Mike Krzyzewski has a mental image of the way he used to coach,
even the way he used to live, not so very long ago. He's at the
wheel of his car, driving around, music blaring and the windows
down. Innocent, a little heedless, virtually part of his players'
generation, Krzyzewski used a youthful leadership style to guide
his Duke basketball teams to NCAA titles twice in the early '90s.
Now, he says, the windows are up. He has no need for the world to
hear his chosen station. He listens but does so alone, or with
his wife, Mickie, riding shotgun and his daughters and grandsons
in the back. "In some respects I would like to win the national
championship anonymously, where it's only [the players and
coaches], and the press isn't there," he said on the eve of
Monday's NCAA final in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. "That's kind
of where I am right now, and it's a better place."
Anonymity will not be Krzyzewski's companion, alas. After the
Blue Devils' 82-72 defeat of Arizona, the record must reflect
that he has won three championships, tying him with his college
coach, Bob Knight, late of Indiana, and leaving him only one
behind Kentucky's Adolph Rupp. He has won more Final Four games
(10) than anyone but UCLA's John Wooden. Such a record will
accrue to a coach who takes teams to nine Final Fours in 16
seasons, as Krzyzewski has done. Wooden didn't win the first of
his 10 national titles until he was 53; Coach K already has
three, and--gracious sakes alive!--he's only 54. "It was really
special for us to separate Coach from the pack," said Duke
forward Shane Battier after he had been named the Final Four's
Most Outstanding Player. "A bunch of coaches have won two.
Getting three makes you a legend."
The Blue Devils won their title with defense so stout that in
January, Arizona coach Lute Olson screened a tape of a Duke game
as a lesson for his own players. The Devils won with an offense
that deployed so many passers and drivers and shooters that even
a defense as good as Duke's would have found guarding them all a
April 8, 2001
More than anything, however, they won with Battier, their senior
co-captain. From the time Arizona forward Richard Jefferson sank
a three-pointer to pull the Wildcats to within 71-68 with fewer
than five minutes remaining, hardly a play unspooled without
Battier's affixing his brand to it. He put back one rebound with
a dunk, then tipped in another like a conjurer, with the back of
his hand. He slammed home a feed from guard Jason Williams, then
returned the favor by setting a screen to spring Williams loose
for a three-point shot--"the shot that sealed it for us,"
As the game's final seconds counted down and Olson signaled his
players not to foul, Williams and guard Chris Duhon began to
celebrate on the court. Krzyzewski and his assistants embraced
just off it. Battier simply crouched by himself on the wing, his
eyes closed, a religion major perhaps offering a prayer. "He's
the Player of the Year, Defender of the Year, Academic of the
Year, Man of the Year," Jefferson said on Sunday. "He's
All-Everything. Some people rank Shane Battier right below Jesus
Battier's coach had gone through a lot since 1992, when the Blue
Devils won their last NCAA championship, also in the Metrodome.
Krzyzewski had buried his friend Jim Valvano, the former North
Carolina State coach, in 1993 and his mother, Emily, three years
later. In '94-95 the Duke coach had to leave his post after 12
games because of debilitating back pain and exhaustion. Sitting
out the remainder of that season, he doubted that he had the
drive to rebuild a team that went 4-15 in his absence. "He was
thinking, Do I have cancer?" says Mickie Krzyzewski. "Am I going
to go like Jimmy did? He'd sit and watch the team fall apart,
thinking he should be there, that this was all his fault. He got
so depleted that he didn't know if he could spark another fire."
He did, of course, guiding a surpassingly talented team to the
1999 championship game. But after Connecticut upset the Blue
Devils in that game, three underclassmen bolted for the NBA and a
fourth transferred. Suddenly Krzyzewski appeared to be the
steward of just another common paraprofessional program.
Then, late in 1999, the coach who has always prided himself on
making a family of his team had a life-changing addition to his
own family. His eldest daughter, Debbie, and her husband, Peter
Savarino, gave Krzyzewski his first grandchild, and this season
Joey, now 16 months, has been a regular at practice. When he
toddles onto the floor, all activity stops until Poppy K can coo
and cajole him back to the sideline. Last Thursday, three days
after Debbie had delivered her second child and named him Michael
after his granddad, Krzyzewski appeared at an NCAA function in
Minneapolis, where he learned that Arizona coach Lute Olson has
14 grandchildren. "We have a new motto in our household," said
Krzyzewski, who now has to pull out a pair of reading glasses to
peruse a postgame stat sheet. "Catch Lute!"
Upon seeing him at tournament time, his brother, Bill, a
Roykoesque fireman from Chicago, usually tells him, "You look
like s---." On Thursday, however, when they met at the team's
hotel, Bill said, "You know, Mike, you look good." Balancing
family with basketball, Krzyzewski has found an equipoise that
kept him fresh enough to reinvent his team following a 91-80 loss
to Maryland at home on Feb. 27 in which center Carlos Boozer
suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. The injury appeared
to have ended Boozer's season and reduced an essentially six-man
team to five. It had been Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium,
and as a cake to celebrate what would have been Battier's 122nd
victory sat uneaten in a corner of the locker room, every player
but Battier, ever the stoic, hung his head. A few shed tears.
