Mike Krzyzewski still winces at the memory. It was March 11, 1983, and Duke opened the ACC basketball tournament in Atlanta's Omni playing the University of Virginia and Ralph Sampson. The final was 109-66. Duke had not pulled an upset.
The Blue Devils coach had never been lower in his basketball career. He knew Virginia had infinitely more talent and experience than his team. But he felt his players had given up because they didn't believe they could win.
That part he couldn't handle. "It was the most embarrassing night of my coaching career," he said last week, enjoying the morning after a victory. "More than anything, I was angry. We had been through tough times that year because we were learning. But that should never have happened."
From the ashes of that lost night, Duke and Krzyzewski have risen. Tonight, they will bring their No. 2 national ranking and 12-0 record into Cole Field House to play Maryland at 8 p.m. And now, those who criticized Krzyzewski two years ago are lining up to praise him. Duke has become the Little Team That Can.
"We've learned a lot about people during the last two years," said David Henderson, a freshman on that 1983 team. "Maybe that's why we're so close now. We all know that no matter what happens we're going to still care about each other. In this sport, things can turn around in either direction quickly.
"What we went through two years ago has made winning that much more fun for all of us, including Coach K. You can see it in his face, even in practice. When we do something right, when we understand something he's trying to get across, he just lights up.
"It's like breaking a combination you have been working on for a long, long time."
What is most interesting about Duke's breakthrough from 11-17 two years ago to 24-10 last year to national attention this year is that five of the top six players are the same. The only regular who didn't play that awful night in Atlanta is point guard Tommy Amaker, a skinny, little, 6-foot stick who Krzyzewski describes with two words: "No mistakes."
The other five, juniors Henderson, Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and Jay Bilas and senior Danny Meagher, all remember the bad times well enough that today's good times aren't likely to go to their heads.
"There's a very fine line in this league between being good and being bad," said the 6-8 Alarie, whose outside touch may be as good as any big man in the country. "We've seen the line."
What has gotten Duke across the line is experience and improvement. Teams often leave the court after losing to Duke wondering, "How did those guys beat us?" Duke plays Bilas, who is 6-8, at center. Its front court is not quick and its back court is tiny. But the Blue Devils chase you until you drop or they drop.
Meagher, the only noteworthy player who will not be back next season, is as good an example of that as anyone. As a 6-7 freshman, he rarely played under control, had the shooting touch of a hockey goalie (he is Canadian, after all) and spent most of his time in foul trouble.
But Krzyzewski liked Meagher's attitude. If Meagher played football, he would be the guy who ate glass to get his teammates psyched up. Instead, he dives on the floor constantly, trades elbows without hesitation and is generally the bane of the opposition's existence.
"Danny Meagher," Amaker said with an affectionate grin, "is literally crazy."
Krzyzewski laughs at that description. "Danny is inspirational for us," he said. "He's tough mentally and physically and even though he's kind of flaky, he does it in a way that really helps us."
Example: One year ago, the Blue Devils made the annual five-hour bus trek to Clemson. They had lost four league games in a row and their record had dropped to 14-5. The season could go either way. Krzyzewski called a team meeting on the bus to tell the players he still believed in them.
"When I was finished, Danny got up and told the other guys he didn't consider himself a loser and he wasn't willing to accept the idea (Duke had been picked seventh in the league) that we were bad."
The Blue Devils won at Clemson and two nights later at Georgia Tech. They ended up third in the league and in the NCAA tournament. Ask anyone on the team and he will say that Meagher's speech was one of the turning points.
Meagher has become so notorious for his intensity that no less a person that North Carolina Coach Dean Smith has singled him out as a player he can't stand. After Duke had shocked Carolina in the ACC Tournament last March, Smith, the master of the subtle shot, said, "Meagher learned to play under those international rules. He's playing a different (read it "dirty") game out there."
Believe this: If Smith had Meagher he would love his blue collar game.
Meagher is the inspiration, Amaker is the glue and Henderson is the guy no one wanted whom everyone would now love to have. But the stars are Alarie and Dawkins.
