‘K’ really stands for kindness

As 75-year-old Mike Krzyzewski prepares to step away, his capacity to genuinely feel for his players might be his greatest legacy.

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Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski climbs the ladder to cut down the net after the Blue Devils defeated Arkansas in the final of the West Regional on Saturday in San Francisco.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski climbs the ladder to cut down the net after the Blue Devils defeated Arkansas in the final of the West Regional on Saturday in San Francisco.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This was years ago — the fall of 1992 — and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (hereafter “Coach K” or simply “K”) was sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV.

Driving was a Duke assistant coach. I was in the seat behind Coach K, next to forward Grant Hill. Crunched like a 6-year-old in the “way back” was star point guard Bobby Hurley. We were headed to a hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to visit a poor boy who recently had been hit by a car while riding his bike and was now paralyzed from the shoulders down.

This visit was a show of charity by the Duke folks, since the boy was a huge basketball fan. More specifically, it was an act of contrition for Hurley, who had gotten in a traffic incident off campus as the season was about to begin.

His shame for the incident nearly overwhelmed him. Hurley was hard enough on himself as it was. He seldom spoke, raged inwardly when he screwed up on court, never bragged, never seemed happy with anything he did. Even the two NCAA championships he had led Duke to in back-to-back years didn’t soothe him. He had insisted on climbing into the storage space of the SUV, not allowing anyone else even to consider it, hanging his head as the trunk lowered like a prison gate behind him.

Visiting a child who was lying motionless on a bed that vibrated softly with air beads was something Coach K was happy to do. But he was doing it also for his point guard’s mental well-being.

“Bobby’s not that confident a person,” he would tell me. “He doesn’t want the limelight because it takes him away from being normal. And he likes being normal, being Bobby. I’ve talked to him about that, about how he can’t have both. ‘You took us to two national championships,’ I tell him. ‘Those are not normal things. You have to handle success. I want you to enjoy it.’ ”

Coach K knew both Hurley’s and Hill’s backstories, how they each had dominant, no-nonsense, sports-minded dads. Hill’s father was Calvin Hill, a former Pro Bowl running back in the NFL. Hurley’s dad, Bob, was Bobby’s tough-as-nails basketball coach at impoverished St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. By day, Dad was a probation officer.

As Coach K, now 75, prepares for his exit from the college coaching ranks after five years at Army, 42 years at Duke and an incredible 1,202 wins, there’s reason to reflect on the man and what it was that made him special.

Well, yes, of course, there is all the talent he has had playing for him. Indeed, this Duke team, which faces North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Saturday, likely has a starting five of NBA first-round draft picks. How, one wonders, would K do at Northwestern, with its talent level, where his coaching protégé Chris Collins has struggled?

Maybe K would turn it around for the Wildcats, too. Great talent comes to colleges not for deep schooling (although it’s a nice touch when offered). It’s mainly this: I want to win. I want to play in the NBA. I want a coach who’s not going to bolt, who’s reasonable, who understands me and my world.

K has had to acknowledge change, bend with it, even when it’s counter to some of his longheld beliefs. Any resistance he had to mercenary one-and-dones was trumped by the time Zion Williamson briefly appeared on Duke’s campus in 2018, leaving nine months later as the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.

But I saw something in K long ago on that car ride. We have spoken numerous times through the years. But I saw his dual ability then to be tough but understanding, in control but kind. It’s a rare quality to lead and also be empathetic. With good humor.

At one point, K had turned around and looked at Hill and the smashed Eeyore figure of Hurley where the luggage should be.

“Your dads never put any pressure on you guys, did they?”

K said this with such deadpan innocence that everybody but Hurley burst out laughing. And even he gave a half-smile.

Chicago’s own Jon Scheyer will do a fine job as Coach K’s heir. Just as Hubert Davis has done a fine job as North Carolina’s young heir to Roy Williams.

But K was — is — special.

Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Phillips, like Coach K a Northwest Side Chicago kid and Weber High School grad, says Krzyzewski’s legacy “extends far beyond the court and will endure forever.”

Agreed.

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