NEW ORLEANS – In the back hallway of Caesars Superdome, everyone was waiting. Security guards, cameras, NCAA escorts. From the bottom of the ramp you could hear the din of 70,602 people, but the hallway was nothing but silent waiting.
Suddenly, on the black carpet, the Duke basketball team headed out onto the court and their thrilling Final Four date with North Carolina. Soon after, 13 assistant coaches and various support staff. Then a break. So there he was; a man in a blue Duke limping towards the crowd, alone in thought. Mike Krzyzewski rounded the corner and walked down the ramp, through a tunnel of people clearing the way, and into light and sound.
“I was lucky to be in the arena,” he would later say. “And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to feel good or you’re going to feel the agony, but you’re still going to feel good being in the arena.”
The huge overhead clock read 3:32 before the denunciation. The Cameron Crazies, standing en masse at the railing of their end zone section, broke out. North Carolina was on the field 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. The career of Mike Krzyzewski, a legendary epic, now with a final page. The record will show that the 1,570th and final game of his coaching life ended with a North Carolina player tossing the game ball approximately five stories in the air, and the Tar Heels as a group jumping in each other’s arms, waving to their fans, delighted with the masterpiece they had just achieved.
The scoreboard read 81-77, and he was here to stay. All Krzyzewski could do was cross the line and shake their hands, then walk back up the tunnel to be with his last Duke team for the last time. All the emotions he kept from the outside world at that time. Where were they? They had to be somewhere inside.
“I think when you have three daughters and 10 grandchildren and you’ve been through a lot, you’re used to dealing with the emotions of the people you love…and that’s where I’m at. “, he reportedly said. say later. “I’m sure at some point I’m going to 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 pitch and that’s the only thing you can think of. I’ve said my whole career that I want my seasons to end where my team cries tears of joy or tears of sorrow because then you know they’ve given it their all. And I had a locker room full of crying guys. And it’s a beautiful sight. This is not the view I would like. But it’s a show that I really respect, and it makes me realize how good this band was.
That’s how a career in the Hall of Fame ended: with 18 lead changes and 12 draws and numbers that will haunt the Blue Devils who played there. Duke outscored North Carolina 48-26 in the paint, 25-2 in points from the bench and committed just four turnovers all night.
Those are numbers worthy of a trip to the Championship game, but instead they returned to Durham and their coach for the rest of his life. In a battle of wills, North Carolina had too much to survive. Too Caleb Love with his 28 points. Too Armando Bacot with his 21 rebounds. Too many goals from a Tar Heels lineup that included four starters going at least 36 minutes under the most intense of circumstances.
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It was all the moment could have asked for, where a rookie coach paced and cajoled his team to the biggest win – so far – of his career. And where his 75-year-old opponent sometimes got so excited about what he was watching, he hopped onto the sideline looking like he was 40.
Did it cross Hubert Davis’ mind that his team had just sent the winningest college coach of all time? “It’s something I’ve never thought about and never will,” he said. His team had survived a remarkable trial by fire and were on their way to the national championship game. It was a lot.
“These kids from both teams played their hearts out,” Krzyzewski said. “It was a game where the winner was going to be joyful and the loser was going to be in agony.”
The odds were still massively high that Krzyzewski would lose his final game. Some have thwarted the predictions. John Wooden with a 10th title. Al McGuire, winning the national championship in tears. But most weren’t so lucky, and Saturday night was almost inevitable.
What no one could have known was that it would fall into the hands of Krzyzewski’s neighbor on an unprecedented night steeped in history. Hubert Davis’ journey was not the same as that of the coach he beat on Saturday night. Krzyzewski got his big break from coaching at Duke at the age of 33. Davis had to wait until he was 50. By that age, Krzyzewski had already won the first two of his five championships.
But it will always be a 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 the 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 were all those March months, starting with that 80-78 loss to Washington at Pullman in 1984? This was the first Duke NCAA Tournament game that Krzyzewski would coach. Thirty-eight years later and 2,500 miles away, it was his last, defeat by an almost identical scoreline.
There were so many steps from Coach K to Duke. The new Army man who lost records in two of his first three seasons. The emerging coaching star who showed up in the 1986 Final Four. Already there was a stir over something big happening at Durham.
Then the blooming icon who could not take the last step. The Blue Devils were back in the Final Four in 1988, 89 and 90. Failed each time, even made history with a 103-73 loss to UNLV in 1990. A rarely mentioned stat: Mike Krzyzewski has lost more Final Four matches than any man in history except Dean Smith. Saturday was his eighth. But who in the world would consider that a negative?
Then came the dynasty. Coach K Age’s turning point came on a Saturday night in 1991, when Duke had a rematch with the same UNLV team that pancaked the Blue Devils the year before. This time, Duke won in a surprising upset and went on to earn their first championship, and then another the following year when Christian Laettner salvaged the day and the season so well against Kentucky.
In a way, the road to New Orleans on Saturday night really started then. That’s when we knew there was a fully functioning empire in Durham. Unless Krzyzewski had some wild idea to try out for the NBA, he would likely stay at Duke for a while. There would be more titles to count, more victories to record. He would spend the rest of his days relentlessly climbing the all-time charts of… well, almost everything. This would continue until he finally decided it was time to leave, whether for health, family, or simply time reasons.
This means that for three decades Mike Krzyzewski has been a gambling giant, actively collecting trophies, awards and grandchildren. Duke has won a national championship in each of the previous three decades. We knew long ago that he would be on any college basketball Mount Rushmore. Him and Wooden. Only the faces of the other two are subject to debate.
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Consider how other legends of his age have fared. Wooden retired relatively early, Rupp was forced into retirement by state law, Bob Knight died in 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 just kept going, season after season. He even landed an extra job in his later years, helping to restore USA Basketball to its place of dominance on the international stage.
Nobody opened a door when Mike Krzyzewski left. He would leave whenever he wanted, and on Saturday he did. It wasn’t the perfect ending. It would have come on Monday. But it was almost perfect, because there was no dishonor in losing this game.
Afterwards, it must have been special for him to sit down at the press conference and hear his players.
Wendell Moore Jr.: “Coach delivered on every promise he made to 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, he never spoke about it. He supported us all year, supported us in every game.
When Krzyzewski announced last June that this would be the season, he told his wife Mickie he was up for one last run, 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 difficult. “I’m fine,” he said. And then he started talking about the emptiness he knows is coming. “I’m sure that’s the thing when I look back that I’ll miss; I will no longer be in the arena. But damn it, I was in the arena a long time. And those kids made my last time in the arena an amazing experience.
His final post-match press conference ended shortly after. When he came out into the hallway, a golf cart was waiting for him. He and Mickie climbed in the back, as a group of media and cameramen crowded around.
“Maybe you can superimpose a sunset,” Mike Krzyzewski said. And then he walked away from his last arena.