Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had just finished up an interview with CBS. His eyes were a little red, as if he had just been crying. But he had a smile on his face.
Up next was his interview with me. He was sitting at a table in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the home of his famous basketball program. Behind him, a whiteboard hung on the wall, and on it in marker was a drawn out basketball play.
Krzyzewski, in his 38th season at Duke, is the all-time leader in head coaching wins (1,091) in Division I men’s basketball. The Hall of Fame coach, who turned 71 on Tuesday, has had his share of setbacks recently, mostly due to his health. He missed seven games last season after having back surgery. He then had knee replacement surgery in the offseason. He missed Duke’s 89-71 win over Wake Forest on Jan. 13 due to the flu.
As of Feb. 13, Duke is ranked No. 12 and is 20-5 overall and 8-4 in the ACC.
During his interview with CBS, Krzyzewski read a letter he had written to his younger self. We started our interview talking about that letter.
Krzyzewski: I grew up in the inner city of Chicago. Not that it was tough or anything. It was good. But you went to the playground and there weren’t parents. So I was kind of the leader. And what you learn just organizing your own group of guys about trust and communication. And when they left, the things you learn by just having a hoop and a ball and having an imagination. You imagined yourself in those championship moments and eventually those are things that then you did. You know?
And then the relationship with your mom or dad. My mom never went to high school. She was only an eighth grader. She was a cleaning lady. And my dad, two years of high school. And they were children of Polish immigrants. My grandparents came from Poland. And their encouragement as far as going to West Point, and the lessons that I learned from my mom and having to step away from the game when I was 50 (Krzyzewski was hospitalized for exhaustion and took a leave of absence in 1995. He missed the last 19 games of the season) and what happened and how people helped me, and just how lucky you are. And you get emotional because you start thinking about it and saying, ‘you’re a lucky guy.’ and ‘how the hell did that happen.’ I enjoyed that.
Alexander: In regards to the season, do you feel like this team has that confidence, that championship swagger to them?
Krzyzewski: I don’t know that they have that. Because they are too young to know what that is. Now do they have confidence in themselves? I think they do. And they need to have confidence in themselves based on achievement and habits. Not just to have confidence in themselves. Because we can be 12-0 or 7-5. That’s how I feel. I don’t think until we lost (to Boston College) that they ever really believed that they could lose. Even when they were down, they were supposed to lose. But then they got to a point, one, Boston College played really well, but two, twelve games in a month, the week before exams, the wear and tear, mentally and physically that that has on a team, they weren’t able to conjure up that stuff in the last few minutes even though we had the lead. Especially offensively. I don’t care what we did defensively, if we execute the last four exchanges instead of not executing, we win. And when that happened, I think there’s disbelief on their part. They know they didn’t play as well, but they know, we can do it. So confidence is there, now get habits.
Alexander: So is that what the 2015 and 2010 championship teams had, “those habits?”
Krzyzewski: They developed them. 2010 was a veteran team. Three seniors, two juniors. And they’d been through a lot. A lot. And they had their noses rubbed in crap. They won big games. They were tough. 2010, they were just really tough, hard-nosed and smart.
2015, had freshmen that were different. All of them were smart players. But they also had (senior Quinn) Cook, (junior Amile) Jefferson and (sophomore Matt) Jones, there for them, who were not jealous. They taught them. They wanted to be with them. And on a daily basis those guys saw what needed to be done. They too, though, went through a period where they had to look bad. They lost a couple of games in a row, and hell, for a few weeks Justise Winslow was averaging about four points and two rebounds. And then you get into February and Justise was probably our best player at the end. We’re going to go through stuff. That’s why the fool’s gold is about someone ranking you when you haven’t done anything. And the story then is about you losing, not you winning, and where are you at now, and what about predictions and all that. Well we didn’t make any of those predictions. You know. And to be able to follow your own journey based on all that outside stuff, hopefully we show the maturity to be able to do that.
Alexander: Earlier this year, you said you don’t have a timetable (for retirement). When do you know that it is time?
Krzyzewski: That’s a good question because I don’t know the answer to it. Otherwise I would know. I’ve never been a great planner for the future. I’ve tried to live now. I think when you think of the past and the future, you now get shortchanged. And so I think I have to start thinking about that at some time. I don’t want to do it during the season. But I think I’ll be 71 (on Tuesday) and I’ll see how I felt after this season.
Right now I’m in much better shape than I was last year. Because I’ve got everything replaced (he chuckled). And I feel good. I feel really good. The willingness to prepare to be good. I still want to do that. That’s probably the biggest question. Coaching or being the head coach, that’s good, but are you willing to prepare and do all the things necessary to be at this level of success? Or do you just hang on? And right now, I don’t feel like I’m just hanging on. I feel like I’m working as hard as I ever had. Obviously it keeps getting closer than further.
Alexander: What keeps you going?
