As Mike Krzyzewski made his way out of Duke’s locker room and onto the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium three minutes prior to tip-off Saturday, more than 9,300 fans in the stands stood to applaud him.
Some bowed as if to say “we’re not worthy.”
As the Hall of Fame coach continued his walk around the court and past the visitors’ bench, he shook hands with Pitt’s coaches and waved to the fans.
“Welcome back,” they said.
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When he got to his destination, his spot on the Duke bench, Krzyzewski unbuttoned his suit jacket, placed his hands to his side. He took a deep breath and looked as if he were trying to relax.
He was back.
After missing a month of the season to have lower-back surgery to remove a fragment of a herniated disk, Coach K, who turns 70 on Feb. 13, returned on Saturday to the Duke sideline, ready to coach his team against Pitt.
“I was so proud of my team and the crowd,” Krzyzewski said, after Duke’s 72-64 win over Pittsburgh. “It was so good to be back. I felt like crying when they started doing introductions. You forget how lucky you are until something is taken away from you.”
His absence was an another unexpected hurdle for a Duke team that’s suffered from injuries and a suspension to one of its star players this season. Associate head coach Jeff Capel took over for Krzyzewski and went 4-3.
At the start of Saturday’s game, the intensity was high. Both teams came out playing hard.
It didn’t take long for Krzyzewski to get fired up on the sideline. In the first half, he yelled for freshman forward Harry Giles to stay back, and he was loud enough for a quiet arena to hear him. Giles listened and a few seconds later connected on an alley-hoop.
With a fierce look in his face, Krzyzewski turned to his bench and motioned for them to get up. The bench stood and started to clap. The excitement was reciprocated on the court.
“He brings a verve,” fifth-year senior forward Amile Jefferson said. “He brings a sense of urgency that you feel. So for our team to have him back, it was great to look over there and he’s saying ‘let’s go,’ and get a stop ... He was all in.”
Krzyzewski said he had attended segments of practices the past two weeks – taking breaks when needed. The week prior to the game, he was a full go.
It was so good to be back. I felt like crying when they started doing introductions. You forget how lucky you are until something is taken away from you.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
Junior guard Grayson Allen said Krzyzewski was excited to be at the game. He said the team could feel his energy.
“I think y’all saw how excited and how into it he was, and that’s just him,” Allen said of his coach. “That’s just Coach. And that’s why he’s the greatest. His energy and passion for the game is just unmatched.”
The win wasn’t an easy one for Duke (18-5, 6-4 ACC). Pittsburgh (12-11, 1-9) trailed by only three with seven minutes left, before Allen got on a roll, scoring 18 of his 21 points during that final stretch.
The win was Krzyzewski’s 500th at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Krzyzewski was thankful and happy.
Thankful for the “thousands” of texts, emails, prayers, letters and other forms of communication he received from people showing their love and concern. Those people made him feel really good, he said.
And happy because he was back where he belonged. In his chair on the Duke sideline, the one Capel and the other assistant coaches had left open and waiting for him while he was away.
As he walked back to the locker room after the game, Krzyzewski stopped and bowed back to the fans. He waved and when he turned back around, he threw his fist in the air, as if he had just won a battle.