NEW ORLEANS — In the back corridor of the Caesars Superdome, everyone was waiting. The security guards, the cameras, the NCAA escorts. From down the ramp you could hear the din of 70,602 people, but the hallway was nothing but quiet expectation.
Suddenly, coming down the black carpet was the Duke basketball team, headed for the court and its captivate-a-sport Final Four date with North Carolina. Soon after, 13 assistant coaches and various support staff. Then a break. Then there he was; a man in a blue Duke top limping toward the crowd, alone in his own thoughts. Mike Krzyzewski turned the corner and headed down the ramp, through a tunnel of people clearing the way, and into the noise and the light.
“I’ve been blessed to be in the arena,” he would say later. “And when you’re in the arena you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony, but you always will feel great about being in the arena.”
The huge overhead clock showed 3:32 before tipoff. The Cameron Crazies, standing en masse at the railing of their end zone section, erupted. North Carolina was on the court in blue, Duke in white.
It was time.
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Two hours later, it was all over. The game, an absolute classic. The Duke season, a saga. Mike Krzyzewski’s career, a legendary epic, now with a final page. The record will show that the 1,570th and last game of his coaching life ended with a North Carolina player hurling the game ball about five stories into the air, and the Tar Heels as a group leaping into each other’s arms, waving to their fans, enraptured about the masterpiece they had just pulled off.
The scoreboard said 81-77, and it was there to stay. All Krzyzewski could do was walk through the line and shake their hands, and then head back up the tunnel to be with his last Duke team for the last time. Any emotions, he kept from the outside world at that moment. Where were they? They had to be inside somewhere.
“I think when you have three daughters and 10 grandchildren and you’ve been through quite a bit, you’re used to taking care of the emotions of the people you love ... and that’s where I’m at,” he would say later. “I’m sure at some time I’ll deal with this in my own way.”
“It’s not about me, especially right now. As a coach I’m just concerned about these guys. I mean, they’re already crying on the court and that’s the only thing you can think about. I’ve said my entire career that I wanted my seasons to end where my team was either crying tears of joy or tears of sorrow, because then you knew that they gave everything. And I had a locker room filled with guys who were crying. And it’s a beautiful sight. It’s not the sight I would want. But it’s a sight I really respect, and it makes me understand just how good this group was.”
This is the way a Hall of Fame career ends: with 18 lead changes and 12 ties and numbers that will haunt the Blue Devils who played in it. Duke outscored North Carolina 48-26 in the paint, 25-2 in bench points and committed only four turnovers all night.
These are numbers worthy of a trip to the championship game, but instead they were headed back to Durham, and their coach to the rest of his life. In a battle of will, North Carolina had too much to survive. Too much Caleb Love with his 28 points. Too much Armando Bacot with his 21 rebounds. Too much purpose from a Tar Heels lineup that included four starters going at least 36 minutes in the most intense of circumstances.
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It was everything the moment could have asked more, where a rookie coach paced and cajoled his team to the biggest victory — so far — of his career. And where his 75-year-old opponent was so energized at times by what he was watching, he hopped down the sideline as if he were 40.
Did it go through Hubert Davis’ mind, that his team had just sent the winningest college coach of all time out the door? “That’s something that I’ve never thought about and would never think about,” he said. His team had survived a remarkable trial by fire and was going to the national championship game. That was plenty.
“Those kids from both teams played their hearts out,” Krzyzewski said. “It was game that the winner was going to be joyous and the loser was going to be in agony.”
The chances were always massively high that Krzyzewski would lose his final game. A few beat the odds. John Wooden with a 10th title. Al McGuire, winning the national championship in tears. But most were not so fortunate, and Saturday night was almost inevitable.
What nobody could have known is that it would come at the hands of Krzyzewski’s neighbor, on an unprecedented night that was heavy with history. Hubert Davis’ road has not been the same as the coach he beat Saturday night. Krzyzewski got his big coaching break at Duke at the age of 33. Davis had to wait until he was 50. By that age, Krzyzewski already had won the first two of his five championships.
