Thoughts from Duke’s banquet: senior moments growing increasingly rare

Posted by Laura Keeley on April 17, 2014 

The tears were flowing Wednesday night at Duke’s end-of-season basketball banquet, particularly when focusing on those who will leave the program.

No, not Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood— those announcements would come Thursday. At the official celebration of Duke’s season, all four departing seniors spoke, as did new Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski, who left last month after 15 years as an assistant, which followed his four-year playing career in Durham. He flew down in his private plane, a perk of the new job, he said.

Former walk-on turned scholarship player Todd Zafirovski spoke of how he would be most proud of the two Duke degrees he earned in his five years (he also shared a story about accidentally yawning in a practice with Wojciechowski his freshman year, which resulted in him getting sent to the locker room). Andre Dawkins thanked the players and coaches for welcoming him back after his year away to cope with depression, for just treating him like one of the guys, which was all he ever wanted (and learning from Zafirovski’s mistake and never yawning at practice).

Josh Hairston became overwhelmed with emotion, tears following as he thanked Tyler Thornton for being his best friend. He, too, shared a story about enduring Wojciechowski’s wrath, that time for giggling in a huddle after Kyrie Irving finally cracked him. And Thornton reflected back to the beginning of his career, too, when Irving used to order late-night food and ask the dieting Thornton if he wanted any—just so he could tell him no.

This would have been Irving’s senior year, had he not declared and gone No. 1 overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. But he was long gone by the time his senior moment came, just as Parker and Hood will be, too. Time will tell if they’re remembered more like Irving or more like Austin Rivers, who also won zero NCAA Tournament games and was not mentioned at all.

It was an odd juxtaposition, watching a moment that, clearly, meant an awful lot to the emotional coaches and players and also realizing that, with increasing frequency, most of the best Duke players will never have this moment. Duke has always been a program designed to be carried by its seniors. That framework hasn’t changed, even though college basketball has.

"Duke has historically been an upperclassmen’s program, you wait until your time comes to take the reins and lead," Shane Battier said in March 2012. "Out of necessity you’ll see younger leaders, but it will take an incredible amount of maturity for a freshmen or sophomore to lead like a junior or senior. You don’t have the experience."

Maybe next year Tyus Jones will become the first freshman to earn the honor of being chosen a Duke captain. After all, Hood became the first guy to be named a captain in his first year playing for Duke this season. The Blue Devils will just have one senior— Quinn Cook—and his minutes will likely come off the bench. The on-court leaders, assuming they develop, will be young.

The banquet closed with a speech by Wojciechowski, who played at Duke from 1994-1998 and joined the staff in 1999. Mike Krzyzewski’s voice choked as he, too, was overcome by tears as he described how much his former player and assistant meant to him.

"I’m going to miss you terribly," Krzyzewski said. "I lost my brother this year and I also lost a son. I’m glad one of them is going to keep going and going and make me proud and make everyone else proud."

Wojciechowski, going back to his recruitment, recalled seeing both former UNC coach Dean Smith and Krzyzewski standing at opposite ends of the field during one of his soccer practices. Wojciechowski turned, saw Smith and marveled at the fact that Dean Smith was at his practice. But then he turned, saw Krzyzewski and thought, "That’s my guy."

"You said you'd give me your best every day and you'd expect the same from me," Wojciechowski said to Krzyzewski. "I can't imagine a more simple yet powerful thing that two people could do for one another.

"Not a day goes by that you haven't lived up to your word. There'll never be a day that goes by that I won't think about the things you taught me, the things you afforded me and the things you've given me. What you've done for me, and by extension my family, I love you for that and thank you for that. I promise I'll try to do that for the people I touch."

Wojciechowski also thanked Krzyzewski’s daughters, all by name— Debbie, Lindy and Jamie—for letting him be their brother. He thanked Mickie, Krzyzewski’s wife, for sharing her husband.

The emotion filling Cameron was pure, palpable. It also left me wondering whether we will see such tight connections in the college game, at the level Duke plays it, ever again.

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