Some people wondered if Duke would win another game the rest of
the season. In fact, the Blue Devils wouldn't lose again. The
coaching staff stayed up all night, watching tape. The next day,
a Wednesday, was a mandatory day off for the players, so
Krzyzewski and his assistants mustered to plot the team's
makeover. They decided to start their quickest player, the
freshman Duhon, and bring senior swingman Nate James off the
During the season the Blue Devils rarely practice in the morning.
But with Sunday's game at North Carolina looming, they met at
6:30 a.m. on Thursday and Friday to recreate a training camp
atmosphere and persuade one another that they were about to make
a fresh start. The players didn't watch tape or do drills, only
scrimmaged for 45 minutes, with the clock and scoreboard running.
"I was trained for that," says Krzyzewski, a graduate of West
Point. "Next play, let's go. Whether it's muddy or sunny, let's
figure out a way to win."
At first Krzyzewski wasn't entirely sure there was a way. After
the loss to Maryland, his wife had found him in the coaches'
anteroom, slumped in a chair, shaking his head. "I could feel
sorry for myself," he told her, "but we don't have the time. We
have to get ready for North Carolina."
"Mom called me the next day in my dorm room," says Jamie, the
Krzyzewskis' youngest daughter, who's a Duke freshman. "She said,
'You might want to stop by your dad's office tomorrow and give
him a hug.' The first thing he says to me is, 'So, do you think
Reggie Love [a 6'4" walk-on reserve] can guard [7-foot Tar Heels
center] Brendan Haywood?'"
He did, of course--with the help of theretofore little-used backup
center Casey Sanders. After Duke won in Chapel Hill, Krzyzewski
told his players, "I'm as happy with you guys as I've ever been
with any team." Without Boozer the Blue Devils would now
sometimes launch a shot mere seconds into a possession. It might
come from anyone's hand, from anywhere on the floor, not least
from beyond the arc, which is where 42% of their shots were taken
this season. In their sluggish 76-63 defeat of UCLA in the
regional semifinals, the Blue Devils opened the game with six
straight off-the-mark three-pointers, but not once did anyone
look over at the bench. "Coach won't take us out if we miss a
shot," says Duhon. "He'll be more upset if we don't take one."
Adds forward Mike Dunleavy, "We don't have a system, a
'triple-post offense,' or anything like that. We just kind of
play basketball. When you have that confidence that everybody on
the floor can stick it, the other team knows it. They stay closer
to you, and you can drive and post up."
It's an approach that rests as much on minding your mental P's
and Q's as your X's and O's. "We're here because we're good,"
Krzyzewski yelled at his players during a timeout early in the
UCLA game. He stared at Battier and said, "You're good." He
turned to Williams and said, "You're good." And so on, to each
starter in turn.
As he joins the company of the Wizard of Westwood, Krzyzewski
resembles no one so much as the Wizard of Oz, who can simply tell
his Tin Men, "You! You have a heart!" How else did Williams
rediscover his free throw touch in March after missing 16 of 18
during one worrisome late-season stretch? Why did Duhon begin
stroking three-pointers late in the East Regional final against
Southern Cal after looking hesitant for much of the game? What
made Dunleavy, 6 for 19 from beyond the arc in the tournament
before Monday night, suddenly successful on 5-of-9 threes in the
title game, including a seven-minute stretch during which he
scored 18 points?
"These guys believe everything Coach K tells them," says ESPN
analyst Jay Bilas, who played for and coached under Krzyzewski.
"That's the power behind the program. He says it, they believe
it, and eventually it comes true."
The flip side of Krzyzewski's new role as Wizard is that he has
made it hard to get a look behind the curtain. Assistants answer
much of his mail and do those quickie, on-the-way-off-the-floor
halftime interviews with CBS. His players may be as available as
ever to the local press, but he isn't. This year he moved into an
office on the top floor of a six-story tower next to Cameron
Indoor Stadium, from which he can survey his domain like a feudal
lord. No one can gain access to his floor without an electronic
He and Mickie now live in a secluded, custom-built home nestled
on 12 acres just outside of the Duke Forest. It's only five
minutes from campus but is preceded--much like a Jason Williams
layup--by a long, twisting drive. "I didn't get broken down
because of the pressures of the job," Krzyzewski has said of his
absence six years ago, which, in West Point fashion, he regards
as a commander's abandonment of his men. "I got broken down
because of being stupid."
Stupid about time management and setting priorities. Now he makes
time for walking the family Labs, Cameron and Defense, and
puttering around the pool, and he often begins staff meetings
with a comment about the way the deer treat his azaleas. "I like
to plant pansies because they'll last during the winter," he said
on Sunday, words that Krzyzewski's college coach, Knight, has
probably never uttered.
