Sports

His friends wanted to raise a dying man’s spirits. Coach K did that and more.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski during a game against Virginia Tech in 2017.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski during a game against Virginia Tech in 2017. cliddy@newsobserver.com

What started as hope for a note from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski became one phone call, then two.

In the end, the Jimmy V Foundation gained at least $45,000 to fund cancer research.

A dying Illinois man who counted the Duke Blue Devils among his favorite teams had persistent friends, who got word to Krzyzewski about his dire situation.

The Hall of Fame coach placed two phone calls last month to Gregory Feldman, offering encouragement in his fight against pancreatic cancer.

Known by his nickname of “Flako” around the central Illinois town of Lincoln where he was renowned for his community involvement, Feldman was asleep when his wife received the unexpected call from Krzyzewski. Teena Feldman said her husband would be happy to be awakened to take the call, but Krzyzewski insisted she not wake him. Krzyzewski promised to call back later, saying he’d call as many times as needed so he could talk him.

Around three hours later, he did, and Flako Feldman was awake to take the call. The two spoke for nearly 30 minutes, and Krzyzewski encouraged the retired Illinois Department of Corrections worker to keep fighting against the cancer. He followed that up with a handwritten note in the mail a few days later.

Todd Lowman, Flako Feldman’s close friend, said his ailing friend called him after he hung up with Krzyzewski.

“We had our usual banter back and forth,” Lowman said. “Then he said, ‘You’re not going to believe who I just talked to. Coach K.’ He was crying. I was crying. I asked him what they talked about, and he said he didn’t remember because he was still kind of in shock.”

Less than two weeks later, on July 25 at the age of 61, Feldman died at his home with his wife and daughters by his side.

“At that point,” Lowman said, “Flako was starting to fail pretty quickly. But whenever you mentioned the Coach K conversation, he perked right up and wanted to talk about it. It just meant the world to him. You don’t understand what this did for him.”

The call from Krzyzewski happened only because Feldman’s friends decided to reach out to Duke to see if Krzyzewski could send a note of encouragement. Through a chance meeting with a retired Southeast Missouri State track coach who knew Duke athletic director Kevin White, they were able to get an email to White, who passed the information on to Krzyzewski.

Rather than send the note, Krzyzewski’s executive assistant Gerry Brown reached out to Lowman, who had initiated contact with White, to get Feldman’s phone numbers.

The next day, Krzyzewski called the Feldman house and eventually spoke to Greg Feldman.

After his death, Feldman’s friends decided to honor him by organizing a fundraiser for the Jimmy V Foundation, because Krzyzewski has been a board member since its founding.

When the local Woods Foundation agreed to match donations up to $10,000, Feldman’s friends set that as their goal. Through a Knights of Columbus event at the local county fair the night of Feldman’s funeral last Wednesday, they were able to top that.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to all play out,” Lowman said. “It did provide kind of a little levity and a little bit of a celebration mode for what had been a pretty grueling seven months for the family, and those of us that were with him, the last couple of weeks. Teena spoke and gave a very elegant, very nice 3-4 minute speech. She said the phone call from Coach K was by far the brightest part of that 7-month battle. We’re all Duke fans now.”

The total raised so far is $45,000. Donations are still being accepted at http://jimmyv.convio.net/site/TR/DIY/General?pg=team&fr_id=1430&team_id=2660.

Duke basketball coach talks about retirement during a 2016 interview with The News & Observer.

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