The essential question is not, and really has never been, how long Mike Krzyzewski wants to keep coaching. It has always been how long he can keep coaching. And with each passing summer and each passing surgery, it becomes a more pressing issue.
Thursday’s news that Duke is canceling its trip to the Dominican Republic at the last minute – the team was due to depart next Thursday – because Krzyzewski needs his other knee replaced is yet another reminder that the decision to step aside after decades at Duke probably won’t be up to Krzyzewski in the end. It will be up to his body.
By the end of the weekend, the 70-year-old will have undergone six different surgeries since April 2016: total replacements of both knees as well as back, hernia and ankle (twice) repairs. And that doesn’t include the game he missed in 2016 after a heart scare, or the attack of dizziness on the bench in 2014. It’s a full medical calendar for anyone, let alone someone who will once again coach a top-five preseason team with a bevy of talented incoming freshmen and was, through last summer, still spending his vacation time coaching the U.S. Olympic basketball team.
He is expected to make a full recovery by the start of the basketball season, although it’s also fair to wonder whether he ever took enough time to fully recover from the previous five surgeries. Krzyzewski’s health already failed him once, two decades ago, and he reprioritized his entire life and career in the wake of it, returning to the pinnacle of the game. Even now he’s only two seasons removed from his fifth national title, although that can seem like an eternity amid the hectic turnover of the one-and-done era. (Sixteen players have departed Duke in some fashion in the 28 months since.) Clearly, Krzyzewski can still coach and recruit at an elite level, and the program is in great shape whether he stays or turns things over to Jeff Capel (or someone else).
If Krzyzewski were ready to hand over the keys, he could have done so after winning the title in 2015, leaving him free to concentrate on Team USA. Or he could have done it after winning gold in Rio, going out on top internationally. He could still walk away at any time – and if he were close to that point now, the team could have gone to the Dominican Republic without him. Notably, it will not.
But there’s going to be a point where his health impacts not only him but his team, and to a degree that happened last season when he missed seven games after impromptu back surgery in January and the development of a disjointed Duke roster seemed to stall in his absence. Given how far Duke came after his return, winning the ACC tournament in Brooklyn before making an early exit from the NCAA tournament, those four weeks without him might have made the difference between losing to South Carolina in the second round and moving on to Madison Square Garden, Duke’s home away from home.
Being unable to go through a week of team-building in the Dominican Republic will be a missed opportunity for this team, which has to incorporate six incoming freshmen – and perhaps even a seventh, if Marvin Bagley III arrives – into a roster that includes a ball-dominant veteran in Grayson Allen but no other players with significant college experience.
At the same time, the timing of the impending trip may have been beneficial; the practices ahead of the tour made it clear Krzyzewski needed the surgery immediately, instead of coming to that realization in October and potentially missing games for the third straight season.
Still, while Krzyzewski will no doubt keep plugging away at one of the most demanding jobs in college athletics his body clock will also keep ticking. There’s nothing he can do to stop it. He may still be able to coach his team to peak performance, but as he ages, his health is increasingly and inevitably beyond his control.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock