DURHAM, N.C. — When I arranged several weeks ago to interview Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for my Campus Insiders show, I had no idea that we would be sitting down in the midst of a genuine media maelstrom. The storm was loosed on Wednesday night, when Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen tripped an opposing player for the third time in a 10-month span. I wasn’t sure what kind of mood Coach K would be in when I saw him Thursday morning. I tried to make light when we greeted each other in a hallway. “Another slow news day around here I see,” I said.
Krzyzewski smiled, sighed and said, “Oh, you know. Life is a cabaret.”
So no, he wasn’t in a sour or grumpy mood. He wasn’t thrilled with what happened, obviously, but he was more resigned than anything. I doubt he had gotten much sleep. For all the external noise, it was quickly apparent that Krzyzewski’s focus was right where it should have been: on the welfare of his player. As he sat in his office for our interview, I asked him how Allen was doing. “Not well,” Krzyzewski replied, “but this is just something he’s going to have to go through.”
Krzyzewski recalled a phrase he learned while he was a plebe at West Point: Failure is not a destination. He added, however, that while he was able to fail over and over again as a young plebe in private, Allen does not have that luxury. “It’s tougher for kids today to make mistakes, especially if you’re a heralded person in a big-time program,” Krzyzewski said. “And so you have to pay the consequences for it. But it’s not easy. I’ll be there for him all the time. I’m not going to tolerate it when he keeps making mistakes, but I’m also not going to do things because you say I’m supposed to do it. I know what I’m supposed to do.”
Well, yes and no. Krzyzewski understands that he needed to take action, but by suspending Allen indefinitely, as opposed to a certain number of games, Krzyzewski acknowledged that he is not really sure what he will do down the line because he is not quite sure how big the problem is. Was this just another momentary lapse in judgment on Allen’s part? Or is there something deeper at work that will take longer to address?
While most everyone has been focused on the trip, the more significant image was Allen’s emotional outburst on the bench right afterwards. It was clear he understood the significance of what had happened. Just as he was starting to emerge from the ugly specter of last season’s incidents, he had done it again, this time in an even worse manner. To understand what was going through Allen’s mind at that moment, it’s important to recall how he got there.
Allen was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school in Jacksonville, Fla., but he did not arrive with one-and-done credentials. He spent most of his freshman season riding the pine, averaging nine minutes per game. Still, Allen worked all season with great passion and discipline, hoping that one day he might get a chance to show what he could do. That chance came in the most unlikely of places—the second half of the 2015 NCAA championship game against Wisconsin. With his team trailing by seven points in the second half and apparently headed for defeat, Krzyzewski inserted his little-used freshman into the game and watched him score 16 points to deliver Coach K his fifth title. Allen didn’t just show talent that night. He showed poise. If he could handle that situation with equanimity, it seemed there would be nothing he couldn’t handle.
Nothing, that is, except expectations, fame, increased responsibility. The drive that kept Allen on edge all that time now threatened to devour him. Most of the time, Allen channeled his emotions properly. You can see it in how he plays. He is constantly on the attack, driving to the rim, crashing to the floor. The monster was his friend—until it wasn’t.
Last season’s tripping incidents warranted concern, but not necessarily drastic action. The first, when Allen was on his back and swiped Louisville forward Ray Spaulding, was barely noticeable. It was almost hard to tell if it was intentional. The second, which he delivered to Florida State Xavier Rathan-Mayes, appeared to be in retaliation to something. The official standing nearby, Tony Greene, is a long time vet who handled the situation in an old-school manner. He brought the guys together and told them to knock it off.
Wednesday’s transgression was far worse. There was no question what Allen was trying to do to Elon guard Steven Santa Ana. Right before the trip, Allen delivered a hard, unnecessary foul. His blood was running way too hot. And keep in mind that this was against Elon in December, not North Carolina in February. Why in the world would Allen’s mindset lead him to make such a poor decision? Why did he lose his composure so badly on the bench? No one can answer that right now, least of all Krzyzewski.
When the game was over, Krzyzewski’s own blood was running a little too hot, and it clouded his judgment as well. He walked into the press room in Greensboro and told the media that he disapproved of what Allen had done, but that Allen had apologized to Santa Ana as well as Elon’s coach, so it was time to “move on.” This was a mistake on Krzyzewski’s part. The better play would have been to say as little as possible and indicate he wanted to sleep on it before deciding his next move.
By the time I saw him Thursday morning, things had cooled. He had obviously also gotten some good advice. The story of the night wasn’t just Allen’s mistakes, but also Krzyzewski’s perceived enabling of the offensive behavior. Clearly, Allen will sit for at least one game, which won’t come until Dec. 31 in Duke’s ACC opener at Virginia Tech. Beyond that, we’ll have to see.
Here’s something else we are learning about Grayson Allen: He might be getting compared to two other Duke villains, Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick, but he is not wired like those guys. Laettner and Redick fed on the public’s hate. It made them better. Allen appears uncomfortable in that role. He wants to do right by himself and his team. He wants to ride the monster, not let the monster right him. Maybe he wants it too bad. Or maybe the monster just got too big.
After the game was over Wednesday night, there were some reports on Twitter that Allen had been escorted out of the Duke locker room in an apparent desire to keep him away from the media. As it turned out, he had left because Krzyzewski wanted to take him to apologize to Santa Ana and Elon coach Matt Metheny. Allen returned to the locker room, addressed the media, and expressed his remorse. He was hunched over and his voice was barely audible. I told Krzyzewski I thought it would have been better if Allen had sat up straight and looked everyone in the eye, but Krzyzewski disagreed. “I think it’s better for people to see how he was really feeling, how much he was hurting,” he said. “I mean, look at him. He’s just a kid.”
Like many kids, Allen screwed up, and he is now paying a heavy price. I'm not talking about the suspension. However many games Allen sits, that will pale in comparison to the real penalty he is paying. He has now been re-branded as a dirty player, someone who will be remembered for chronic tripping as much as for that heroic performance in the championship game. Krzyzewski’s job now isn’t just to teach him a lesson, but to help him gain the proper perspective so he will not, shall we say, trip up again. It's easier said than done.
“I will tell you this,” Krzyzewski said. “These are manageable things that happened. It’s not like he committed rape, sexual assault, robbed somebody. Those are heinous, heinous acts. This is a stupid thing that he did. We can get rid of stupid a lot easier than those other things.”
My hope for Grayson Allen is that even amidst his pain, he can begin to heal and learn. Yes, he screwed up, but he’s also a young man trying to operate under a hot and heavy spotlight. The good news is that he's got a lot of basketball left in him. He doesn't have to be stuck on stupid.