An era in basketball is over. His legacy is too imposing to be reduced to a particular country or organization. Giant. Coach K. as he is known, is a legend with all the letters. He spent 42 years of his life dedicated to basketball. Hallmark of Duke University, at age 75, Mike Krzyzewski -what is his real name- put an end to his career as a coach. History at its finest. Identity of the Dream Team in the last 16 years. The coach who had the luxury of saying no to the NBA, which proposed him to be the highest paid coach of all time. The man who was never afraid of any rival, but who recognized that the Golden Generation managed to intimidate him.
“I love what I do. When I was 16 years old, I dreamed of being a basketball teacher and coach and I still feel that same passion.” It was his motto in recent years, an unconditional love for the game, a full dedication since 1974, when he began his journey as a coach. Before coming to Duke he spent one season as an assistant at Indiana University and five seasons leading the United States Military Academy team, in which he himself had played during his years of service in the Armed Forces.
Duke University was his place in the world; he began his adventure there in 1980. But he also found in USA Basketball a space to inoculate his identity. He garnered titles and medals with the US men’s team: as an assistant he was, for example, part of the coaching staff of the real Dream Team, the one that won the gold medal in Barcelona 92 and was part of the staff of the team that won the gold medal in Los Angeles 84. As a head coach, he was an Olympic champion three times (Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016) and won two World Cups (Turkey 2010 and Spain 2014).
A tremendous record. The NCAA Tournament titles won by Krzyzewski, always with Duke, are from 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010 and 2015. The Blue Devils led him to be considered the best driver of all. But he never accepted leaving his place as teacher, he didn’t want the daily ego of the stars. “I’d rather stay with my guys, my Blue Devils,” he said. Many believe that his program is the best in history. But also he earned a bad reputation for the roughness of his game and was singled out by some for being an extremely demanding coach. Coach K coached the likes of Kyrie Irving, Grant Hill, Jayson Tatum, Elton Brand, RJ Barrer, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and possibly the No. 1 pick in the next draft: Paolo Banchero.
In 2010, Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov owned the Brooklyn Nets and offered Coach K more than $12 million to take control of his franchise and add the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to his team. Krzyzewski turned down that offer, because he didn’t want to leave his program at Duke, with which he had a vastly inferior contract. For reference, in 2022, his contract was $9 million per year.
To better understand, The highest paid coach in the NBA today is Gregg Popovich., which earns 11 million dollars per season. Coach K’s value to the NBA universe was always so high that 12 years ago, Prokhorov finally tempted him with 15 million dollars a yearan offer that was more than double what Krzyzewski had already turned down from the Lakers in 2004, when they offered him a five-year, $40 million contract after Phil Jackson resigned.
During 1990, the Boston Celtics had a bad time in the NBA and had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, so a restructuring was more than necessary and Dave Gavitt thought of Coach K, offering him an amount of 2.5 million dollars and five seasons. The answer was always no. Even the Portland Trail Blazers, in the days of Clyde Drexler, Cliff Robinson and Terry Porter, also tempted him, as they believed he was the missing piece to beat Michael Jordan’s Bulls. And Coach K kept picking Duke.
Krzyzewski is considered the best coach in the history of college basketball along with the legendary John Wooden (ten-time champion with the University of California). “Coach K is one of the best of all time, if not the best. He is a perfect fit for us…he allows us to have freedom, play basketball and have fun, but at the same time he wants us to be perfect. We must expect perfection and that is what he wants, ”LeBron James recounted a few years ago, when he had him as a coach in the United States team.
There, too, he built a style, generated a sense of belonging and gave the American team a depth of knowledge of rivals that they previously did not even consider necessary. At that point, Coach K told a story in which the Argentine national team was the main protagonist and the one that pushed him to open his eyes even more.
From his first game directing the USA against Argentina, Krzyzewski left a reflection that paints him as a driver and that allows us to measure what the Argentine team was, which included Manu Ginóbili, Andrés Nocioni and Luis Scola, among others. Coach K recounted what he experienced minutes before going out to play against the Argentine team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics: “The Argentine players formed a platoon and began to jump and sing in unison. It was not theater, nor for media consumption. It was not for anyone, only for their own consumption. It was one of the most profound displays of competitive spirit I have ever witnessed. I went up to Mike D’Antoni and said, ‘That’s international basketball. Forget about scouting we did, this is what we have to beat.’ After three years of studying international basketball and its language, I witnessed the soul in that tunnel. When Argentina played, their whole country played. It’s what we had to overcome. Not his attack or his defense. His spirit. At that moment I understood who our opponent truly was and, I must admit, I was intimidated.”
And he added: “The commitment that those boys had towards their country and towards their partner, their brotherhood, is what happens when you have continuity, commitment and talent. That was what we wanted to create with the USA Basketball program, seek to develop a feeling that marks who you are playing for, not just put on a jersey.
His footprint is extremely deep, his numbers are incredible, his contribution to the universe of basketball in the United States is really impressive and just by reviewing that there are 68 players who were drafted in the NBA after being directed by Krzyzewski, it allows us to understand a little of who is spoken That from Gene Banks (pick 28 in 1981) to Jalen Johnson (pick 20 in 2021), the names are impossible to capture here. And the possible roster will be extended with the early arrival of talents such as Banchero, AJ Griffin, Mark Williams, Wendell Moore and Trevor Keels, all projected as 1st Round picks in 2022.
The path of Coach K is over, the man with the 1202 total wins in his NCAA career, the 1570 official games directed in the NCAA, the 15 titles of the ACC Tournament (the conference in which Duke plays). A movie race that is so real it seems unbelievable. His legacy will endure, the most valuable of all his conquests.
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Coach K: the DT who rejected millions from the NBA and recognized that the Golden Generation intimidated him retired