I vividly remember the first time he met with my team during my freshman year and shared his vision, his passion and his plan for us to win our first national championship. Some people have said to me it must have been easy to win under Coach, but that was far from the case. He was demanding, intense, constantly pushing and prodding us to produce more, to believe in him and, most importantly, to believe in ourselves more than we ever thought we could. His defensive mindset framed his belief in how to win. That, together with his belief that we could be better as the sum of our parts than as individuals, embodies his philosophy.
In that first year, he predicted we would have ups and downs and we did. We won big games and we lost games we should have won. We returned to the Final Four and faced a UNLV team that had eviscerated us just 12 months earlier. My parents joke that only the players and coaches believed we could beat UNLV when the players joined their parents for one final "it's going to be ok" pep talk the night before that semifinal game. But Coach K had done his homework. He was confident in our abilities, collectively and individually, to win against the best team in the nation. Thinking today of his intensity, his will to win, his drive, his passion and his incredible attention to detail throughout that drive to our first national championship gives me chills. Perhaps I was too young to realize the characteristics that I see and admire in him today. With age comes perspective and I've achieved a greater perspective on Coach K and the many traits that have served him so well in his stellar career.
Coach knew I could have left before my senior year for the NBA and he reminded me of that often as we started that final season. I decided to "be bold" and at the ACC preseason media day I predicted we would return to the Final Four, which we did. I realized years later that had I not stayed for that senior season I would not have developed into the professional player I have become. Coach entrusted the team to my leadership and challenged me -- no, dared me -- to lead the team in my own way. The bond, the trust we developed, challenged how I approached being a leader and pushed me beyond my limits. Those lessons have stayed with me into my professional career and helped me lead countless groups of players in a variety of circumstances. He taught me to be selfish on the court, selfless off it, and to know the difference.
His constructive criticism and his willingness to hold me accountable for the good and the bad was a vital part of my maturation. Those lessons bled over into life both on and off the court. When I faced a serious ankle injury during my professional basketball career, it was Coach who told me to come back and do all the things I did before getting hurt. He knew that I had the ability and strength to overcome my injury even before I did. Like in college, Coach profoundly encouraged me and implored me to overcome adversity and perform at the highest level I could against some of the best athletes in the sport.
I have grown up surrounded by powerful role models, both athletes and non-athletes. I have learned so much from all of them: how to lead, how to play, how to achieve success, how to handle success, how to reach out and help those in need. Coach K has been one of those powerful role models for me and countless others who have played for him or met him throughout his storied career. He has lived a life of great success and achievement while remaining loyal to teaching and to Duke.
I speak for Dukies everywhere in congratulating him on his record-breaking achievement and wish him many more years of success.
Grant Hill and Blue Devils teammate Christian Laettner are the executive producers of Duke: '91 & '92, a documentary celebrating the team's back-to-back NCAA Championships. It will air in March on truTV.