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Special K

When March Madness comes around, Mike Krzyzewski is never far from the fray

Mark Woods

The undisputed best coach in American sport sits across the table and waxes a poetic lyric about his role in life. 

It’s not so much what he says but how it comes across. Clearly a man in love with his vocation, he earns millions but you sense such satisfaction comes from making each of his charges that little bit better – in play and at the game of life. 

It’s a simple pleasure, he affirms. All part of a day’s work for the man known simply as Coach K.

Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-sheff-ski) is the basketball coach at Duke University, a small, prestigious institution tucked away in the relative backwater of Durham, North Carolina. 

Over 22 years in the role, he has garnered countless awards and graduated a multitude of flourishing talents into the NBA. Three times he has led Duke to the NCAA championship, a title second only to Super Bowl in esteem and one whose finale captures America’s imagination every spring. And he has the security of a contract which expires only when he does too.

This week, the 55 year old grandfather of two will pick out a clean tie and ready himself for the dusty grind of March Madness, a stage on which he has so often shone. 

Among his peers, K is the master craftsman, his tools a mix of a sharp tactical intellect and an all-encompassing zeal for the educative process of university sport.

“There’s a purity to it which you don’t find in the pros,” he outlines. “The players are not getting paid. They’re 17, 18, 19, 20 years old. You look at them more as a member of your family. 

"That’s the intimacy that’s developed in college basketball which cannot happen in pro basketball because those guys are getting paid millions of dollars. You might like them and be a big Lakers fan. But you’re not going to be intimate. 

“Shaq (O’Neal)’s making 20 million. That doesn’t mean you don’t love him. But you can watch Shavlik Randolph grow and fall in love with that. You remember him being here. They become part of you. They become part of your family. It’s a neat thing. 

“People come up to me and say: ‘We have you in our living room 30 nights a year with our family.’ You’re not coming in like a pro coach. Those guys might be great or better than us but they don’t have that presence because they’re not working with young guys. And I love that.”

The son of immigrants, Krzyzewski grew up in working-class Chicago, his parents forbidding any talk in their native Polish in the house. They wanted him to assimilate, to go into teaching. That he did. Just that instead of conducting lessons in the classroom, he instead holds chalk talk on court. 

“My goal was to be a high school teacher but then I went to the United States Military Academy and that knocked that off,” he recalls. 

“But in the military you’re also a teacher and leader. At West Point I played for one of the great teachers and leaders in Bob Knight. I learned the game but I also learned the passion of preparation and execution which comes through teaching. He taught me to change my limits and take them to a different extreme.”

In the Army, he was Captain K. It cultivated, he says, an appreciation of discipline and working with others. “And also the understanding of failure being part of the growth process. As a cadet, you learned to get up, find out why you failed and then get appropriate instruction on how you can be successful. And that’s really what we do here.

“I’ve told the (players) that they’re not going to do it alone. Ask for help. Find out what you’re doing right and wrong. Being wrong doesn’t make you a bad person … sometimes you’re going to lose and look bad but you get through it. 

"Maintain a positive attitude. Don’t lose your team. Don’t lose the people around who can help make you better. That’s called maturity.”

In Durham, there is no solace for the campus king. ‘Krzyzewskiville’ reads the sign just outside Cameron Indoor Stadium, an old-fashioned gymnasium which has become a cauldron to all who visit. 

The coach’s office - two-storeys high, lots of glass – is a fortress too. A palm reader, rather than a key, secures entry, designed to keep any keg-fuelled student pranksters at bay.

The university however benefits hugely from its most famous coach’s handiwork. It reaps vast sums from the television rights to its basketball programme which is, in turn, used as a lure to attract donations from wealthy alumni. 

To the delight and gratitude of the Cameron Crazies, budding stars have passed through en route to the pros at an astonishing rate.

Christian Laettner.
Bobby Hurley.
Grant Hill.
Jason Williams
Mike Dunleavy.

Do we need to carry on? All great names. All proud Dookies. Yet for Krzyzewski, coaching, and improving raw ingredients, is only part part of the job.

“To teach commitment when you have an example of it within your programme is another," he adds. "If you have Shane Battier at the locker next to you, working hard and you can see that, it helps a lot. 

"People will always look at their stars. That’s been one of the keys to our programme. Our upperclassmen have been great role models for our underclassmen. Not good, great. We’ve had six National Players of the Year and Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley weren’t among them."

Nevertheless, money has lately threatened the sanctity of college athletics. Students receiving under the table payments from unsavoury influences. Players dropping out to join the paid ranks. Accusations of points shaving. Gifts offered to parents as incentives to secure their offspring’s signature. 

Consequently, the rules have been tightened and the sanctions increased to dissuade potential offenders. Duke has not been tarred with the paint-spotted brush.

“We recruit the top players in the country and I’ve never lost a player because someone paid them off or cheated. People might use it as an excuse when they lose but that hurts our game. And with the scrutiny now, it’s tougher to do that. 

"In the US, the Internet is so big. We have people here watching our games doing reports. We have radio talk shows. We’re much more heavily scrutinised than a decade ago."

Some of the regulations can appear restrictive in the Land of the Free. Practice time is strictly controlled, a constraint which Krzyzewski believes is the reason why Europe’s young tyros have caught up with their American counterparts. 

“It is the greatest frustration. In order to learn something, you’ve got to do it,” he outlines. “When we get through school in May, we can’t teach them again until September. That’s four months with nothing. 

"Then in September, you can teach them two hours a week until the middle of October when you start practice. So for 60% of the year, you’re either not teaching them or doing very little. That doesn’t happen here.

“The Europeans have more chance to teach fundamentals. We have 20 hours a week maximum right now. I was speaking to a Belgian coach and he was telling me his club spends four hours per day all year round with his young players. We can’t do that.”

Of course, Krzyzewski could have escaped such shackles and followed many of his pupils to the NBA. The prospect, though, has never stirred his blood. 

“I’ve been in a position to do that a few times and maybe also take part-ownership of teams. But when the time came to pursue it, I just thought ‘I love Duke and I love college basketball’.” 

Despite two artificial hips, there is no sign of slowing down. There are fresh faces to invigorate and young minds to sculpt including, from next season, England prodigy Luol Deng. 

“What motivates me is not the fear of losing my job which happens for a lot of people. It’s the love of my job. Today, at the end of the game, I got chills just talking to our kids because it was one of those growth moments. That excites you. You see that happen, it's priceless.” 

How though can you put a price on an X-factor? 

Otherwise known as Special K.

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