They are unlikely looking heroes. Dawkins may be the only living basketball player as skinny as Amaker. In fact, they have to be the lightest back court combination (total weight about 305 pounds) ever to start for a Top Ten team.
But Dawkins does things few players, much less 6-2 guards, can do. He rebounds excellently, plays spectacularly in the open court and is fearless. Sometimes that lack of fear gets him in trouble because he will try anything. But that is how Krzyzewski wants him to play.
"Johnny has the qualities of a very special player," the coach said. "He's gotten more consistent each year, especially on defense. More and more, he'll have moments of greatness."
The same can be said of Alarie. If Dawkins looks too skinny to be a star, Alarie looks too soft. He has blond hair, blue eyes and an easy smile. But playing against him is anything but easy. If he gets the ball in the low post, he is deadly with his turnaround moves. Cut him off down there and he'll go outside and coolly swish his jump shot.
As sophomores, Dawkins averaged 18.4 points, Alarie 17.5. Now, they are averaging 17.3 and 16.7, respectively. "We are starting to take on the appearance of a very good team in that our leading scorers' averages are going down," Krzyzewski said. "That's because other players are doing more, giving them more help."
Dawkins and Alarie, and to some extent Bilas, are key members in the program for another reason: they were the breakthrough class. Along with Henderson, Weldon Williams and the now-transferred Bill Jackman, they were the group that proved to the world that Krzyzewski was not just another former Bob Knight assistant who could X and O but perhaps not R -- recruit.
With the exception of Henderson, each member of that class was highly sought and Krzyzewski's ability to win those battles -- one year after narrowly missing such players as Chris Mullin, Jim Miller and Uwe Blab -- established the foundation on which Krzyzewski has now built a program that should be solid for years to come.
"After that first recruiting year, when we lost all those good players, I went to see (former great Duke coach) Vic Bubas," Krzyzewski remembered. "He said to me, 'Mike, anything that is truly good isn't built quickly. Be patient.'
"I tried to remember that during that summer, because I could easily have gotten discouraged. When Johnny and Mark and Jay signed the next year, I remembered what Vic said. I knew it was still going to take time, but I also knew we were going to get there."
And, slowly, they have gotten there. The 1983 season, with as many as four freshman starting at times, was painful. Krzyzewski, having played for Knight at Army and coached under him at Indiana, believes in man-to-man defense. Freshmen, especially in the ACC, have trouble playing it. The Blue Devils were in constant foul trouble. Critics screamed for a zone. They called Krzyzewski intractable. He just smiled. "What they don't understand is that going through tough times now will make us better later," he said then. "What's important is that the players understand what we're doing."
The players understood. "It would have been easy for Coach K to just play zone," Dawkins said when the long season was over. "But he knew what he was doing and so did we."
Last season was proof and this season has been more proof. Krzyzewski arrived at Duke under difficult circumstances: At 33 he was replacing the very popular Bill Foster, who had won 73 games his last three years and gone to the NCAA final. He also arrived at the same time that Jim Valvano got to N.C. State.
Valvano is a performer, Krzyzewki is a teacher. His humor is subtle. In fact, often one has to look underneath the straight black hair and right into the dancing brown eyes to realize he has been had by a Krzyzewski joke.
"He knows we're not going to win every game and we know we're not going to win every game," Amaker said. "We're not like Georgetown; we can't scare you into shooting 20 percent. We have to work hard every game for 40 minutes, if we're going to win.
"But every game, when we leave the court, we know we've either given it everything we have and it wasn't enough, or given it everything we have and beaten the other guy's butt. We just work and work and work. And we love every minute of it."
They have worked long and hard to make themselves the hunted. Tonight, in Cole Field House, a good Maryland team will stalk them. A loss would not shock the Blue Devils. One of their strengths is knowing they are beatable.
"It's the kind of game that makes basketball fun," Amaker said.
At Duke, less than two years after hitting bottom, basketball is fun again.