The tears started for Quinn Cook when he saw Mike Krzyzewski with his arms spread wide.
The heart and soul of the Blue Devils walked to the sideline during the waning seconds of Sunday’s 66-52 victory over Gonzaga, the win that sent Duke to the Final Four, and he was overcome with emotion. The two embraced in a bear hug. The tears drowned out any words.
Cook knows Duke seniors are remembered by the banners they hang in the Cameron rafters. Now the senior captain will forever be able to point to his.
“It’s everything I thought it would be,” he said.
The work for this banner began right after last season, as the impending finality of his Duke career started to hit. Cook had never cut down a net in his life. And he just had one more shot.
Cook knew the talented freshmen were coming. And he realized he would need their help. Additionally, Krzyzewski was gone most of the summer, overseas with Team USA – like a child aiming to please his parent, Cook didn’t want Krzyzewski to feel a significant drop-off when he left the pros and returned to Durham.
“I just matured,” Cook said. “I was forced to.”
There was Duke assistant Jeff Capel, always in his ear telling him not what he wanted to hear, but what he needed to hear, sometimes with brutal honesty.
“I think the biggest thing is that he stopped making excuses,” Capel said. “Quinn had been a good player here, a really good player at times, and at times he had been inconsistent. And he hasn’t this year. He’s been really good throughout.
“Even today, he didn’t have his best shooting game, but he made plays that impacted winning, how he was in the huddles with the guys, how he was at halftime. He is the heart and soul of our team. Every guy in there, to a man, would do anything for him.”
Cook only made two shots Sunday, but one came when it looked like it could all unravel for Duke. Gonzaga was on a 7-0 run and had its largest lead of the game at 38-34, with 16 minutes, 5 seconds remaining. And Cook sank a jumper that halted the momentum tide.
That’s the role Cook has played time and again for the Blue Devils. Others, like Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, have shown the knack for hitting the big shots when the lights were brightest. But Cook has been more subtle, hitting shots in the flow of the game that set up the moments most people remember. And he took on the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player night in and night out, a job he snarled at during his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.
Cook’s deference to the spotlight was the magic ingredient that put this Duke team over the top. He was willing to let Jones play Lights On, Tyus On, running the offense as the primary point guard. He was willing to let Winslow drive and thrive and to set Jahlil Okafor up in the post.
But most of all, he was willing to lead, to be the bell cow the Blue Devils rallied around.
Once all the Blue Devils had their turn snipping down the net – if anyone thought Duke was just some type of robotic winning machine, the struggles of the players to smoothly untangle their personal pieces served as a reminder that that was not the case – Krzyzewski took down the bulk that was left.
He climbed down the ladder and threw it around Cook’s neck. It was a fair trade for any pressure the senior had felt.
And he smiled his tear-stained smile.