It is 30 years ago, and the 1985-86 season. An earnest young coach has been struggling to get his program to full blossom, but now has seniors hardened by adversity. They went 11-17 as freshman, and 3-11 in their unforgiving league. But they are so much older now, and they are ready.
This is Duke. And it is dawn of the Mike Krzyzewski empire.
Thirty years later, they remember how it was and what it meant, the Blue Devils of 1986. How they won 37 games, and carried Krzyzewski, in his sixth season, to his first Final Four. How they set the table for the enormous Duke glory to come. And how they fell one half short of a happy ending.
From Johnny Dawkins, then the star and now the coach at Stanford: "I think it’s special for all of us. Everything has a beginning, and that was the beginning of what Coach has put together. Who could have dreamed what would happen?"
From Jay Bilas, then the starting forward, and now an ESPN analyst: "There were certainly times we talked about laying a foundation, especially when we were first there, and building a winning culture there. But I think we also wanted to win for ourselves, instead of trying to become some sort of founding fathers."
And from the coach who still toils for Duke, as he did then, 30 years and 12 Final Fours and five national championships ago.
"Certainly there wouldn’t be a second time unless you had a first time," Krzyzewski said. "To have a first time going to the Final Four is like a rite of passage for your program, for a coach, for a player.
"The ’86 team is really the rock for our program, and I love all those guys."
The record will show the 1986 Duke team finished 37-3, and entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 ranked team – the first of seven Krzyzewski teams to do that. It will show four veteran seniors – Dawkins, Bilas, Mark Alarie and David Henderson – teamed with junior Amaker for the starting lineup, with Danny Ferry and Billy King first off the bench.
It will show they fought off No. 2 Kansas 71-67 at the Final Four in Dallas – the last of 11 ranked opponents they beat that season – to land in the national championship game, all set for one shining moment. But then ran into Louisville and a most precocious freshman – Pervis Ellison – and lost 72-69.
It will show they eventually went their separate ways to real life success after their playing days. Dawkins and Amaker to coaching, Henderson to coaching and scouting, Bilas to law and the broadcast booth, Alarie to investment-money management, Ferry and King to NBA front offices.
And it will show the coach they left behind kept stacking great Duke seasons one atop another, until he was a legend.
"Getting to the Final Four and playing the national championship game is a stamp that you can do it," Krzyzewski said. "Look, you can say you’re going to do it, but until you do it, you haven’t done it. So there’s a road map that you followed, and it worked. Now the fact that you’ve done it, can you do it again? In that nine-year period, we went seven of the nine years, so we followed the road map pretty well."
It was a special season from the start. A pre-season NIT championship led to a surge through December and January. The Blue Devils lost back-to-back games to Georgia Tech and North Carolina in January, but those would be the only stumbles. By March, they had given Duke its first sole ACC regular season title in 20 years, and added a conference tournament title, with a one-point win over Georgia Tech.
"I was sure of character when I recruited them," Krzyzewski said. "They’re all so smart, successful, people-savvy, highly ambitious and team players. They had every ingredient that you would want to build a championship-level team with."
They were also a collection of accomplished young men, knowing where they wanted to go in basketball, and life. Dawkins still remembers postgame tomfoolery, when Bilas – the future broadcaster -- would pretend to be interviewing his teammates with a fake microphone. “He would do that from time to time, grab a fork or a spoon and say, 'Hey, what’d you think about the game?' You kind of knew he might end up going that direction."
They entered the NCAA Tournament driven by memories of disappointment. They had narrowly lost in the second round in 1984 and ’85, by two points to Washington and one to Boston College. "We weren’t going out like we did the previous two years," Dawkins said. "That was not happening."
Except, they almost did in the first round, against No. 16 seed Mississippi Valley State. Duke was pressured into 23 turnovers, trailed by seven points in the second half, couldn’t get the lead until under the 12-minute mark, and escaped 85-78.
Krzyzewski remembers his team being worn down a bit by the ACC grind, and how fearlessly and well the underdog opponents played.
