Luke DeCock

Jeff Capel back on bench as Duke mourns his father

Duke assistant head coach Jeff Capel stands during a moment of silence for his father who passed away this week. Duke defeated Southern University 78-61 Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.
Duke assistant head coach Jeff Capel stands during a moment of silence for his father who passed away this week. Duke defeated Southern University 78-61 Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Chuck Liddy

Jeff Capel the elder wasn’t part of Duke’s coaching staff. He was just a presence, a part of the family, a basketball coach comfortable among other coaches. He was the father of a former player, the father of an assistant coach, a North Carolina basketball icon who was at home around any team, especially his son’s.

So while Capel’s connections to Duke were mostly unofficial, the reaction at Duke to his death on Monday from complications related to ALS – he was diagnosed with the disease in 2016 – was entirely official Friday night. Duke staff and students wore blue and white ribbons, there was a moment of silence before the anthem and Jeff Capel III was back on Duke’s bench after missing Tuesday’s win over Michigan State in Chicago in the wake of his father’s death at 64.

“We’re just trying to make sure we do whatever we can to help Jeff and his family deal with the grief from losing a great man,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I think it was tough for him not to be at the game in Chicago.”

Krzyzewski said Capel rejoined the team on Thursday and jumped right into a scouting report on Southern: “We were reviewing it, and boom: He said No. 12 does this, and he had it all down. I think that helps.”

Capel disclosed last January that his father was suffering from ALS, in the middle of a season in which he filled in for Krzyzewski after the Duke coach had back surgery. Capel Jr. coached at Old Dominion, N.C. A&T and Fayetteville State, worked as an NBA assistant coach and was the patriarch of a basketball family that included one son (Jeff III) who played at Duke and another (Jason) who played at North Carolina.

Duke’s staff and players will attend Sunday’s funeral in Fayetteville, and with Capel taking time away from the team to be with his family, it has been a difficult week for everyone.

“The toughest part is that we miss coach Capel,” Grayson Allen said. “He’s a huge part of our team. We consider him family in a lot of ways. He’s a coach, but also like a big brother, because he’s been through the program, he’s been in our shoes, he’s relatable to a lot of us. So we obviously feel for him and feel for his family and we feel close to his family. It was very tough news.”

So Duke honored Capel’s memory Friday before the 78-61 win over Southern, and the Blue Devils will pay their respects as a team Sunday. And then, with Furman visiting Monday and a trip west for the PK80 after that, it’ll be back to basketball for everyone.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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