But this will always be fact: Krzyzewski lost 309 games at Duke, and Davis was responsible for two of the last three of them. And both hurt. One ruined the farewell party at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the other slammed the door on the happy ending the Blue Devils wanted so badly.
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Where did the time go? How did all those months of March zip by, starting with that 80-78 loss to Washington in Pullman in 1984? That was the first Duke NCAA tournament game Krzyzewski would ever coach. Thirty-eight years later and 2,500 miles away, this was his last, the defeat by nearly the identical score.
There have been so many stages of Coach K at Duke. The new man from Army who had losing records in two of his first three seasons. The emerging coaching star who showed up in the 1986 Final Four. Already, there were stirrings of something big happening in Durham.
Then the blossoming icon who couldn’t quite take the last step. The Blue Devils were in back in the Final Four in 1988, and ’89, and ‘90. Fell short each time, even made history with a 103-73 loss to UNLV in 1990. One stat that is rarely mentioned: Mike Krzyzewski lost more Final Four games than any man in history except Dean Smith. Saturday was his eighth. But who in the world would count that as a negative?
Then came the dynasty. The turning point in the Coach K Age came on a Saturday night in 1991, when Duke had a rematch with the same UNLV team that had pancaked the Blue Devils the year before. This time, Duke won in a startling upset and went on from there to win his first championship, and then another the next year when Christian Laettner so famously saved the day and the season against Kentucky.
In a way, the road to New Orleans Saturday night really began about then. That’s when we knew there was an empire now in full-blown operation in Durham. Unless Krzyzewski got some hair-brained idea to try the NBA, he would likely be staying at Duke a while. There would be more titles to count, more wins to register. He would spend the rest of his days relentlessly climbing up the all-time charts of ... well nearly everything. It would go on until he finally decided it was time to walk away, whether because of health or family or just time.
That means for three decades, Mike Krzyzewski has been a giant of the game, busily collecting trophies, awards and grandchildren. Duke has won a national championship in each of the previous three decades. We knew a long time ago he would be on any Mt. Rushmore of college basketball. He and Wooden. Only the faces of the other two are open to debate.
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Consider how other legends of his age have fared. Wooden stepped aside relatively early, Rupp was forced to retire by a state law, Bob Knight flamed out at Indiana and had a brief Chapter II at Texas Tech. Dean Smith and Roy Williams suddenly decided the fuel tank was empty.
But Krzyzewski had simply just rolled on, season after season. He even picked up an extra job in his later years, helping restore USA Basketball to its proper dominant international spot.
Nobody was opening a door for Mike Krzyzewski’s exit. He would leave when he wished to, and Saturday he did. It was not the perfect ending. That would have come Monday. But it was almost perfect, for there was not the slightest bit of dishonor in losing this game.
Afterward, it had to feel special for him to sit at the press conference and hear his players.
Wendell Moore Jr.: “Coach delivered on every promise he gave us and more ... He does it with his heart. He does everything with his heart.”
Paolo Banchero: “He was so committed to us all year, never made it about him. He had our back the whole year, had our back every game.”
When Krzyzewski announced last June this season would be it, he told his wife Mickie that he was all-in for one last ride, and he thought he had a young team capable of special things. “I was right about that,” he said late Saturday night.
Endings can be tough. “I’ll be fine,” he said. And then he started talking about the void he knows is coming. “I’m sure that’s the thing when I look back that I’ll miss; I won’t be in the arena anymore. But, damn, I was in the arena for a long time. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”
His last post-game press conference ended soon after. When he walked back out to the corridor, a golf cart was waiting. He and Mickie climbed on the back, as a gaggle of media and cameraman crowded around.
“Maybe you can superimpose a sunset,” Mike Krzyzewski said. And then he rode away from his last arena.