My Sportsman: Mike Krzyzewski
My choice for Sportsman of the Year comes refracted through the memory of another one, SI's 1972 Sportsman, a college basketball giant whose death this year hung over the game. If there was one lesson to be drawn from the life of former UCLA coach John Wooden, it was the value of being a perpetual student: of realizing that, as a sign in Wooden's office put it, "When you're through learning, you're through."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is my choice for the most Woodenesque of reasons: You can trace success after coaching success back to how he responded to some equal and opposite failure.
At the dawn of the '80s, a rookie Coach K poured himself into trying to lure to Duke a class of five recruits, all of whom he lost: Uwe Blab, Jim Miller, Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington and Rodney Williams. No matter: K and his staff bore down, assembling the posse of Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson, which in 1985-86 won an unprecedented 37 games to reach the NCAA title game.
And remember 1991, when Duke found itself a 103-73 loser to UNLV -- the most lopsided result in any final, then and still? Krzyzewski responded by leading the Blue Devils to the next two NCAA titles, eliminating their tormentors, the Runnin' Rebels, on the way to the first.
That brings us to Coach K's most extraordinary run yet. Here again triumphs came after painful but clarifying losses. In 2007 and '08 the Devils failed to get out of the NCAA subregionals, then Duke lost by 23 to Villanova in the 2009 East Regional semifinals. All of this touched off widespread grumbling in Dukedom. Yet last April many of those same players who struggled to score 54 points against 'Nova -- relatively ordinary guys like Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Lance Thomas -- delivered to Krzyzewski his fourth NCAA crown. No other active coach has more than two.
Bookending that championship are two titles with Team USA that remain appallingly underappreciated. Both the 2008 Olympic gold in Beijing and the 2010 World Championship gold in Istanbul followed a haunting loss to Greece in the medal round of the 2006 Worlds, when Krzyzewski was still shimmying up his learning curve. And he won each gold with a totally different team, during as furiously competitive an era as international basketball has ever seen.
To do that, and to -- oh, by the way -- add an NCAA crown while working his day job?
Given that no other basketball coach has ever won the Olympics, the NCAAs and the Worlds in a career, much less in a single 25-month span, it's hardly surprising that the New Jersey Nets made a run at Krzyzewski over the summer, making them the fourth NBA team to do so since 1990.
But for all the signals of restlessness to emanate periodically from Durham, Krzyzewski has found work with the national team a perfect way to indulge his vocational curiosity about pro coaching. He works only with NBA players he has handpicked, and on his terms. In an era when we like to slice and dice Planet Basketball into all sorts of segments, Krzyzewski is my Sportsman of the Year for finding a unified field theory from the bench. It's not college or pro or international so much as basketball. It's played by basketball players. He connects -- profoundly and to great effect -- with ballers of all stripes to help them meet the challenge at hand.
Exactly how he does so isn't the purview of a post as brief as this. But he does register his greatest successes in the aftermath of his biggest flops. As we approach the end of a year in which we lost John Wooden, let's take grateful note that we still have Mike Krzyzewski.