Coach K leads Duke back to the Final Four for one more college basketball ritual

ByTim Keown ESPN logo
Sunday, March 27, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO --He swears he can't remember records or scores, but he can't forget an ending. The devastating ones, the jubilant ones and every one that falls somewhere in between. This one, though -- the final one -- has been an ending from the beginning.

It has taken on the feel of ritual. Every game begins the same way, withDuke's players taking the court, followed by the assistant coaches and, finally, Mike Krzyzewski. He walks out of the locker room with a slight limp these days, looking like a man who has left something behind but no longer has time to find it. He is a 75-year-old king at the end of a royal procession, a half-minute or so behind assistant Jon Scheyer, the young heir.

Krzyzewski has made this walk 1,569 times as a head coach, an astounding 1,437 of them in 42 years as Duke's head coach. For the past two weeks, he has walked out of every locker room knowing it might be for the last time. Every game, every practice has carried the potential to be wildly significant or just another day, and by defeatingArkansason Saturday night, Krzyzewski's long goodbye earned itself another week. Either Saturday or next Monday in New Orleans, where the Blue Devils will play in the Final Four for the 13th and final time in Krzyzewski's career, a practice will be the last and a walk will be the final one. Saturday or Monday, and the difference between those 48 hours is immeasurable.

He swears he doesn't want it to be about him, but there's no hope of that. The next week in college basketball, like much of the past nine months in college basketball, will be about him. His players ensured that with their78-69 win over the Razorbacks in the West Regional final, and when the questioning turned to the inevitable -- the players setting out to win one for Coach K -- he interrupted with a tone that could pierce skin.

"We've already been two champions," Krzyzewski said. "They've fulfilled everything. Let's talk about them. They've won a regular-season championship and now a regional. They did that. They did it for us. Enough about doing it for the old man here. We're not going to do it unless we all own it. We all own this moment together."

This came just a day after a reporter suggested that he had never seen Coach K display the looseness he'd exhibited over the first two weeks of this tournament. "I'm not a loose guy, but ... " he said, and everyone laughed at the mere suggestion that he possesses the capacity to prolong even the most generous definition of loose for longer than a self-deprecating quip. From the outside, this is the way it's always seemed: the joy far outweighed by the angst.

He is the oldest of the old school and the purveyor of a brand of goods that has gradually dwindled in popularity over the decades. Regimented, demanding, at times severe. Much will leave with him when he goes -- some of it worth keeping, some of it not. He has grudgingly succumbed to the changes in the game, taking full advantage of an evolving system while grumbling all the way.

Even his celebrations are muted. When Trevor Keels hit a last-second 3 to give Duke a 12-point halftime lead over Arkansas, Krzyzewski allowed himself two vigorous hand claps as he walked across the court. This exuberance -- he looked like a man smacking dust from his palms -- is about as much of a celebration that's permitted within the strict diet of stoicism.

He will be remembered for the wins record that currently sits at 1,202, and for five -- maybe six -- national titles, but the enduring image will be a man standing on the sideline, his face a rictus of anguish as he cups his hands around his mouth and screams for his team to relax.

Duke's run through this tournament has been an extended exercise in connecting the past to the present. In the final minutes againstTexas Tech, Krzyzewski led the call for his team to slap the floor on defense as a callback to the days of Quin Snyder and the sainted Wojo. It drew a huge ovation from the folks who are into that kind of thing. Calling all ghosts, it seems, and you could say it worked. Or, at the very least, you could say there is no evidence it didn't.

AT 2:42 P.M. on Wednesday, the day before Duke defeated the Red Raiders to advance to the Elite Eight, several Duke student managers scurried onto the court at Chase Center to set up the gear necessary for what could have been Coach K's final practice as Duke's head coach.

He didn't know it at the time, but after 42 years, 12 -- now 13 -- Final Fours and five national championships, after decades of All-Americans and first-round NBA draft picks and a near-infinite number of hours in the gym, this weekend would provide him with five or six more opportunities to assess the geometry of the game and the strengths of his players and attempt to devise a plan to take them one step closer to where they all want to be.

Practice folder in hand, whistle on a loop around his neck, he walked onto the court at precisely 2:45, because practice begins at precisely 2:45. He walked with a slight limp, his face -- at ease just minutes before in a news conference -- tightening the moment his feet hit hardwood. The jaw set, the mouth pinched. The brow dropped to darken his eyes, creating the impression of a man looking for something important.

This is what they all miss the most: the control. This is the time only the privileged see, and only he manages, the invisible moments that dictate what will eventually be brought into the light. This is when it's the game, and only the game.