Krzyzewski: Great kids and a great school. And I love where I’m at. I love Durham. I mean, my whole family, my 10 grandkids are here. I love this area. I love Duke and we’re able to get great kids on a day-to-day basis who are pretty neat to be around. It won’t change because we’re not going to recruit bad kids. But being in their moment. Like watching Marvin (Bagley) and Wendell (Carter) develop. Watching Grayson (Allen) in his senior year, how he is trying to help. Trying to get in their time frame. To try to develop a relationship with Trevon (Duval) where he becomes a total point guard.
Alexander: Kobe (Bryant) talked about the difference between (his jersey numbers) 8 and 24. With 8 he was head hunting, with 24 he was kind of teaching guys. So what’s the difference between young Coach K – I know you don’t have two different numbers, but ...
Krzyzewski: No, no. Well, 40 and 70, you have age numbers. And Kobe and I are really good friends. I thought what he did (at Kobe’s retirement celebration at the Staples Center) was so dignified and how they came out for him. You know, I think when you’re young you feel like you can do anything. I think you’re much more emotional, and you have a passion. I don’t know if you can be as smart then as you are now. As a younger coach I tried to do most things by myself, and that wore out in the mid-90s, where it just took its toll on me. Where I was more of a micro-manager, and then I changed. So there were two numbers. I’d take a number up until the 1994-95 season whatever it was, and then the next number afterward, because I’m a different coach than I was then, and a better coach. But I couldn’t be this coach then.
And I’m glad I’m not this coach now. Because I wouldn’t be coaching. There’s no way. And where you evolve. ... I think I use the talents of my players better now than I did then. There’s a difference. If you don’t evolve, it’s not going to happen. My assistants do more by far now. Not that they didn’t, but I didn’t let them do all the stuff that I let them do now.
Kobe’s a good guy to study. Wish he...I knew he wasn’t going to come (to Duke) but...He was the best high school player I’ve ever seen.
I never saw LeBron in person. When Kobe, as a high school player walked in the gym, he knew and everybody else knew, ‘I’m that guy.’ And he backed it up.
Alexander: What have you tried to do to make sure (Duke head coaching job) is good for the next person?
Krzyzewski: It’s succession. I believe in it. That’s how I was trained in the military. You know the military, they give you the honor of a command, whether it be a company, a battalion, a brigade, the whole Army, you’re only going to have it for a certain amount of time. So you want to leave the unit in better shape than you got it. And that’s succession. We just had it with (Team) USA. (Gregg Popovich) was named in (October 2015), the new head coach. ... I still coached the ’16 Olympics in Rio. Pop came out and spent the week with us in our training. We’re good friends but we became great friends during that time. And in the military, he was in the military too, he was in the Air Force. We talked about it being like passing the baton.
For a program it’s a little bit different. I’ve been here 38 years. What I’ve tried to do for succession, is make sure this thing has been funded the right way. So in, around 2000 we created a fund to help endow our program. Well, we’ve endowed our program. Every scholarship, coaching salary, manager, it’s all endowed already. We built a practice facility with that money. We’re going to hopefully build something else. A locker room and training complex here eventually.
I would hope that when my time comes that it’s someone who has played here and has worked for me. And we have a lot of people, including the guys who are on the staff now, where they would understand Duke. And understand the history. They don’t have to do things how we do it. But like what Pop said, ‘I understand the culture of USA basketball.’ Now he might run a whole different offense, defense, or how he does training camp, but he understands culture. And that’s what we would like to continue. It’s been a culture of a university, athletic department, and a basketball program working together. The president, the (athletic director) and myself have been a team. That’s been continuous. And we want it that way going forward. And I think there’s a better chance of it happening that way if someone who has been here would be that person.
And I don’t think I’ll be the person who names that, because that’s not right. But that would be my wish. And then we would stay here, not in the locker room here, in some type of emeritus, ambassador role, not just to help Duke basketball, but to help the university. So I believe in it. I’ll help that person in whatever way I can when the time comes. But right now I’m trying to figure out how we can play a helluva lot better defense than what we do. Which isn’t very good right now.
Alexander: In regards to this FBI case, how could something like this happen? Is it because of third-party influences on kids, or is it because they can’t get paid, so it’s going to happen, or –
Krzyzewski: No I don’t think it’s about guys getting paid or not. For one, I think, when they say it’s the tip of the iceberg, it is, that’s it. The rest of the iceberg isn’t like that. And I think that can happen in a police department, it can happen in government, it can happen in a Ponzi scheme. Anything that can happen to humans can happen to our sport. People trying to get over.
I don’t feel when we lose a recruit, we ever lost a kid because he was cheated for. So it can just happen. But I think it’s an outlier. It’s not what college basketball is about. And I think it’s proven to show that so far, instead of all of a sudden, ‘we’re going to find hundreds of things,’ that’s not going to happen. To say that the shoe companies are bad, they’re not bad. They help us immensely. Is there somebody involved in basketball or shoe companies or AAU, that could be bad, yes. But most of them are really good.
And hopefully this commission that they have will give some input and recommendations that will help change college basketball, for the positive, because we haven’t done much to help change it. So I think it’s an opportunity for good change. We’ll see how it turns out.