Thirty-eight years ago, I was a witness at creation. My freshman year at Duke University coincided with Mike Krzyzewski’s arrival as coach of the men’s basketball team.
This year, amid chatter of another championship, a make-up for last year’s team that failed to live up to similarly high expectations, I would like to offer the longer view of a basketball legacy – while celebrating my son’s birthday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
One lesson is to not ask how many more games Coach K will be around. We should participate in each game as if it were the last.
Young and old, players and fans, everyone around Duke obviously feels a share in the five national championships. Yet, even for focused fans, the victories are sweetest for those who suffered the most.
Those who started the journey in 1980 went through doubts and distress probably incomprehensible to today’s students: a loss to Louisville by 38 in 1982; a loss to Virginia by 43 in 1983. Then came the NCAA tournament, stunned in 1986 when what was supposed to be the first championship floated away to Louisville, emptied in 1988 when Duke lost to Kansas in the Final Four.
There was guilt, for some, associated with rooting from the distance of a television screen. So, adding to the pain, I attended games in 1989, when Duke lost to Seton Hall in the Final Four, and in 1990, when Duke was gobbled by UNLV in the championship game.
In the face of the early losses, Coach K showed character. The next morning in 1989, when asked about the game, Coach K pivoted to his military service. When things go wrong on real battlefields, soldiers end up wounded or dead; the consequences in basketball are not that severe. Out of the minor setbacks came the joy of – miraculously – beating UNLV in 1991. As the team and its fans celebrated, Coach K, stern and focused, gestured with palms down for everyone to calm down. Work was left to be done, including redemption in the championship game against Kansas.
Coach K has taught us to chase something other than money. We should thus honor his decision in 2004 not to go to the Los Angeles Lakers. Even though the university couldn’t pay him as much as the pro team, he stayed because he said his “heart” was with Duke and Durham. He exhibited loyalty.
Coach K has extended his love to country. What else would one expect from a West Point graduate? Under his leadership, the United States recaptured Olympic gold. More inspiring, before the Olympics, he took NBA players through Arlington National Cemetery, silently reminding them of what it truly means to wear the letters “USA” on the uniforms.
(At this point, don’t suspect that I’m part of Coach K’s marketing department. My son carries “Cameron” as a middle name, a testament to the Duke tradition – but mainly a concession to a mother who would not countenance spelling out the letters after “K” on the birth certificate. In physical terms, the closest I have been to Coach K is about five feet during the senior-day game in 2013. I knew better than to say anything to him as he walked to the bench for player introductions.)
Along with the intensity, Coach K has modeled kindness and decency. The documentaries tell us about the brotherhood he developed while Jim Valvano went through cancer treatment at Duke Hospital. After practice, Coach K used to walk across campus, sometimes late at night, to spend precious time with a friend. Coach K was also there at the ESPY awards during Valvano’s famous speech about never giving up. Less is said, though, of Coach K’s visit to a retired and debilitated Dean Smith. On a North Carolina beach, Coach K put aside any differences over what color blue was most true, held the hand of his rival coach, and said he loved him.
Tenderly, the torch is passed from coach to coach, generation to generation. After the 2015 championship, Coach K described his grandson’s reaction to the game: “Pappy, we did it.” It was very close to what my son said when victory was sealed. From 1980 to present, the one thing we have all learned is that there is nothing better than shared accomplishments.
Enjoy the game. The fun comes from not knowing the outcome.
John teaches at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota.