Michael Savarino knows there’s one mistake he can’t make this year with the Duke basketball team.
Blurt out the word “Poppy.”
Savarino is a freshman walk-on for the Blue Devils. He’s also the grandson of Mike Krzyzewski, a thought the Duke coach considers a little crazy, even at 72.
Coach K has always been “Poppy” to Savarino, whose mother, Debbie, is the oldest of Coach K’s three daughters. Mickie Krzyzewski, Michael’s grandmother, is “Minnie” to the grand kids.
Minnie will always be Minnie but Poppy is now only “Coach.” Not Coach K, either. Coach.
“It’s so ingrained in my head because I was so scared at the beginning of the year of me slipping up and eventually saying ‘Poppy’ in practice or something,” Savarino said Monday at Duke’s basketball media day. “I just couldn’t imagine the repercussions that would happen if I said something like that. So it’s always Coach.”
Savarino, 18, once sat with the family in Section 7 during games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but by middle school had moved with his older brother, Joey, down by the Duke bench at Coach K’s request. He could watch his granddad work and coach and compete while firing out a few choice words Krzyzewski has been known to use but words that were no surprise to Savarino and won’t be now that he’s on the team.
“I’m so used to it now it’s in one ear and out the other,” he said, smiling. “I was never shocked by that. I know some people sitting behind the bench are just mortified by how many curse words he says but he’s a great man and he means a lot of good.”
Joey and Michael Savarino both played hoops at Durham Academy. Michael considered applying to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his grandfather’s alma mater, but the pull of Duke and Duke basketball was too strong. He wouldn’t be sitting behind the Blue Devils bench but on the bench.
“In the last two years of my high school career I felt like this is where I want to be,” he said.
Michael’s basketball numbers as a high school senior -- 7.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game -- were average but he was the captain on a 28-4 team, which speaks to leadership qualities, and Krzyzewski said being family wasn’t the only reason the 6-0, 182-pound point guard will be a part of the program.
“He would be a pretty good Division II player but he wanted to come to Duke, he could get in, he knows the lay of the land,” Krzyzewski said. “I think he’s really helped us and he’s been accepted by his teammates as Michael, or Mike or whatever the hell they call him, knucklehead probably sometimes. He is a really good kid and a tough kid.”
Krzyzewski explained the coaches receive analytical reports on the players after each practice and game, detailing such things as workloads and sprinting speeds and time on the court. Apparently he showed it to Mickie, pointing out how Tre Jones and Wendell Moore Jr. were “off the charts” with some of their report data only to have Mickie become Minnie.
“She’s looking and she has all the guys and she says ‘Where’s Michael?’ and Michael didn’t play, he’s a walk-on,” Krzyzewski said. “It was the first time a grandmother has given me a hard time about playing time.
“I said, ‘You got to stop. Don’t be asking about Michael.’ She has never looked at those things.”
She has now. And Michael laughed when told about Mickie’s analytical interest, saying, “I love my Minnie. She’s got my back no matter what.”
Savarino said he met with his grandfather in a coach-and-player setting before the Blue Devils’ summer sessions, with Krzyzewski explaining his role on the team.
“Work hard in practice every day, encourage guys to work harder after practice, get in the gym late at night or early in the morning and put extra work in,” Savarino said. “And just overall be a great teammate.”
Senior Jack White said Savarino has been that. Not that he needed an introduction.
“I’ve known him my whole time here,” White said. “Just seeing him grow up and coming here now and the way he has seamlessly fit in with the team, despite coach being his grandfather I don’t think that has been a thought lingering in your head at all. He’s a good basketball player. He works as hard as anyone on the team. He tries to do all the right things and shows up every day and tries to make his teammates better.”
Michael Savarino was born March 26, 2001, two days after the Blue Devils beat Southern Cal in the NCAA East Regional finals in Philadelphia. Duke then topped Maryland and Arizona in the Final Four in Minneapolis for Coach K’s third national championship.
Michael said his first memories of a national title were from 2010, when Duke edged Butler in the championship game. But he said he has YouTubed other NCAA games, including Duke games from the 1980s when Krzyzewski was building and molding the program.
Michael Savarino realizes the time will come this season when Krzyzewski will look down the bench and call his name. What then?
“I think I’ll already be shaking at that point, if he comes that far down the bench,” Savarino said. “But I think that will be a really special moment for he and I but also our family, just how everything comes around full circle.”