Of the countless images we were bombarded with in the past few weeks, perhaps none were as disturbing as the one of a young Mike Krzyzewski in his West Point basketball uniform, standing next to his coach, Robert Montgomery Knight. In juxtaposition to the sight of these two men embracing after the Michigan State game, it is quite a powerful image. Forty some years and thousands of basketball games later, these two men have become giants of their profession, and their legacies will be forever intertwined. On its own, however, the image leaves me with a completely different kind of feeling: “yucch.”
The height of my childhood basketball fandom was watching the many epic and emotionally transcendent playoff series between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat. I was particularly fascinated by the coaching match-up. On the one hand, there was Pat Riley – dapper, well-dressed, and to this day the only sports figure my mother can recognize. He was stylish, seemed very intelligent, and exuded a blend of confidence and athleticism unlike any person I had ever met. On the other hand, there was Jeff Van Gundy – short, un-graceful and sporting a particularly unconvincing and uninspired comb over.
Growing up on Long Island, it was an all too familiar appearance (and one that I myself have begun to approach). It seemed strange to me that these men had the same profession, and I wondered what their backgrounds were. Where were they from? What were their majors in college? How does one become a basketball coach anyway? I was able to guess that they must have played basketball at some point in their youth, and had no trouble picturing Riley as a player. He probably could have torn off his Armani suit, picked up a ball and played a few minutes with his team. Van Gundy was a different story. I couldn’t picture him playing in a middle school church league, let alone as a pro or college basketball player. For some reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to conceive of such an image. I took these concerns to school the next day. It was then that I learned one of the most meaningful lessons of my childhood. I don’t quite remember who broke it to me, but it came down to this:
“Thinking about basketball coaches playing basketball is like thinking about your parents having sex. You don’t want to picture it in your head, but you know it had to have happened.”
What? My parents have had sex? Ecch! Blecch! I was horrified, mortified, and nauseated at the concept. Somehow, I had made it to the age of 11 and through two years of sex ed without picturing my parents having sex. I rubbed violently at my eyes in a futile attempt to make the thoughts disappear. Then I remembered my older sister, meaning they must have done it more than once. Then, I remembered my two half-sisters, so my dad must have had sex with their mom too. How could this be happening?
I’ve since moved on, though I’m still weary of imagining coaches as players. After becoming indoctrinated into the Church of Duke as an undergrad, I stumbled upon the above picture of Knight and Krzyzewski. So many things felt wrong: his bony shoulders, his stupid haircut, the clearly miserable gym the picture was taken in. The worst part was his nascent shit-eating grin – the one he would later wear over his false modesty as he deflected praise for his 903 wins. Having a dopey-looking Bob Knight standing next to him in what looks like a velour warm-up was the least of my problems. Then again, look at this shot from his playing days at Ohio State.
This one bothered me much less, mostly because I was distracted by the belt. Wouldn’t you just love it today’s basketball players wore belts? Anyway, I eventually worked up the courage to find a picture of Van Gundy as a player, and to put it bluntly, it was just as bad as I could have imagined, had I been able to summon the will to conjure such an image.
(Is it just me, or does he look a little too much like Sarah Palin here?)
I’ve gotten to the age now where some players from my childhood have made the move to the sidelines. Avery Johnson, Scott Skiles and now Mark Jackson are all coaches. Those who have been Duke fans longer than I have will surely have no trouble remembering little Steven Wojo and Chris Collins and so many others running around in their short ass shorts. It’s a little disappointing, because it is a reminder that not only are the players are getting older, but we’re getting older, too. Some day, many years from now, I’m going to be watching Duke play when my son asks me about Coach Paulus’ playing days. I’ll try to keep it from him, but I know now that there won’t be much I can do to stop him from imagining me having sex with his mother.