A few weeks back, NBA commissioner Adam Silver hosted a dinner honoring Mike Krzyzewski’s global influence on basketball. Not surprisingly, the guest list of about 50 teemed with coaches.
Monty Williams, Tom Thibodeau, Nate McMillan, Quin Snyder and Mike D’Antoni from the NBA. Jeff Capel, Johnny Dawkins, Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski from the college ranks.
Each of them has been a part of Krzyzewski’s unrivaled coaching journey, at Duke and/or with USA Basketball.
“It was one of those beautiful nights,” Krzyzewski said.
The event was also among the few times since his June retirement announcement that Krzyzewski indulged in reflection.
“I don’t think about my career,” he said Tuesday at the ACC’s preseason media gathering. “I don’t think about that. I think it takes away from the moment. I’ve never been a rearview mirror guy ... because if I looked in the past, I’d rationalize why I didn’t have to be good now.
“I try to be the Army coach, or the coach building a program at Duke, every year because that’s where my [players] are, and it’s my responsibility to be on their page and to teach them through the experiences that I’ve had and my staff has had.”
If you consider those words lip service, then you don’t understand the military ethos that have driven Krzyzewski’s life since the day he arrived at the United States Military Academy as a plebe in 1965.
If you believe Krzyzewski views his impending final season at Duke as a casual victory lap, then you haven’t met the man that Notre Dame’s Mike Brey says is as fiercely competitive today as decades ago, before he’d steered Duke to the first of its five national championships, before he’d led the United States to three Olympic gold medals.
But why not, as most retiring coaches do, walk away immediately? That’s the path North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Krzyzewski’s friend and fellow Basketball Hall of Famer, chose in April.
“I knew I wanted to coach another year,” Krzyzewski said, “but I knew I wasn’t going to coach beyond this year. So recruiting this year would be an ethical dilemma. You wouldn’t want to recruit somebody and say you’re going to stay and not stay.”
The former Army officer then channeled his training and helped to craft a succession plan. Jon Scheyer, his associate head coach and the leading scorer of Duke’s 2010 national champions, will take over the program in 2022-23.
That transparency allowed Scheyer to coordinate recruiting for next season and, more important to this team’s development, freed Krzyzewski to spend the summer working on campus with current players rather than evaluating future ones across the country.
Duke faithful can only hope Krzyzewski’s final season unfolds as well as Scheyer’s recruiting. Headlined by 6-foot-11 Dereck Lively, four acclaimed prospects committed to Duke this summer.
The focus now is on 2021-22 and returning the Blue Devils to the NCAA tournament, an event they missed last season for the first time since 1995.
The top two scorers from that squad, Matthew Hurt and DJ Steward, turned professional, but returnees Wendell Moore, Jeremy Roach, Mark Williams and Joey Baker, plus graduate transfers Theo John and Bates Jones, give the roster a veteran vibe. Add the program’s usual influx of gifted freshmen — say hello to Paolo Banchero — and Duke figures to reclaim national prominence.
That mix is reminiscent of Krzyzewski’s most recent NCAA champions, the 2015 team that combined freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones with upperclassmen Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson.
“We’re very athletic,” Krzyzewski said, “and our freshmen are more physically mature than normal. So there’s a degree of physicality and toughness. ... We need to be a lot better than last year’s team, in coaching, preparation, relationships. The kids were good last year, but I don’t think we were able to do them justice in preparing them for the season [because of COVID].”
Naturally, Krzyzewski, 74, was Tuesday’s story du jour. With 1,170 career victories, he’s the sport’s all-time winningest coach and this will be his 47th season as a big whistle, five at Army and 42 at Duke.
“He hasn’t just become a figurehead that sits back,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “He’s engaged. He’s involved. He loves the game. He’s still spirited in our coaches’ meetings. ... And obviously he feels this is the time, and when you call the shots and go out on your own terms, that’s the best.”
“He’s had an unbelievably profound impact on my life,” said Pitt’s Capel, who played for, and coached under, Krzyzewski. “[There are] probably three men that have impacted me as a man more than anyone. The first one is my father. And then the next two are probably right the same, and that’s Coach and my grandfather. And I find myself now as a husband, as a father, really leaning back on a lot of the things that I learned from him as a player.”
But enough platitudes and memories. It’s time to see whether this team can author a storybook final act, one that hangs a sixth banner in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Moore put those aspirations perfectly, in military terms: “I think for us and all the guys in the locker room, we really know we have a mission to accomplish.”
“I’d like to just add something to that,” Krzyzewski said. “They can’t play for me. They’ve got to play for us. We’re not going to be good unless we own it. Like, you can’t do it for somebody. You’ve got to do it for you, for your group. That’s the mentality that we’ve had, and we’ll continue to have.”