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Coach K, Duke rise from ashes of final home loss

Blue Devils turn season around after crushing loss in Cameron finale

Coach K’s third season at Duke was very nearly his last. The Blue Devils had promising young freshmen on the roster, including Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and Jay Bilas, but the team suffered through an 11-17 season.

As the year went on and Duke lost at home to Wagner, by 21 at UNC and by 24 to the Tar Heels at Cameron, the calls for Mike Krzyzewski’s job became louder. The 1982-83 season ended with Duke’s worst loss ever in the ACC Tournament, 109-66 to Virginia.

The humiliation complete, Krzyzewski went to dinner after the game with members of the program and some friends. Someone removed the knives from the table, joking about Coach K doing something rash, and one person raised a glass to make a toast.

“Here’s to forgetting tonight,” he said.

Krzyzewski refused to toast, instead offering his own.

“Here’s to never (bleeping) forgetting tonight,” he said.

The story has become part of the Coach K mythology. That season of embarrassment, and the 43-point loss that ended it, drove him to become the winningest coach ever, as the legend goes.

In typical Marvel Cinematic Universe fashion, that old story seems to be getting a reboot this year.

Coach K announced before the season that this would be his last year on the bench. He would retire once the last game was over. That immediately created a demand for the final game of the regular season — Duke-Carolina at Cameron Indoor.

Four tickets to the game sold for a million dollars at a charity auction before the season began, and as the game approached, the cheapest available tickets were at Super Bowl prices. The game attracted celebrities and 96 former Blue Devil players, who posed with Coach K on the court prior to tip-off.

ESPN devoted the entire weekend to the event, running retrospectives, classic games and plenty of analysis of Krzyzewski’s career.

There was just one thing: No one told the Tar Heels they were supposed to lose. UNC broke open a close game late and cruised to a 13-point win in front of a slack-jawed crowd that had arrived ready for a party.

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The internet, always ready to crow about any Duke loss, erupted in celebration. UNC printed T-shirts celebrating the event, and Coach K endured the postgame ceremony, seething inside as he waited for the first moment he could watch film to see what went wrong.

Before the ceremony, he apologized to the crowd, calling the loss “unacceptable,” once again standing defiant in his moment of abject humiliation.

And once again, it’s worked.

Duke has won six of seven games since that night. The team has shown fight, mounting late comebacks against Michigan State and Texas Tech to advance through the tournament to reach the Final Four — and an improbable rematch with UNC.

Once again, just when Duke seemed done, Coach K fed on the bile from his worst moment to build something amazing.

“When you only have them for a year, you’re trying to avoid as much adversity.” Krzyzewski said, “but in the last 10 days or so of the regular season and the tournament, we experienced a very deep level of adversity, and … it really helped us. I would rather not have experienced it, but I think it helped us. It hurt. They grew together and took — we all took responsibility and figured out what was wrong, and then we tried to correct it. It was actually, in some respects, a good thing.”

Krzyzewski admitted that focusing on his past leading up to the game was a mistake, and he’s been relentlessly focused on the present since. He’s also been adamant about this being his team’s journey — not his, and not the former players that his team may have felt they let down that evening in Cameron.

It’s been a softer approach, and his team has responded.

“During those 10 days I learned something, and I saw my team hurt. Not just by a loss, but by a whole bunch of things,” he said. “I just had a good meeting with myself. I said that I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to help in some way, and part of it was my approach with them. Not that we haven’t. We’re really close and all that, but I just changed a little bit in doing it.”

Now, Krzyzewski and Duke have a chance to avenge that loss to Carolina on the stage of the Final Four — or have UNC deal an even more damaging loss to end his career.

It’s the stakes on which legends are made.

Here’s to never forgetting Saturday night.