I think many Washingtonians had two words for Mike Krzyzewski as he pondered whether to leave college coaching and go to the pros: Steve Spurrier.
Krzyzewski is about the same age and in about the same circumstance as Spurrier was when he left Florida to take a job with a signature NFL franchise, the Washington Redskins. Both Spurrier and Krzyzewski had done about as much as they could in college; both men had been generally proclaimed the best college coaches in their sport; both men had turned down other big deal pro offers before. And we saw what happened to Spurrier here.
But while Spurrier might serve as a cautionary tale for Krzyzewski, he didn't have to be a preventative tale. I thought Krzyzewski should go to the Lakers. (And, no, Gary Williams is not pulling the strings on my head as I write this -- though Gary and Roy Williams would have been the happiest guys in America had Krzyzewski left Duke.)
The arguments against Krzyzewski leaving were that not only had he made Duke into the preeminent college basketball program, but he had made Duke into a unique place -- and why would he want to coach those selfish, overpaid dopes in the NBA who wouldn't listen to him?
Well, 1) Duke isn't quite as unique anymore. Krzyzewski now loses players at nearly the same rate as everyone else. In recent years Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Carlos Boozer and now Luol Deng left for the NBA before their college eligibility was used up. Krzyzewski's top recruit for next season, Shaun Livingston, passed up Duke to go straight to the NBA. As attractive as Duke is, as great as Krzyzewski is, he can't expect to keep great prospects in school any longer than Tom Izzo, Gary Williams and Jim Boeheim can. And 2) most good pros welcome good coaching. Or didn't you see what Larry Brown got out of the Detroit Pistons?
Let me make it clear: I didn't see how Krzyzewski could make a "wrong" decision. Either way it was a win for him -- following his heart, as he said he did at yesterday's news conference, or following a new challenge. But I felt Krzyzewski would find college basketball more akin to pro basketball than Spurrier found in football, where differences in speed and power are pronounced. The NBA is mostly a half-court game now, like college. Scoring is relatively equal in college (over 40 minutes) and the pros (over 48). NBA players play far better defense than they used to. And despite some notorious exceptions, like Allen Iverson, most NBA players are quite coachable.
The fact is the NBA has far better players than college. Krzyzewski spent his coaching career at Duke preparing players for the next level up, the NBA. I thought he might want to see that level first hand. (Something nobody seems to have mentioned is how the ACC's capitulation to football may have soured Krzyzewski on his conference. With all their new teams the ACC won't be able to guarantee home-and-home dates with every conference team. You think Krzyzewski wants to play only one game a year with Carolina, Maryland, Wake or N.C. State?)
It's widely broadcast that college coaches fail in the NBA. Larry Brown certainly hasn't. Chuck Daly, Dick Motta and Jack Ramsay didn't. A lot of the college coaches who recently failed in spectacular manner -- Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Lon Kruger, Tim Floyd -- signed on with bad teams and couldn't rebuild quickly. Krzyzewski would be going to a dominant team.
Three NBA franchises stand head and shoulders above the rest (four, if Wilbon wrote this column and slurped the flailing Bulls): the Celtics, Lakers and Knicks. People wondered why Doc Rivers would take the Celtics job, considering it's a marginal team and Boston is presumed to be a difficult place to live for black men. Rivers said simply, "Because it's the Boston Celtics." That goes ditto for the Los Angeles Lakers, who actually have an enviable team now to go with their history of consistent excellence. In the 44 years they've been in Los Angeles, the Lakers have been to 21 NBA Finals!
Yes, Kobe Bryant is a free agent. But most people believe he'll stay with the Lakers now that Phil Jackson has departed. And Kobe is the best all-around player in basketball. Who wouldn't want to start with him? Yes, Shaquille O'Neal has demanded to be traded. But he has a contract with the Lakers. If I owned the Lakers, unless I got Tim Duncan, I wouldn't trade Shaq anywhere. I'd rather he sit out than play for anyone else. And although Shaq has publicly said he still wanted out of L.A. even if Krzyzewski came, Shaq might have ultimately come around on a great coach like Krzyzewski. You'll remember that Shaq refused to play for Larry Brown in the Olympics, saying Phil Jackson ought to be the U.S. coach. You think Shaq might think better of Brown now that Brown's Pistons crushed the Lakers in the NBA Finals? Right now, Krzyzewski is the closest thing to Brown out there.
I left money for last, because I didn't think it's what Krzyzewski's decision would turn on. But there should be no doubt the Lakers would have paid Krzyzewski at least three times what Duke will. Whether that's $6 million, $8 million or $10 million a year is for someone else to decide. But it's an awful lot of money, and an awful lot more than Krzyzewski will make by staying at Duke. A university simply can't pay its basketball coach anywhere near $6 million a year without a faculty mutiny.
Krzyzewski's three daughters are out of college and married. He has no financial obligation to them. But in his head he's still a working-class kid from Chicago, who went to West Point and learned about responsibility to family, friends and country above everything else. The kind of life-changing amount of money the Lakers were offering would have taken care of Krzyzewski's family for generations to come.
Everybody said the smart money was on Krzyzewski to stay at Duke. And they were right. I saw the Lakers' offer as a free wish from the genie in the lamp. Apparently, Krzyzewski decided he already had everything he'd wished for.