His players ran through a staccato shooting drill, shots going in from the corners and wings, and Krzyzewski stood under the basket, watching the scene play out for what might be the millionth time. The players hollered and laughed and celebrated each other's abilities, while Krzyzewski stood unmoving, his expression unchanged, and occasionally cut the levity with instruction. "Shot ready," he barked when someone took too long to gather. "Shot ready."

The former Army officer's practice is crisp and organized, all sharp angles and functional movement, as it has been since he first hung a whistle around his neck at West Point when he was 28. Coaches can control only so much of it, which is why so many of them micromanage all of the controllables, knowing that once the game starts it can become impossible to rein it in.

Control what you can control is usually a partial surrender, a way of explaining how you achieve peace with what exists beyond your realm. Sometimes, though, it means inventing things to control to counteract the times when control is impossible. Micromanaging the controllables is a way of counteracting what happens when the game starts and nothing can be reined in, which might begin to explain why he keeps two sets of rosary beads in his pockets during games.

THREE PLAYERS, PaoloBanchero, Wendell Moore Jr.and Mark Williams, spoke for the Duke team at the podium on Wednesday afternoon. The conversation, of course, eventually wound its way around to Coach K's retirement: what it means to him, to them, to the world at large, and what amount of motivation it provides.

They were allowed to answer this time. (Coach K wasn't there.) They looked at each other blankly, with the heavy-lidded look of teenagers asked to speak in class. Two looked at one and one looked at two, their eyes begging each other to take the topic they've been done with for a long time but know isn't going away. Finally, it fell to Banchero, who said all the right things, including, "All season we've been dealing with it. It's been Coach's last something every game." But then he added something that's been lost in the coronation and conversation: They wanted to win it for themselves too.

"I mean, that's not all we're motivated by, obviously," he said. "We come out and we know it could be our last game as a group."

Krzyzewski's fortune -- and his legacy -- was built by young men like these: strong, talented, on their way to something better. From Grant Hill to Elton Brand to Kyrie Irving to Zion Williamson to AJ Griffin, they have sat in some version of this same formation, their coach to their right, in front of hundreds of reporters intent on chronicling his ability to form their talents to his vision.

Given the circumstances, this group has heard it more than any other.

"It wears on you a little bit, because everywhere you walk, everyone is taking a picture of you and they're watching everything," Krzyzewski said. "Look, that gets old. You know, that gets old, but I feel for my guys. They've had pressure put on them that we're not putting on them."

Their response shows they can compartmentalize as well as their coach. At the postgame news conference after beating Texas Tech, Krzyzewski's wife, Mickie, sat at the back of the room and his daughter, Debbie Savarino, stood next to her. They nodded along to just about everything he said, knowing this win bought their husband and father -- and them -- more time. As he finished speaking, Krzyzewski praised the growth of his young team, made the sign of the cross and said, "Such a joy."

IT'S BEEN HIS particular tell for as long as anybody can remember: He leans forward in his chair on the bench, reaches down and nervously pulls up his socks through his pant legs. He usually does this while doing something else, either yelling down the line for a substitute or barking out the kind of expletives that have made him America's leading professor of beginning lip-reading.

The first sock pull of the West Regional final came exactly two minutes into the game, after Stanley Umude flipped in a layup to give Arkansas a 4-2 lead. For the most part, though, the socks got a break; the outcome was only sporadically in doubt. (Close games are hell on the seams.) As the clock wound down, Krzyzewski was still calling plays and dictating the terms of engagement. The first indication that this was something more than a January game againstWake Forestcame in the final minute, when he stood on the sideline and flung his arms out in a spasm of excitement. He brought Moore, clearly a favorite, out of the game and gave him a hug before he could reach the bench. The 1,202nd win of his career was a certainty, along with his record 13th Final Four.

He admitted this one is different, presumably better, but he wouldn't go that far, and nobody was brave enough to ask. But how could it not be better? A national title with this team, which starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, would show the world he can win in whatever era you throw at him. As much as he laments the changes in the game, the one-and-dones and the transfers, it would mean something to walk off with a net around his neck as the old guy who could evolve and adapt. There was a little bit of a rasp in his voice after the game, and it cracked ever so slightly when he finished a statement by saying, "Let's go to New Orleans."

He had completed all the prescribed rituals: He had walked diligently down the handshake line to congratulate and console the Arkansas players; he had dutifully but reluctantly held up the trophy for winning the region, making sure Moore joined him; and he had ascended the ladder to cut the final strand of net, goofily pretending to dunk before completing the task.

And then he walked away and kissed his wife, and they walked hand in hand toward the tunnel. He looked tired and worn out, but also as close to happy as he's likely to get. He wore the look of a man who can take -- at most -- another week of this. And somehow, inside that same exhausted, drained look, you could detect something else: a man who is going to miss the hell out of it the second it ends.

Related Video