Bilas remembers the red shoes of Mississippi Valley State coach Lafayette Stribling, and how hard it was to chase the Delta Devils’ spread offense. "It was not a pleasant 40 minutes."
Amaker remembers the second half and how “Johnny just took over. He put us on his back.” Dawkins scored 16 of his 27 points in the final 12 minutes.
Dawkins remembers what a close call it was, and the lesson from it.
"I still use that example in every one of my coaching years when we get to the tournament. I will never forget the game. It was basically 1 vs. 64."
Bilas has a postscript.
"After the game, some of the Mississippi Valley State players came into our locker room. We were like, 'Damn, you guys are good.' They asked if they could get our autographs. We said, 'You guys were kicking our ass out there and you want our autograph?'
"We could have been the first No. 1 seed to lose."
It was the quintessential survive-and-advance. "I think that really propelled us from that point on," Dawkins said.
Next came Old Dominion and DePaul. Then Navy with David Robinson, to get to the Final Four. Then second-ranked Kansas, for Duke’s 21st win in a row. That left only 31-7 Louisville.
The Blue Devils led 37-34 at halftime, but the Cardinals could not be held back. Ellison scored 25 points, becoming the first freshman in 42 years to be named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. The Duke team that shot 52 percent for the season hit only 40.3 percent that night.
Thirty years later, the pain is still there.
Amaker: "It was kind of hard for us to stomach that we didn’t capture it all, given the kind of year we had, and the run we were on, and the team we had assembled . . . that’s why it still cuts us today."
Dawkins, who scored 24 points and averaged 25.5 for the tournament: “I remember an airball shot that Pervis tipped back in late. I remember them defending me differently, switching and keeping different guys on me, which was something I hadn’t seen that much that year.
"I’ve never rewatched that game. I’m still getting over that one. You can tell 30 years later. There’s a good chance I won’t ever get over it."
Krzyzewski: “When I look back on the ’86 team, I wish I was older coaching them. I think I did a good job with them, as good as I thought I could do. But they were a team worthy of winning it all, and where they came from, 11-17 to 37-3, is really one of the great journeys in the history of college basketball.
"The Final Four, I thought our game against Kansas was a war. Kansas was so good and we won a war. In playing Louisville, they were outstanding and coached by one of the great coaches in Denny Crum, and I thought we ran out of gas the last 10 minutes. I think Louisville had a lot to do with that but I also think the semifinal game had something to do with that."
Bilas: “We went to something we had gone to most every game that we played that year. We called it 2-3 motion and every time we went into, we never lost. And that was the one time we lost. Some people say we took our foot off the gas too early. Some said we were tired. Nobody ever said we were tired when we won. We got beat, and we got beat by a really good team.
"There was this talk about where that Duke team fit in among the greatest teams to ever play, and if you win that championship game you’re not only national champs, we would have won 38 games. Thirty-eight would still be standing (as a record, with 2012 Kentucky). It would have put us sort of in that mythical category among the greatest teams to ever play. When we lost, all that talk went away. The difference between winning and losing might be a bucket, but it seems in other ways it’s a world away.”
So it was frustrating at the end. But look what it started.
Thirty years later, those Blue Devils are still close, still chat with one another, text, remember.
Amaker on Krzyzewski: “Knowing what he has been able to accomplish and become such an icon, to be able to say we were a part of the beginning of that for him, that feels really cool. That’s one of the things that helped me do what we’re trying to do at Harvard. We talked a lot about trying to win our first Ivy League championship five years ago (and four more since), and we mentioned that in some of the stories in recruiting. How wonderful it’s going to feel to know that you were one of the early ones.”
Bilas: “To me, the honor is I get to say I played for Coach K. I get to say Johnny Dawkins was my teammate. Mark Alarie was my teammate. Tommy Amaker was my teammate. David Henderson was my teammate. That’s honor enough for anybody.”
Dawkins: “We were fortunate to be at the beginning. I’ll carry that experience with me for the rest of my life. I think it made me a better person.”
Said Krzyzewski, “That team was as good as any team I’ve coached at Duke.”
And they will always be his first to get the Final Four. Right?
“I’d rather,” Bilas said, “be the first one to have won it.”