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  • Writer's pictureKevin Scarbinsky

Say K and say no more

He's a proud man of Polish descent with an uncommon last name that makes strangers nervous to pronounce and terrified to spell. His parents raised him in the Rust Belt and instilled in him a strong faith, in part by sending him to Catholic elementary and high schools. He's lived most of his life below the Mason-Dixon line but still doesn't address a crowd as y'all. He says you guys.

How could I not love Mike Krzyzewski?

Oh, and not to get carried away with personal comparisons, but we've both coached a little basketball. Sure, it's a thin thread that connects Duke University and Corner Community Park, but the size of the stage doesn't determine your love of the game.

As Krzyzewski said Thursday, during his official retirement announcement press conference, confirming his departure from the sideline after one more run at Duke, "I care about the game. We've lived the game."

He's lived it, loved it and lifted it to a level without precedent. He's won more games (1,170) than any other college basketball coach. Only UCLA legend John Wooden reached as many Final Fours (12) and collected more NCAA titles (10 to 5), but the Wizard of Westwood's path to those records pales in degree of difficulty.

Try these numbers on for size. Krzyzewski accomplished enough by age 54 to get inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. He's now 74. In the 20 years since that milestone, he's won two more championships with Duke at the college level and three with the U.S. National Team at the Olympics. In other words, he put together Hall of Fame careers before and after his actual induction.

That's a club with a roster of one.

To put the longevity of his 41 seasons at Duke in perspective, he became the head coach there the same year Wimp Sanderson took over at Alabama, one year after Gene Bartow led UAB through the program's inaugural season, two years after Sonny Smith started at Auburn. Staying power doesn't get any more powerful.

Krzyzewski has traveled from accusing the ACC of having a double standard in favor of Dean Smith and North Carolina to facing nationwide charges that he and Duke receive similarly outrageous good fortune. After five solid but unspectacular years as the head coach at his alma mater, Army, he started his tenure in Durham by accumulating haters among his own boosters because he was losing, with two sub-.500 records in his first three years. It didn't take long from there for him to make the blood of opposing fans boil because he was winning, repeatedly, with everything from payback beatdowns to history-making buzzer-beaters.

How did he respond to losing the 1990 national championship game to UNLV by 30? By leading the Blue Devils to the 1991 and 1992 titles, taking revenge on the Runnin' Rebels in '91 and then schooling Michigan's Fab Five as an encore.

As his stature has grown, as the former players he calls "my guys" have flooded the sport from NBA rosters and front offices to college sidelines and ESPN, his name has shrunk from Coach Krzyzewski to Coach K to simply K. His aura is so large, he's universally recognized, revered or reviled, by a single letter. Say K and say no more.

Except to say this. You can dislike Duke with every fiber of your being and have nothing but respect for its teacher, leader, legend, coach. Especially because, after all these years, he still gets a little choked up at press conferences, drops cornball one-liners and speaks sarcasm as a second language.

Six seasons into his Duke tenure, he started a ridiculous run of seven Final Fours in nine years - the season after the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams. Early in that run, before winning his first national title, he was the featured speaker at Birmingham-Southern's postseason Black Tie Banquet. Before the event, he appeared at a small press conference for local reporters.

First thing he did was smirk at me in the front row and declare, in that familiar nasal whine, "Before we get started, I want you to know I'm not answering any questions from anyone wearing a suit and sneakers."

Which I was. Jordan IVs, if I recall. I jabbed back, "Even if I'm Polish?"

He didn't blink. "Especially if you're Polish."

Oh, a wise guy. My kind of guy.

How could you not like Mike? He's climbed so many mountains and managed to stay as down to earth as a GOAT can get. It would be just like him to get the last last laugh next April 4 in New Orleans at one final Final Four. I hope to be there. Anyone know where I can get some retro Jordan IVs?

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski speaks at his retirement press conference June 3, 2021. (Photo: Duke MBB Twitter)



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