After his postgame press conference on Tuesday night, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski walked down the hall, ducked behind a partition and found himself face-to-face with a visual representation of his success.
Duke’s 74-69 victory over Michigan State was Krzyzewski’s 903rd victory, allowing him to usurp Bob Knight as college basketball’s all-time winningest coach. To celebrate the occasion, dozens of his former players had come together at Madison Square Garden, and Coach K found himself surrounded by a veritable “who’s who” of Duke basketball over the past 30 years.
At the back of the room stood former No. 1 draft pick and two-time All-Star Elton Brand.
“He’s meant everything to my career,” Brand said. “It’s just the person he is. He’s taught me things on and off the court that I still hold dear to myself today.”
To Krzyzewski’s left was Shane Battier, contemplating what he believed was his coach’s most important lesson.
“Consistency. You have to bring it every day,” Battier said. “You have to bring it with effort, passion and enthusiasm. And if you do that, regardless of what happened the day before or the play before, you’re going to be successful.”
Just as Krzyzewski had made a sizable impact on his former players, he said it meant a great deal to him to have Knight in attendance. That being said, he characteristically downplayed the milestone, preferring to focus mainly on improving the Duke team he currently has, which is talented but possesses plenty of rough edges.
But make no mistake, seeing so many of his former players show up to witness his hallmark night visibly moved him.
“I’ve never called [Knight] anything but ‘Coach.’ I can tell you that whenever I see you guys, and when you say the word ‘Coach,’ boom, it goes right here,” Krzyzewski said, pointing to his heart. “Thank you for allowing me to have that type of relationship with you. … I love all of you.”
“He’s got an incredible passion for what he does,” said Krzyzewski’s agent, David Falk. “Nobody who’s great at what they do does it halfway. He’s an extremely intelligent person about understanding human nature, he’s a great motivator, he’s a great leader — and I think people want to play for him.
“So I think he derives as much satisfaction from coming into a room like tonight and having all his former players here to pay their respect, as he does from coaching the game.”
If you stand on the roof of the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center, just above Coach K’s sixth-floor office, you can see just how far his empire extends.
Directly below is Krzyzewskiville, a patch of grass where countless students have spent countless nights camping for Duke-UNC games. Down to the right is Cameron Indoor Stadium, which speaks for itself. And the built-to-order Schwartz-Butters building is tall enough that from its top levels, one can gaze out over most of the campus.
Given the kingdom he now presides over, Krzyzewski has come quite a long way. Coach K’s first three Duke teams combined for a 38-47 record, prompting boosters to lobby then-athletic director Tom Butters to oust him. Butters refused, Johnny Dawkins helped Krzyzewski reach his first Final Four three years later, and the rest is history.
But as good as things now are, Krzyzewski subscribes to the Vanilla Sky line of thinking when it comes to his initial growing pains: The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.
“I don’t think I would have done with my teams what we’ve done if I didn’t know what it meant to lose and build, and go through a lot of hard times,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not complaining, I just think you need to go through that. As a player, too, you need to get knocked back, because then you change [as a result].
“When I look back, I don’t regret those days. I remember them, because I don’t want to lose like that again. I’m more into not losing than winning.”