Saying nothing, he said everything. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
stepped into a timeout huddle with 38 seconds left in the first
half of a Feb. 6 game at Georgia Tech, then abruptly retreated
and sat down without saying a word. None of his players had
experienced this before. Coach K had implored his players for
two days not to let down against the inferior Yellow Jackets,
and still the Blue Devils looked like a bunch of zombies,
trailing Tech 40-33. Krzyzewski decided to coach by not
coaching. This was no longer Duke playing Tech but Duke playing
Duke, and the bad Duke was winning.
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 1999 issue
In the locker room at halftime Krzyzewski checked his watch, an
odd gesture in basketball, where the only clock that matters is
on the scoreboard, but he was hoping to inject a hint of
reality. The coach scribbled "2:15-3:00" on the blackboard and
then wrote "45 minutes" and circled it. "Time will run out," he
said. "In 45 minutes you're dead. You're going to heaven or
hell. Where do you want to be?"
Suddenly there was a pulse in the room. Duke came back to win a
laborious game 87-79, but Krzyzewski employed one final touch.
Breaking from protocol on the bus ride from the airport to
campus, he walked back to where his players sat and spoke
throughout the 30-minute trip about the late Emily Krzyzewski.
"My mother only went to school to the eighth grade," he said.
"She had two dresses her whole life. She had no money. Why the
hell was she so happy? Because she was part of a family, a part
of something bigger than herself. A shared experience is the
most rewarding. Don't you get it? You guys are all part of
something bigger than yourselves."
Recalling the speech five days later, Duke associate head coach
Quin Snyder said, "It definitely felt like one of those moments
when championship teams are forged."
That was one day. But it provided a window on the hundreds of
days that have brought Duke to a 25-1 record through Sunday, a
No. 1 ranking and the favorite's role in the race for the
national championship. If the Blue Devils are to win that title,
Krzyzewski insists they will need more than Trajan Langdon's
jumpers and Elton Brand's rebounding and Shane Battier's
defense. They'll need attitude. Guts. The toughness Krzyzewski
fostered in the 1991 and '92 NCAA title teams that featured
Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner. "There's a
perception of Duke that you have some highly publicized
Caucasian athletes who are soft," Hill says. "When I was there,
it was quite the contrary. We had a nasty streak. There was a
feeling of complete confidence, complete arrogance and total
disrespect for whoever we played."
Indeed, Laettner left the indelible stamp of that attitude on
Aminu Timberlake's chest when he stomped the Kentucky forward in
the 1992 NCAA East Regional final. It has been Krzyzewski's task
to try to restore a measure of that swagger and give the Blue
Devils the kind of edge they used to enjoy before they even took
the court. To fully understand the difficulty of this
undertaking, look back four years to a time when the mighty Blue
Devils lost everything, including Krzyzewski.
Given a program that competed in 11 straight NCAA tournaments
and seven Final Fours from 1984 to '94, it's easy to forget how
thoroughly Duke imploded in '95. The Blue Devils had been NCAA
tournament runners-up to Arkansas in '94, but when Krzyzewski
left the team the following midseason to recover from back
surgery, they endured the most dramatic collapse in ACC history.
That 13-18 season was so embarrassing that Duke successfully
appealed to the NCAA to have the Blue Devils' 4-15 record after
Krzyzewski's departure credited to interim coach Pete Gaudet.
"When I came to Duke, I expected to be in four Final Fours, so
that season was very humbling," says Langdon, the only Blue
Devil remaining from that team. "It was as if Duke ceased being
"Sir Lancelot doesn't live in Camelot forever," Krzyzewski said
at the time. "Eras pass. New Hurleys, Hills and Laettners have to
Duke lost in the first round of the NCAAs in 1996 and advanced
to the second round in '97. "Coach raised the bar for us a
little each season," says Steve Wojciechowski, who played at
Duke from 1994-95 to 1997-98, "but you're also motivated by the
Hills and Laettners who come back to play pickup every fall and
carry themselves like national champions. They don't say, 'Sit
down, son, I'll give you the formula.' It's more like 'Where's
Last season Duke reached the South Regional final before
coughing up a 17-point second-half lead and losing to Kentucky.