If anything could break Krzyzewski's newfound equanimity, it was
the prospect of a fourth frenzied meeting with Maryland, Duke's
opponent in last Saturday's semifinal. In their first game
against the Terps, the Blue Devils had made up 10 points in the
final 54 seconds of regulation and won in overtime. Duke's Senior
Night debacle served as the centerpiece of Maryland's own
late-season resurrection. Then, at the start of their ACC
tournament semifinal in Atlanta, the Terps took a 10-0 lead
before the Blue Devils won in the dying seconds on a tip-in by
James. "No tricks, no special effects," said Duhon, previewing a
Final Four Game 4. "The strongest will survive."
Sure enough, Duke seized a 95-84 victory with strength, both
physical and mental. Boozer outmuscled the Terps' Lonny Baxter on
the blocks, scoring nine of his 19 points over the final five
minutes while helping limit Baxter to 10 for the game. The Blue
Devils refused to let a 22-point deficit late in the first half
undo them, even though Duke hadn't trailed by such a margin since
Krzyzewski was laid up, and no team in Final Four history is
believed to have climbed out of so deep a hole.
To bring the Blue Devils back, Krzyzewski momentarily lost his
Zen calm. He called his first desperation timeout of the season,
only nine seconds before a TV timeout scheduled at the 12-minute
mark. At the time, Duke trailed 23-10, and when Steve Blake
bottomed out a three-pointer barely five minutes later,
Maryland's lead would crest at 39-17. "You can't play any
worse," Krzyzewski told his players. "What are you worried
about? That you're gonna lose by 40? We're already losing by 20,
so will you just play?"
About this time, back in Durham, Joey Savarino saw his Poppy on
TV. "We were down, and they had a shot of me on the bench, and
you could tell I was upset," Krzyzewski said on Sunday. "When he
saw that, Joey went to the TV and kissed the TV set." Perhaps it
was Krzyzewski family voodoo. In any case, the game turned into
a Blue Devils highlight reel that could have been spliced
together from the three previous encounters with Maryland: a
large Terrapins lead evaporating; Williams slaloming to the
basket with abandon; a tip-in from James giving Duke its first
chance to consolidate a lead; Battier contributing whatever the
moment called for, whether a three-pointer or a putback, a
blocked shot or a charge taken.
Several times as the Blue Devils played defense, the Duke captain
twirled his finger in the air to alert his teammates to a play
Maryland was about to run for Baxter. It isn't enough for Battier
to have a hand in everything his own team does. He must do the
same with an opponent, too.
When Monday's title game was over, Battier spoke of two guardian
angels who had worked the Metrodome on his behalf. One must have
done double duty looking after Williams, who stood at the center
of a brief stretch midway through the first half on which the
championship turned. Arizona, an 80-61 victor over Michigan State
in Saturday's other semifinal, couldn't have known it had just
lost its last lead when Boozer arced a lefthanded hook shot over
the Wildcats' 7'1" center, Loren Woods. Seconds later Williams,
who had already picked up his second foul, tried to beat Arizona
guard Jason Gardner to a loose ball. Williams lost that sprint
and, trying to stop his momentum, wound up crablike over the
crouching Gardner. For a moment the two looked like partygoers in
a game of Twister.
If Gardner had simply stood up, Williams would have drawn his
third foul and the course of the game most certainly would have
changed to Duke's detriment. But the officials restrained
themselves, as they did most of the night, particularly when the
Duke point guard seemed to initiate contact at either end of the
floor. "You have the obligation to write the truth!" one
indignant Arizona fan yelled from the Metrodome mezzanine to the
press workroom below, where reporters were filing their stories.
"Williams fouled out twice! We wuz robbed!"
In the end, though, an old Krzyzewskiism, left over from those
radio-up, windows-down days, told the tale: "Put a plant in a
jar, and it'll grow to take the shape of the jar. Keep it outside
a jar, and who knows what it'll grow to be?"
His latest team was a kind of botany experiment run amok, college
basketball's Little Shop of Horrors. With each of its nine
three-pointers in the title game, Duke increased by another its
NCAA record for most in a season, which will go into the books as
407. Skeptics believed their reliance on the trey would do in the
Devils. In fact, it set them free. "When Carlos went down, the
tendency would've been to bottle them up and overcoach them,"
Krzyzewski said last week. "Instead we let them grow wild."
In college basketball, unfettered freedom doesn't always
correlate with ultimate success. Michigan's Fab Five never won
the game's great prize. Neither did Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma.
All hail Poppy and his Bionic Pansies, who did.
More than anything, Duke won with Battier. Hardly a play
unspooled without his affixing his brand to it.
Back in January, Olson had screened a videotape of a Duke game
as a lesson for his own players in how to play defense.
If Gardner had stood up, Williams would have drawn a third foul
and the course of the game most certainly would've changed.