Coach K returns to the bench and speaks about the emotions he felt after victory against Pittsburgh
The man in the second row behind the scorers’ table wore a black, zip-up sweater. His hair is grayer than it was 22 years ago, with the addition of a silver goatee, but he remains trim and fit in his mid-70s, still teaching basketball classes, just like he once did at Duke.
It just happened that as Mike Krzyzewski returned to the Duke bench after a seven-game absence Saturday, Pete Gaudet was in Cameron Indoor Stadium, five seats to Krzyzewski’s left. You couldn’t make it up.
History plays tricks on everyone sometimes. This was one of them.
“Maybe things are meant to happen,” said Gaudet, Duke’s interim coach during Krzyzewski’s disastrous 1995 leave of absence. “It’s good to be here.”
In town for a reunion of the 1992 team, the timing of Gaudet’s visit was entirely a coincidence, if a strange one.
This was the game Krzyzewski targeted for his return, four weeks and a day since the surgery to remove a piece of a herniated disk in his lower back. He had been chafing under the limits his doctors placed on his workload, although mindful not to exceed them given the experience, again, of 1995.
Not that Krzyzewski was detached in any way. He had been running practice for the last week, attending off and on before that and, with what Krzyzewski called Saturday the “team-building” after the N.C. State loss, exerting his influence from afar.
“I’ve been involved a lot,” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously some things been documented.”
Rebuilding his stamina, now, is Krzyzewski’s big challenge, and his team showed some Saturday after struggling offensively against Pittsburgh’s zone and defensively against Pitt’s point-guard-free offense. Duke finally pulled away in the last eight minutes for a 72-64 win, thanks to Grayson Allen, who had 18 of his 21 in that stretch.
The last time Krzyzewski had back issues, he turned things over to Gaudet, his assistant on both the 1991 and 1992 championship teams. That 1995 season turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, with the optics made worse when the losses in Krzyzewski’s absence were assigned to Gaudet, purging them from Krzyzewski’s ledger.
Still, as long ago as that was, the lessons live on today, and no just because Duke’s 4-3 record without Krzyzewski was added to his total, not Jeff Capel’s.
“For the last 20 years, since my last operation,” Krzyzewski said, “my assistants, especially the associate coaches have a huge voice. … The main thing I wanted to tell all of them, the program’s not going to go into the pot here, no matter what happens. We’ve stood the test of time. Not to worry that we’re going to lose everything. Including the kids, not to play that way.”
Still, Duke needed Krzyzewski back to move forward. With Chase Jeter dressed after back surgery of his own, the Blue Devils finally have everyone, including their coach, available, as of Saturday – just in time to host North Carolina on Thursday.
Krzyzewski made his much-anticipated entrance a few minutes before the game, accompanied by a gaggle of cameras. As he made his way along the sideline, he paused to shake Gaudet’s hand and kiss his wife on the cheek. Then Krzyzewski waved to the crowd and pointed to his own wife and family in the upper bowl.
“I felt like crying when they started doing the introductions,” Krzyzewski said. “You forget how lucky you are, until something is taken away from you.”
Krzyzewski would know, having been through this before. When Krzyzewski announced in January he needed back surgery and would leave the team temporarily, Gaudet’s phone rang and rang, but he declined every opportunity to talk about 1995, preferring to let the past remain in the past.
Still, Gaudet was there Saturday, watching in Cameron as history may have played a few tricks, but did not seem inclined to repeat itself.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock