Appreciating The True Coach K

(Introducing: new writer Andy Moore, with a take on the Real Coach K.)

This year, Coach K will become the all-time winningest coach in college  basketball history. He will win his 903rd game, possibly with flair against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden, and this will put him above his mentor Bob Knight. It will be a monumental achievement, and the unceasing media coverage around the thing is going to be a chance for reporters to exercise their favorite hobby—legacy defining.

And here’s what they’ll say: 903 is huge. It not only means he’s the winningest coach in history, it may mean he’s the greatest coach ever, especially when taking into account the relatively primitive college  landscape that helped enable John Wooden’s success. After all, when Krzyzewski retires, he may have over 1,000 wins and four or more  national championships. He will completely have changed a previously moribund basketball franchise, he will be a large part of why the ACC is still the most important conference in college basketball, and he will have expertly guided a clean program in a time when everyone seemed a little dirty.

Krzyzewski will have accomplished all this while facing pretty incredible odds: He’s a guy who grew up in inner-city Chicago, made it through the notoriously tough United States Military Academy, took the Duke job when no one knew him and even newscasters couldn’t pronounce his name, and then proceeded to watch his team stink it up for two years while  UNC to his left and N.C. State to his right won back-to-back national championships. He then turned it around, got great recruiting classes, made his system work, and the rest is history. It’s a fantastic story, it’s one I never tire of hearing, and it’s given the man more than a hint of mythology.

This, though, is a problem. K the Legend has far surpassed K the Man to the  point that Duke fans today don’t really even know just how complex and cool yet maddening and petty K the Man can be. When Duke fans defend him in arguments, they ignore the flaws that make him a relatively rare commodity in the sports world today: an edgy person. And when you ignore K the Man, and who he is—warts and all—you can’t appreciate who he is and what he’s done.

So who is K the Man?

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No. 1 thing you need to know: He is a competitive person.

I know, I know. Saying K is competitive is like saying Wimpy’s has good  burgers or that UNC girls are better looking than Duke girls and N.C. State girls (if they had them). It’s an easily seen part of living on  Tobacco Road. But K’s competitiveness becomes almost comically over the top at times. It’s literally humorous.

Duke just played three meaningless games against the Chinese Junior National Team and the UAE National Team. They were accompanied on this trip by people with one common trait: stupid wealth. These people shelled out 14 grand to watch Duke play and stay in five star hotels on a tour of  China and UAE. Think stodgy old farts with trophy wives who rattled their jewelry after good plays. Now think where they were sitting—within earshot of K.

So imagine these guys listening to an endless barrage over three games  from K, who aggressively worked refs who may have been bribed, were not going to call the game any better and who ultimately weren’t worth his time. Just F-bomb after F-bomb to no avail, in full earshot of the easily offended. It’s actually funny, and I love him for it, and it  shows you how a guy who’s 64 years old still has the drive to be the best fucking coach there is.

Of course there’s a dark side to this hypercompetiveness: It brings with it an intensity that borders on terrifying. This intensity caused him to scream at two Chronicle reporters in 1990who had the audacity to give the team that year a “B+” grade. And it’s on full display to potential recruits who sit behind the bench and get a
front-row seat to a tongue lashing directed at a Plumlee. But ultimately if you take the bad with the good, it’s also the intensity that let’s us watch a great basketball team year in and year out.

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No. 2 thing you need to know about K: He really only cares about basketball (and his family). Seriously, he’s the most singularly focused man ever. Last summer, before K left for Istanbul to coach the U.S. National  team, he held a press conference to catch up with the media. And during the press conference, he said something along the lines of this: “I enjoy coaching basketball, and that’s why I’m going to coach this team. I don’t golf. I enjoy a glass of red wine from time to time, but I really just like coaching basketball” (not an exact quote—the video has disappeared). This hyper-focus is kind of maddening. It makes you wonder if he’s aware of anything else in the world other than basketball. And even though he of course is, it does make you wonder if you’ve perhaps missed out on some  really beneficial personality type.

His hyper-focus, by the way, also makes him possibly the most unsettling interview any reporter can have. He never breaks eye contact. He never even really looks around the room during the duration of the talk. When I had a chance to interview him last year, I was probably more freaked out by the unwavering glare than by the obvious fact that I was interviewing Coach K. (I stopped being freaked out, by the way, when his grandson came in, and he started talking to him in baby talk. But that’s another story.)

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No. 3 thing you need to know about K: He is not evil, and he is not a saint.

Coach K is a divisive figure. Sycophants from Duke Basketball Report and the Black Tenting area of K-ville paint him as a generous god who comes down from the beatiful clouds of the Schwartz-Butters building on gamedays to adorn us a beautiful gift of basketball. At the end of games, he then floats out of Cameron Indoor, only to return again like Zeus when the time is right.

And… on the other side of the coin, many (but not all!) UNC and Maryland  fans see him as a arrogant “rat-face”, who probably cheats but hides it well because he’s tight with the NCAA and ESPN, or something. That hate  leads to shit like this, an actual comment I just read on the YouTube video of him fainting:

“K is also the first coach to be greedy enough to coach the olympic team a second time. Every other coach does it once then gives someone else a chance. What an ego maniac!”

Like, what the fuck. Seriously. And that is a tame version of the typical screed he hears from opposing fans. It’s absurd to think of him as evil like this, just like it is to think of him as perfect.

He’s not a person who can have a simple characterization. He’s a complex man. Start seeing him as a human being—one who can be over-the-top and ridiculous at times, but who can also be a good guy whose former players adore him.

When Duke fans see him for who he truly is during the 903 legacy-defining, they can appreciate him much, much more.

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9 Responses to Appreciating The True Coach K

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  1. Whitey says: