dean Smith had endorsed his former rival. “We felt kind of entitled and expected to win no matter who you’d trot out on the court.”
So after lobbing profanity grenades as players’ eyes widened, Krzyzewski stopped talking, and he eventually did two things he rarely had and maybe one thing he thought he never would.
To begin with, he listened, inviting Kidd, James, Kobe Bryant and Wade in for individual meetings. What was their ideal work schedule? Which offenses did they like and dislike? How did they suggest defending the pick and roll?
“A collaborative thing where they owned it,” Krzyzewski would say later, and as the months and years passed, he found himself asking the players about their backgrounds and their paths toward the game’s pinnacle.
In coaching meetings, Krzyzewski found himself delegating to the NBA experts on his staff: Mike D’Antoni would oversee the offense, and Tom Thibodeau and Nate McMillan would handle defense.
But Krzyzewski made one adjustment that Carlos Boozer, who’d played at Duke, could barely believe: Led by a coach faithful to family, nation and the man-to-man, Team USA installed a zone defense, and Krzyzewski even brought in his friend Boeheim as a specialist.
“I don’t think I ever did zone, ever, in college at Duke, ever,” said Boozer, a key member of the Blue Devils’ 2001 championship team.
Krzyzewski sometimes would lean in while Boeheim explained his famous 2-3 zone, ask him follow-ups about its nuances, inquire about scenarios and the defense’s finer points. Away from their marathon film sessions, Krzyzewski and Boeheim could see the other seeds that would grow into three consecutive Olympic gold medals: D’Antoni scribbling plays on a whiteboard or Bryant challenging members of his “Breakfast Club” to another 7 a.m. weightlifting session. Fascinated by James and Bryant, two highly competitive and intelligent players who never played college basketball, Krzyzewski would place them on opposite sides of a daily scrimmage.
Often after a session would end, the loser would demand a rematch, then another, then another. Eventually Krzyzewski would step forward and say it was time to stop, sometimes even joking that he needed them to survive long enough to do it again tomorrow.
A little more than a decade ago, Krzyzewski and a Duke assistant settled into a high school classroom in northeast New Jersey. They were there to meet a dynamic young guard named Kyrie Irving. Irving had elite speed and court vision, but no one expected him to play more than one season in college. Krzyzewski knew that. He was still sitting here.
“Maybe he realized that, hey, the times are changing,” said Kevin Boyle, who coached Irving at St. Patrick High and, nearly a decade later, current Duke player Barrett at a Florida private school.
Since 2005, when Krzyzewski claimed he’d never participate in the one-and-done trend, the Blue Devils gradually had tumbled down annual recruiting rankings. Perhaps just as important, about 10 miles from Duke’s campus, North Carolina coach Roy Williams reached four Final Fours and won two national titles in his first seven seasons.
NBA lottery picks were increasingly underclassmen, and rather than attend Duke for multiple years, they spent single seasons at Ohio State and Texas, Memphis and Kentucky. John Calipari coached at those latter two programs, and he had made one-and-done players the centerpiece of his recruiting efforts. Sure, he rebuilt his teams each year, and, yes, his method was in conflict with the long-perpetuated veneer that college basketball is about offering players an education. But Calipari’s teams tended to be relevant on the most important days on the hoops calendar: Selection Sunday and the dates college teams can sign prospects. Meanwhile, supporters of Krzyzewski’s team grew anxious.
“This whole early entry … thing, along with some untimely transfers, has finally caught up to us,” a fan wrote on the Duke Basketball Report forums in October 2007.
“At least (North Carolina) should be running out of scholarships,” another posted in January 2008.
“Disappointing recruiting results have become the common theme for the 21st Century Blue Devils,” wrote fan site Ball Durham in March 2009.
One day in 2008, not long after West Virginia upset Duke in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, Krzyzewski walked into a coaching staff meeting. The Blue Devils, as he saw it, had two choices: They could either recruit the nation’s best players or accept that Duke would be playing against them.
These days, his current and former associates believe Krzyzewski arrived at that conclusion following his Team USA experience provided insight into the NBA player’s mind – not just how to communicate and succeed with a higher tier of athlete but why the league, with its guaranteed contracts, puts players in such a rush.
On that afternoon in New Jersey, Krzyzewski – whose first one-and-done target, John Wall, had instead chosen Kentucky and Calipari – shook hands with Irving and his coach, and they all smiled and talked about the future. So much, for recruiter and prospect, was about to change. Irving would sign with Duke in 2010, going on to start eight games for the Blue Devils during a freshman season curtailed by a toe injury. As expected, he left school and became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft – a college career perhaps less memorable for what it accomplished than the evolution it sparked.
“Only he knows, deep inside, how hard that was,” Boyle said of Krzyzewski. “But the reality of it is, he needed to do it.”
On a recent afternoon, Krzyzewski lowers himself into a leather chair in a lounge inside Cameron Indoor Stadium and begins an inventory of some further change.
He pats his left leg.
“A year and a half,” he said of the age of one artificial knee, before tapping his right knee. “Three.”
The elder of his two artificial hips is old enough to be a Duke sophomore, but they’re both holding up, and the truth is, so is the rest of what holds Krzyzewski and his program together.
“I still have to be perfect in this” job, he said, “because that’s what the world expects.”
Maybe that’s true, but Duke staffers don’t share the burden the way they once did. About a month ago, the team arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport before traveling to Louisville. But the team’s chartered jet had a leak in its hydraulic system, so it couldn’t depart until the next morning. When it came time to alert Krzyzewski, decades of muscle memory suggested the news would cause the famously red-faced coach to reach Defcon K. But, no, he was merely annoyed with the schedule change, and the team returned to campus for relaxation and film study the night before Duke led a thrilling 23-point comeback in the final 10 minutes.
He said Team USA taught him so much: to consider his players’ motivations and wishes, to occasionally reveal his sense of humor, to delegate to his staff. Which is why Krzyzewski leans on his three assistant coaches – whose ages average 38 years – to make sure players fully understand his instructions. Krzyzewski still demonstrates the occasional drill, though his days of taking charges are over, and some of his older players can hardly believe the fearsome man they once played for now prefers positive reinforcement, studies his phone to fuel an obsession with weather patterns, secretly maintains Twitter and Instagram profiles – Krzyzewski’s most senior colleagues claim even they don’t know his handles – to monitor his program and the world in which it operates.
“If you had told me 20 years ago that someday he’d be sending emojis to players, I would’ve laughed,” Bilas said, and in a more unthinkable twist, the Blue Devils occasionally have played zone defense the past few seasons. Boeheim, in fact, said he can see some Syracuse fingerprints on it.
Krzyzewski still works exhausting hours, still demands a certain standard, still has a hand in everything that touches his program. What he does not have is what LeBron and Kobe had in Krzyzewski: someone to tell him to stop, to keep something in the tank for tomorrow.
So one of these mornings, friends and longtime allies say, Krzyzewski simply will wake up and realize the end has arrived. He’ll realize he’s tired of chasing recruits around the country, starting over each year, trying to outfox Calipari and a game that won’t sit still. There is no finish line he’s chasing, the associates insist, no magic number of wins or championships he feels he needs to reach before waving goodbye alongside his players on Senior Night. He’ll just be done, opting finally to spread mulch at his property or play his beloved slot machines on a more full-time basis, and that’ll be that.
But Krzyzewski insists that’s one change he’s not quite ready to make.
“I’m not worn out. I love what I do,” he said. “I don’t know if the fire should’ve gone out already or is the fire just burning?”
He pauses, searching for the right words.
“I like the fire. So even in times when I’m tired, I said …,” he presses his hands together and blows, as if to fuel an ember. “Because I don’t want it to go out.”
Which is why, the day after Senior Night, some members of the office staff slowly caught up on emails and looked toward another showdown against North Carolina, Krzyzewski fired up the Duke jet and went to Minnesota. He had a team to rebuild, and there was a player there he liked, so he spent the evening in the same high school gym as Calipari, playing a little man-to-man defense.
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