DURHAM, N.C. — Mike Krzyzewski said it himself on Thursday: “In sport, you never know what’s going to happen—so the spontaneity of emotion and performance, it’s one of the great things about sport. It really is reality TV, and reality TV is not reality TV. Sport is, and that’s the beauty of it.”
That’s the beauty of it, and that’s the wreckage of it, too. Storylines get ruined. You want to ensure a happy ending? Go to the movies. Go to a sporting event and you take your chances. The spontaneity of emotion and performance can send things flying off in any direction.
Sport can script a perfect end scene for a team and a man, but there is another team involved and that team might not go along with the script. That other team might tear the thing up and author its own ending. The other team might rise up in a sweltering cauldron of emotion and show no reverence for the legend who is coaching his last game in one of the cathedrals of the sport. The other team might remind everyone that they represent a pretty good program, too, with decades of tradition, and might let it be known that they didn’t come to town to serve as ceremonial cannon fodder.
That’s how you get a shocker like North Carolina 94, Duke 81, in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium after 42 years as coach. A celebratory 48 hours was building toward a crescendo Saturday night, and instead the curtain came down to the sound of a few howling Tar Heels fans amid an otherwise despairing silence.
As defeat became inevitable, Krzyzewski spent the final minute of his Cameron career in silence. He stood with his hands behind his back, then folded his arms across his chest, shifting his weight from side to side. Finally he sat down, said something briefly to assistant Chris Carrawell, then clasped his hands on his right knee and watched it end. The last shot a K-coached team took in this arena was an errant three-pointer by Paolo Banchero, and then it was time to shake hands and walk off Coach K Court with a slight limp and pursed lips.
The Tar Heels have won bigger games—they own six national titles—but not many more satisfying. This is Carolina’s biggest of their 141 victories in the history of this rivalry—and the fact that a team that has looked very bad for much of this season could do this is the ultimate stamp of the rivalry as the best in all of sport. Great rivalries produce great upsets, and this is one for the ages.
It is absolutely a validating victory for first-year coach Hubert Davis, whose team vaulted from the NCAA tournament bubble to safely in the bracket in 40 stunning minutes. And it is a sufficiently dispiriting defeat for Duke that it left Krzyzewski opening a suddenly awkward postgame ceremony by apologizing to the 9,300-plus fans who wedged into the old building.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon,” K said in a raspy voice, and the fans started to audibly disagree before he cut them off. “Please, everyone, be quiet. Today was unacceptable, but the season has been very acceptable. And I’ll tell you, this season isn’t over, all right?”
They cheered at that reminder, and the honoring of K could proceed on a lighter and happier note. Not that the Duke players seemed to be consoled at all. They filed back onto the court for the postgame ceremony, sat down on the visiting bench Carolina had just ecstatically vacated, and stared blankly into the distance or at the floor as a tribute video played on the overhead scoreboard. The Blue Devils looked like they could scarcely contain their own self-loathing, having ruined the Party of the Century.
Fortunately for them, their coach has 75 years of wisdom and perspective. He could be bitterly disappointed in the outcome, but capable of tucking that emotion in his back pocket long enough to appreciate the outpouring of support from the fans and from his former players, nearly 100 of which attended the game and formed a tunnel for him to walk through to center court.
The number of all-time greats in attendance was staggering, a human wall of Duke tradition. The sight of them all, plus his 10 grandchildren, moved Krzyzewski to tears before the game, as the totality of the tribute came home.
“It has been emotional,” K said. “Before the game you’re getting a little teary-eyed, then, ‘Whoa, I can’t do that.’ Then you come out for the game and start crying. … It’s good to be emotional, especially at good things. If you’re crying because of joy, you’re a pretty lucky person.”
All that said, Krzyzewski acknowledged that he’s relieved this milestone event is over. It had been circled on the calendar for nearly a year, but that doesn’t mean the moment could be easily contained. The closer it got, the bigger it became. The basketball game became secondary, to a damaging degree for Duke.
“It means a lot,” K said. “All this stuff means a lot. And the clock’s ticking. You know there’s an ending. Cameron has been a very special place to me, and I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to honor it today like it deserves.”
As it turned out, even one of the most focused coaches in history couldn’t compartmentalize everything that surrounded this game. After locking up the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title—Duke’s first outright since 2006—the focus on that and on Krzyzewski became its own phenomenon. “It was a celebration of me,” he said. “I don’t like that.”
Ticket prices skyrocketed. Visitors who didn’t have tickets showed up anyway. ESPN descended upon campus with an army of staff. The undergrad Krzyzewskiville tents were down before then and tickets distributed, but the grad students pitched tents all the way around the concourse at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke’s football venue.
There was a festival atmosphere on campus Thursday and Friday, as Duke hit spring break. With classes over, students lugged all manner of alcohol to their tents and partied in anticipation of Saturday.
One of the grad student line monitors was 62-year-old Nhan Vo, who works as an IT consultant at Duke. He was a Vietnamese refugee who left his home country in 1979. He said he walked through the Cambodian jungle for 13 days with no possessions to get to Thailand, then asked the Catholic Church for help being relocated to America. He landed in Oklahoma, then wound up at Duke.
With his ponytail tucked beneath a Duke hat, he’ll talk for as long as anyone will listen about the basketball program. He’s been around it for decades and swears that he’s learned which plays Krzyzewski is calling by his hand gestures. “I know who is going to screen, who is going to cut, who is going to dunk,” Nhan said.
He’s attended national championship games. His daughter went to school at Duke and became a Cameron Crazie. But despite all the investment, the idea of being sad that Coach K is retiring is a foreign one to Nhan.
“What the hell do you want from a person?” He asked. “Let him enjoy what he can do. He might do something even better next.”
While Nhan and the Duke students prepared for a celebration, the Tar Heels were preparing for a basketball game. This was by far their best performance of the season, and the Blue Devils weren’t able to match their intensity and execution. Duke took leads in each half but couldn’t sustain them, and Carolina’s run in the final 5 1/2 minutes was 21–10.
“We’ve been in a penthouse the last few days, with room service and people saying nice things,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t play hungry. … It’s tough to find somebody who is hungry all the time. There are only so many Kobe Bryants in the world. You can’t always beat human nature.”
Krzyzewski blamed himself for putting his team through just one hard practice leading up to the game instead of two. “That’s a leadership choice,” he said.
The next leadership choice is moving forward to the time when Krzyzewski has often been at his best: tournament basketball. Duke will have the No. 1 seed for the ACC tourney, and likely will be no worse than a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament that will follow.
The focus now can be solely on trying to win every remaining game. Krzyzewski has a maximum of nine remaining in his career, and even with this loss he has a team that could extend this season all the way to the final game.
“We’ve got a chance,” he said. “We’ve got a chance next week and we’ll have a chance the following week. When it’s done, I’ll walk away and say we did a good job.”
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