Duke freshmen Trevor Keels and Paolo Banchero answered a question about what the Duke Brotherhood meant to them, which gave coach Mike Krzyzewski a moment to reflect.
The Hall of Famer stared straight ahead and fought like hell.
His eyes turned glassy as the tears welled up. Krzyzewski stuck his chin up and blinked—once, twice, then three times in succession.
For the second time in just under an hour, he lost his epic battle. Krzyzewski dipped his head, reached up with one finger and wiped a tear from his cheek.
After 42 years, 1,200 wins, 13 Final Fours and five titles, Coach K’s career ended with an 81-77 loss to the Tar Heels in the national semifinals.
It was the biggest Carolina-Duke game in history and delivered perhaps the greatest performance the two programs have ever conspired to produce.
“Tonight was a battle,” Krzyzewski said. “It was a game where the winner was going to be joyous and the loser was going to be in agony. That was the type of game we expected. We would have liked to be on the other side of it.”
After announcing his pending retirement during the offseason, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils put together one last run, turning around a late-season slump to make a run in the tournament, marked by gritty comeback wins against Michigan State and Texas Tech.
“We made our announcement that it’s our last year,” he said, “and I told (wife) Micki, ‘We’re going for it. We’ve got a group … we’ve got a chance.’ I was right about that.”
The team finished two days early, however, and things ended with tears and agony.
“I don’t want these guys to leave and say, ‘I should’ve made that one free throw. I should’ve made that one shot,’” he said. “We win and lose together. Those kids from both teams played their hearts out.”
And the hearts on his side ended up broken.
“I’m just concerned about these guys,” Krzyzewski said. “They were already crying on the court. I’ve always said I wanted my seasons to end where my team was crying either tears of joy or sorrow, because you knew they gave everything. Our locker room is filled with guys that were crying. It’s a beautiful sight. It’s not a sight you want. You prefer the other.”
He would have preferred that his career end with a net cutting ceremony on Monday night, but instead, it ended like 37 of his Duke seasons have, with pain and tears.
“In the arena, you’ll either feel great or feel agony,” he said, “but you’ll always feel great about being in the arena. That’s the thing I’ll miss. I’m not going to be in the arena anymore, but dang, I was in the arena for a long time.”
Krzyzewski refused to reflect back on his career or make a grand farewell statement. Instead, he fought back tears, mostly successfully, and worried about his guys.
“You take care of the people you love, who have committed to you, who have belief in you,” he said. “We’re going to help them get past this and move on.”
And then, it will be time for him to do the same.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, and Mike Krzyzewski stared forward, lifting his chin just the slightest bit.