There was no ticker-tape parade down canyons of skyscrapers, not even one through the heart of Duke’s campus. Instead, for Mike Krzyzewski, there were a few hundred people gathered outside security at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, applauding his arrival from London.
After leading the United States to basketball gold for a second time, the former West Point cadet joined some of his predecessors in savoring that rarest of moments: arriving home, returning triumphant from abroad, even if this was for much lower stakes. Krzyzewski didn’t save America, just American basketball. He didn’t risk his life, just his reputation.
Either way, he emerged victorious, leading the United States to Olympic gold for the second time, his final time. After seven years in charge, he shall not return, and the crowd awaiting him, cheering him, knew it.
“Thank you for being out here,” Krzyzewski said at a podium set up in the Terminal 2 ticketing area, standing in front of American flag balloons as travelers and passers-by snapped pictures from outside his press conference and offered another ovation at its conclusion. “This is a great welcome.”
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How many cadets have dreamed of a moment like that? How many have experienced it? Pershing. Eisenhower. Wainwright. Patton, an Olympian himself. Clay. MacArthur.
There’s only one General in college basketball, and that’s Krzyzewski’s mentor, Bobby Knight. But after two successful trips to the Olympics, reviving the spirit of American basketball at the international level and departing on the highest of notes, Krzyzewski has arrived home awash in accolades.
“I was so honored to do it,” Krzyzewski said. “It turned out great. It’s time to pass the baton, without letting it drop, so we keep this thing going.”
It’s a long, long leap from battle to basketball, but not as far as one might think, even if the Duke of Wellington never actually said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” (Babe Ruth did, however, say: “Duke Ellington said the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Elkton.” The Babe was, sadly, born too soon for Twitter.)
Nevertheless, the corresponding French flaccidity on the battlefield led the Baron Pierre de Coubertin to attend the British feats of skill and strength in the English town of Much Wenlock in 1850 in search of a solution, a journey that led directly to the modern Olympics and the mascot of these recently concluded Summer Games, an amorphous figure named Wenlock.
Krzyzewski has always been one to appreciate such connections as they wend through history. Upon his return from Beijing in 2008, he began more frequently using “sport” in the singular, from the international vernacular, suggesting grander ambition and higher goals than the more American “sports.”
Sports are fun and games. Sport is serious. And from the beginning, Krzyzewski took his work with USA Basketball with the utmost of seriousness.
“It’s really the ultimate honor,” Krzyzewski said.
His tour of Olympic duty complete, Krzyzewski enjoyed this one final moment. Surrounded by family and some of his closest associates, posing for pictures with Duke’s medal-winning divers, he basked in the appreciation of a job well done.
That’s all many of those old generals wanted: a little recognition, before they fade away. Krzyzewski isn’t going anywhere except back to his day job.