The idea Mike Krzyzewski could walk into a hotel ballroom Tuesday night less than 10 miles from the Comcast Center and receive nothing but adoration was probably beyond comprehension 10-12 years ago, when Maryland and Duke were vying for ACC basketball supremacy and Coach K and his teams were the Empire to Gary’s band of rebels.
But as he signed basketballs, shook hands, smiled and posed for pictures with people he had never met, it was evident Krzyzewski has become something bigger over the past decade, transcending rivalries, the college game, even every apocalyptic snit he has thrown over the years on the sideline.
But with the death of John Wooden three years ago, no one better plays the role now of America’s paternal coach than Krzyzewski, the go-to man on the values of the game Naismith invented.
He will tell you why Maryland never should have left the ACC and the reason he will no longer schedule the Terrapins; why the NBA needs to raise the minimum draft age; what Terp he would have really loved to have called Cameron Indoor Stadium home; the two greatest opponents who ever dunked on Duke; if and when the NBA still beckons; and, finally, why at 66 he doesn’t plan to step away for at least three more years.
“I haven’t given it that much thought,” Krzyzewski said. “I know I’m going to coach the Olympic team in 2016. So I’ll be coaching until then. I’m in good health. I love what I do. I’m in a place where I love it. But no one can ever predict health. Right now I don’t have an exit plan.”
Good. In a world of too many recruiters and not enough teachers of basketball and life, he’s still sorely needed.
On a night when two of his former players (Grant Hill and Tommy Amaker) were inducted into the Washington Metro Basketball Hall of Fame, along with former Washington Bullet Phil Chenier, Krzyzewski was the biggest draw. He received the Nell and John Wooden Leadership in Coaching Award at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Woodley Park, presented by Nan Wooden, daughter of the late, legendary UCLA coach.
For all the grief Krzyzewski gets locally after years of being the perfect villain in College Park — bringing that pristine program from Durham to play Goliath to Gary’s little Hickory High — his legacy is secure.
Four national titles and 34 years at Duke later, Krzyzewski is 43 wins short of 1,000 for his career. There is no one more successful since Wooden. Not Knight. Not Dean Smith, his Tobacco Road rival.
Even Smith, a person genetically predisposed to despise everything Coach K and Duke, would be hard pressed to feel contempt for the two Olympic gold medals Krzyzewski guided the United States to in Beijing and London.
At a time when America’s game was reeling internationally amid the perception the best team players in the world were suddenly from Europe, Krzyzewski went the old-fangled route: getting LeBron, Kobe and 10 other CEOs of their own companies to sacrifice for the good of the group.
Earlier this summer he admitted he contemplated retirement after winning the gold in London. But he came back to Durham, never once regretting not taking $40 million in 2004 to coach the Lakers. Besides, he has gotten his NBA fix as Olympic coach.
“Coaching the national team has given me an opportunity to do that. It really has,” he said. “I love Duke. North Carolina’s my home. We’ve been there for 34 years. I’m an older guy. I’m 66. I’m not moving anywhere.”
When asked whether happiness should count more than merely money, Maryland’s move to the Big Ten obviously came up.
“I would have always loved for Maryland to stay in the ACC,” Krzyzewski said. “No one will ever convince me that’s not the way it should be. It’s not just Duke and Maryland that you lose, but Maryland and Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina . . .”
A university president and the Board of Trustees can sell enormous TV rights to their alumni forever as a reason to move conferences at a time when so many power-conference schools are playing musical chairs.
But the notion of Maryland fans feeling for Illinois or Northwestern what they once felt for Duke or Carolina is near impossible, Coach K said.
“It will be a little bit unnatural in a Big Ten where it’s you and Minnesota and Illinois. Those are all outstanding schools, but you’re the new kid, and you have to create those relationships. From an outsider looking in, I would not have made that decision. I hope it turns out well for them.”
He remains close friends with Gary Williams and Lefty Driesell. He added he really would have loved to have Juan Dixon and his leadership. “He and Steve Blake were amazing,” Coach K said.
“Really, in my time in the ACC, I think the two most gifted players that I’ve ever competed against were Michael [Jordan] and Len Bias.”
Because the collective bargaining agreement signed between the NBA’s owners and players two years ago did not address the current one-and-done age limit for draftees, Krzyzewski is worried it won’t be addressed for several years. But he added the wholesale changes at the top of the NBA players’ union might create wiggle room.
“Certainly something that would be discussed is 20 and 2 — 20 years old and two years in college,” he said. “With a new president and a new head of the players’ union, I would think that there’s a chance that they would like to have that revisited. And if they do, I think we as a collegiate community need to come up with another course of action that’s beneficial.”
Spending time with Krzyzewski on Tuesday night, it was clear the Maryland decision still stuck in his craw. It wasn’t just about losing a conference rival; it was about tradition, memories, the nostalgia of buying a corndog and pop outside Greensboro Coliseum before the ACC tournament — all the things that have nothing to do with rights fees.
“Sure, there’s the tradition of just being in the ACC, but there’s the relationships that have been developed,” he said. “Those things are priceless.
“I would always hope that anyone in a conference, if they were in financial difficulty, that the conference would help you figure out a way. Or your alums would be given the opportunity to help. In other words, to me, if you’re having trouble, it’s time to go out to your people first and say, ‘We need you or otherwise we might have to make some decision.’ It’s not a threat; it’s the reality that we might have to make some changes.
“People ante up for the institutions they love. And I know that there are tens of thousands of Maryland people who love their school dearly and have a right to know and be a part of the decision-making process. I really wish they had stayed.”
Spoken like a guy who is going to miss the noise and the delirium more than most on cold, February nights in College Park.