Wojciechowski left the court that day as the first player to
spend four years at Duke without reaching a Final Four since
Todd Anderson, Jay Bryan and Danny Meagher in 1985. Krzyzewski
wasn't devastated after the Kentucky loss because he knew those
Blue Devils hadn't possessed what he calls the "expectancy" to
win a championship. But as the 1998-99 season began, Duke was
No. 1 in many rankings, and Coach K spoke openly about a
national title from the first day of practice. He approved a
poster with the headline CHAMPIONSHIP VISION and a photo of the
Blue Devils gazing skyward. And he built a schedule as brutal as
any he had assembled for his title teams, including
nonconference road and neutral-site games against Michigan
State, Kentucky and St. John's. After the season's sixth game he
feared he had made a grave mistake. On Nov. 28 Duke was pushed
around in a 77-75 loss to Cincinnati in the finals of the Great
Alaska Shootout. The defeat was particularly galling for
Langdon, an Alaskan whose role was to be that of the homecoming
hero. "With all our accolades, we felt that just because we're
Duke we should win," Langdon says. "We were all disgusted and
embarrassed. Coach told us, 'This isn't a joyride. If you keep
playing like this, you're going to be awful.'"
During the long flight home from Alaska, Krzyzewski recalls
telling his staff, "We just don't get it, and I don't know how
long it's going to take this team to figure it out. We may have
to lose a few more times."
Krzyzewski has carefully chosen his assistants: Former Duke
players Snyder, Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson are Coach K-
tested role models who help him shape the players' psyches.
"I've warned our guys that our opponents expect us to be soft,
and we were soft against Cincinnati, and that's unacceptable,"
Snyder says. "Every player has his own demons, his own fears,
and part of our job as coaches is to help them make
breakthroughs in their own ways."
Point guard William Avery arrived at Duke last season already
forged by a trip he took as a high school junior to meet
Krzyzewski, who had bluntly told Avery that with his mediocre
grades he would never be a Blue Devil. Avery walked out of the
room, turned to his mother and said, "I am going to Duke." After
switching from his high school in Augusta, Ga., to Oak Hill
Academy in Virginia as a senior, he made the grade and has since
launched more fearless game-deciding shots than any other Blue
Devil, including a last-second miss in last year's NCAA loss to
Kentucky. Brand, a sophomore center, received his wake-up call
when he was stripped of his starting job for two games in
December and informed that his lack of conditioning was
hindering his game. He responded with 10 double doubles in the
next 15 games.
Sometimes the players reach their own epiphanies without the
coaches. The Duke staff had stewed all season over sophomore
forward Battier's reluctance to shoot. Then on Feb. 2 Battier
watched a documentary about martial arts on the Discovery Channel
featuring China's Shaolin monks, a Buddhist sect that preaches
the concept of chi, a person's inner strength. Battier saw a
sword slice through a tree stump and then bend in half as it was
thrust against a monk's stomach. Against Maryland the following
night, inspired by the power of chi, he launched 13 shots and
scored 27 points, both career highs, to spark a Blue Devils rout.
Predictably, three Cameron Crazies came to last Saturday's home
game against Wake Forest dressed as monks and flashing letters
that spelled out CHI whenever Battier, who had 19 points, scored.
Corey Maggette, the freshman swingman prodigy, was toughened up
by his own teammate when he took exception to junior forward
Chris Carrawell's flagrant foul in an early-season scrimmage.
The two gunned the basketball back and forth at each other
before squaring off and then being separated by Snyder before a
punch could be thrown. Says Carrawell, "Things got a little
touchy...in a good way."
The often overlooked Carrawell is Duke's soul. He grew up in an
inner-city neighborhood in north St. Louis. He has never met his
father. He rarely played in a gym until high school, instead
playing what he calls "ghetto ball" on the cracked asphalt at
Fairground Park with chain nets, metal backboards and double
rims so rigid that successful shots had to be nothing but chain.
Carrawell was honed on physical games against older and larger
guys with names like Big Mike and Ron Ron and Slim. By his own
estimate seven of the 10 guys on the court at any one time back
then are now in jail or dead. At the end of a full day of pickup
hoops, Carrawell would sometimes be challenged to a one-on-one
"money game" for $100, an offer he could not refuse, and dozens
of spectators dropped cash on the cement in support of the guy
from their block. Carrawell knew that if he lost, which was
rare, he would be wise to take a circuitous route home--if he
went home at all.
Carrawell's story isn't unusual in college basketball; it's just
unusual at Duke. "The image of Duke guys is of white picket
fences, not barbed-wire fences," Carrawell says, "but I can
bring a piece of the playground here, getting guys thinking that
when a guy busts you, you've got to bust him back."
Krzyzewski, who grew up in inner-city Chicago, has a binding
trust in his streetwise wingman. At halftime of a game against
N.C. State on Jan. 30, in one of the most meaningful moments of
the season, Krzyzewski pulled Carrawell aside and anointed him
the Blue Devils' leader by saying, "Where you go, we go."
Carrawell, whose cheek still bears the scar from a poke in the
eye he sustained against Maryland in early January, has carried
Duke over much of the last month on shoulders that have endured
three operations and until last year limited his ability to
raise his arms so much that he couldn't dunk. "I think Chris is
our team's backbone, and we feed off his swagger," Battier says.
"When all hell breaks loose, we'll huddle up, and Chris will
calmly say, 'Let's just hoop.'"
So focused is Krzyzewski on emotions that during practice the
day after a 22-point win at Clemson on Jan. 20, he reviewed a
game tape with his players that included no action, only their
confident and passionate faces. By all accounts Coach K's own
zeal has returned to a level not seen since the beginning of the
decade. On the eve of the Jan. 27 home game against North
Carolina, Krzyzewski spoke inside Cameron Indoor Stadium to the
mob of students who had been sleeping outside in tents for the
better part of a month to get the choicest seats. "If you're not
going to be intense," Coach K said, "then don't f------ show up."
Duke's goal is simple. The Final Four in St. Petersburg or bust.
Langdon acknowledges the Blue Devils' expectancy, and he dreams
about winning the NCAA title on the same court where the Blue
Devils' season ended so miserably a year ago. The near loss to
Georgia Tech may prove to have been a crucial motivational
boost. Following that game, Duke toyed with Virginia on Feb. 11,
getting double doubles from Brand, Maggette and emerging reserve
forward Nate James in a 100-54 blowout, the biggest road win in
Blue Devils history and the Cavaliers' worst home loss ever.
Then last Saturday at Cameron, Duke got those 19 points from
Battier to dispatch Wake Forest 102-71 for its 20th straight
win. It's now Krzyzewski's challenge to find fault in a team
that through Sunday was shooting 51.9% from the floor, holding
opponents to 39.5%, averaging 94.0 points, leading the country
in victory margin (chart, above) and was three wins away from
becoming the first ACC team since North Carolina in 1987 to
finish conference play undefeated. "They're as good a team as
any I've coached against," Virginia coach Pete Gillen says. "If
they stay healthy, they should win the championship."
On two or three late nights this season when he has been the
last one left inside Cameron, Krzyzewski has wandered out to the
court to rekindle his energy, to reaffirm that he's part of
something bigger than himself. It was always pitch black except
for the spotlights on the championship banners hanging at one
end of the gym and the nine retired jerseys at the other.
Krzyzewski says he never looked at the two title banners,
envisioning a third. Instead he stared at the numbers,
particularly those most recently immortalized during his tenure.
He didn't visualize those players but the caliber of their play.
"I saw traits that lead to championships," he says. "I saw
Hurley's daring, Laettner's competitiveness, Hill's drive to
grow from a role player into a star, and I remembered their
collective confidence. Sometimes I start to believe this year's
team is close to that feeling, and other times I think, Can we
ever really capture that again?"
BEDEVILING THE OPPOSITION
The stats show how powerful Duke is. Through Sunday the Blue
Devils comfortably led the nation in scoring and margin of
victory, and they weren't doing it against cupcakes. According
to the RPI rankings of Collegiate Basketball News, Duke has also
played the fourth-toughest schedule in the nation--with games
against Cincinnati, Michigan State, Kentucky, Florida and St.
John's, in addition to the usual ACC grind.
POINTS PER GAME MARGIN OF VICTORY STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
1. Duke 94.0 Duke 25.4 Stanford .6127
2. TCU 90.6 Auburn 23.4 Indiana .6043
3. Siena 87.9 Maryland 20.0 Iowa .6040
4. Cal Poly 86.4 UConn 18.8 Duke .6034
5. Norfolk State 86.1 Utah 17.2 Florida State .6020
a piece of the playground."