The Last Best Class

He had to make this call.  He had said that he wouldn’t shortchange himself this time.  But in his heart, he knew his efforts were futile.

The phone rang three times before the fourth went to voice-mail.  Jamal Johnson’s hologram appeared from the screen.  Even in this display, his wingspan and strength were notable.

“Hi, you’ve reached Jamal, NBC Sports Network’s Top 50′s 18th-ranked recruit in the class of 2022, and future USC Trojan.  I’m not here right now, but–”

Collins slammed the phone down in frustration.  He hadn’t expected Johnson to commit to Duke, but he had at least promised to let them talk to him one last time, to make one final pitch.  But still, USC?  This would give Calipari nine of the top 20 recruits in the 2022 class, his best performance since his 2018 efforts at UNLV.  Collins shook his head.  The rich just got richer.

The coach stood and poured himself a tumbler of whiskey, finished it, and poured another.  He walked to where his window was, but then he remembered his current circumstances.  His office, once overlooking the sprawling athletic grounds of the Duke campus, had been relegated to the basement of the intramural building.  “We need more space for Danowski’s assistants,” they had told him.  “Where else would we put the indoor lacrosse field?”

Collins gazed at the far wall mindlessly, unsure of what to do.  The one holdover from his old office was the portfolio of framed photos of the recruiting class of 2012: Marshall Plumlee, Alex Murphy, and Rasheed Saluimon all smiled at him.  Who knew that these three would be part of Duke’s last claim to near-greatness?  Their talent and hustle made them endearing and just as successful: fans quickly nicknamed the three of them “PMS” because opponents always complained when they had to deal with the trio.  Collins knew it didn’t do any good to think about those years, but he couldn’t help it.  It was a simpler time. K was here–they could do no wrong.  How the times had changed.

But he knew that it would have been tough for even Coach K to survive today.  Duke didn’t care about basketball anymore–it had just applied to join the Ivy League, starting in the 2025 season.  Although the competition would be weaker there than in the ACC Big 10-12 Sky South division, Collins wouldn’t have any stars interested in coming to the Ivy League.  Nor would he have the same budget allocated for daily player stipends.  The infamous Supreme Court ruling in the Davis vs. Louisville case had done them in again.

After that, Duke basketball was on the ropes.  Gone was even the hint of the concept of the “student-athlete.”  Yes, often the NCAA made the students go to class during the basketball season to receive their pay (except during the three weeks of the Facebook Presents “March Madness” NCAA Tournament), but they didn’t have to go to class in the rest of the year.  But since the season was roughly 10 months long now, most players declined that duty and just worked year-round day jobs.  Since academic requirements had been almost entirely eliminated, it didn’t matter.  The NBA still paid better, but since the draft was now limited to one round to improve job security, it wasn’t rare for players to play 7 or 8 years in college to try to improve their draft stock.

Collins knew he had to change up his strategy, do something drastic.  He had heard that St. John’s recruiters had started signing top 15-year-olds off the Rucker Park courts, just to guarantee themselves a minimum of 8 semesters from each player.  Maybe he could corner the market on gyms throughout Carolina.  Or maybe the training grounds in Europe.  The logistics were trickier, but the days of simply picking 5-star prospects were in the past for Duke.  And with (the recently rescinded) time constraints on recruiting no longer a factor, now was as good a time as any to get started.

His phone buzzed.  It was a text message from Duke’s big man coach, Greg Paulus.  Something about cost-of-living adjustments for the players and how that would affect their roster size next year.  Cut-backs would likely be necessary.  Jesus, he thought.  Even Duke football is doing better right now.

The coach’s grandiose plans for next year would have to wait, though–it was nearly time for practice.  The team had a big stretch coming up: three games in four nights across NC State, Wake, and then the home game against Carolina.  Collins used to love these match-ups.  Now he dreaded them.

Collins gathered his things and started to make the short trek to Cameron Indoor.  He passed the seventeen tents gathered in the surprisingly well-maintained Collins Colony area.  The student section would likely only be at two-thirds capacity for the UNC game, if even that.  He sighed.  The school was no longer allowed to run an organized tenting system as it had in years past, due to one student’s expose of the crude behaviors tenters were forced into.  “Confessions of a K-Ville Crazie,” it was called.  Now, the only fans remaining in Collins Colony were those committed to reclaiming the tradition of tenting for Duke games.  They wouldn’t receive tickets, however–it was only for pride.  Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, had been printing letters from alumni complaining about the lack of school spirit from students for months, but nothing had changed.  And nothing would change.

The hot Carolina spring air was nearly suffocating Collins.  He had to get inside to the relief of the air-conditioned arena.  But what would he tell his players there?  Sure, they were battling for one of the tournament’s 97 at-large bids, but who really cared?  Ever since their star player announced last week–via an Instagram graphic novel–that he’d be transferring to NC State at the end of the year, the team had been plodding along.  Collins owed it to his players to be inspired, to inspire them.  He knew just the place to go.

The statue of Coach K had been commissioned immediately following his retirement in 2016, but the construction was delayed for four years as the administration and the student government haggled over the re-institution of Tailgate (which returned in 2019 only to be cancelled after one game).  Nevertheless, it was a beautiful structure, capturing Coach K at his most intense–pointing and yelling out instructions to his players, face creased and lined with sweat, yet still completely in control.  Twelve feet of solid bronze overlooking the residential quad, the quad where bonfires used to originate after big wins.  On the statue, at K’s feet, was the inscription:

MIKE KRZYZEWSKI

DUKE MEN’S BASKETBALL COACH: 1980-2016

MOST NCAA COACHING WINS OF ALL TIME

“COURAGE GIVES A LEADER THE ABILITY TO STAND STRAIGHT

NO MATTER WHICH WAY THE WIND BLOWS”

Most days when Collins came here, that quote gave him insight, an epiphany, or even a hint of nirvana.  But today he wasn’t looking at it.  He studied K’s body posture, looking for subtle clues in how he carried himself on the sidelines that Collins somehow had missed before.  He hunted for what made Mike Krzyzewski “Coach K.”  He found as much as he always did: nothing.

Collins turned and started heading toward Cameron, knowing that it would be a tough practice.  One final look first, though, he told himself.

His gaze was drawn to the only numbers on the statue.  Those dates mocked him.  1980-2016.  Had it only been that long since K left?  Collins could have sworn he had been coaching on his own for at least a decade.

2016.  The final year of that last legendary class of Plumlee, Murphy, and Saluimon.  K had left at the right time.  Collins couldn’t help but smile–the man knew what he was doing.

Practice was supposed to start now.  The coach turned and jogged to the facility.  The return to relevancy starts today, he told his players. We’re just a little ways from being a real championship contender, he claimed.

But he didn’t believe any of this.  Collins knew that any shot Duke had evaporated six years prior.  The wind continued to blow against him and his team, and he sensed that this storm was gonna be a long one.

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One Response to The Last Best Class

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  1. You’re an idiot and obviously envious of the Duke Basketball program….don’t you have more academic scandals to go worry about that surfaced this week, which now apparently includes Carolina basketball players. UNC is a joke of an institution and old buckwheat roy williams will make every excuse in the book I’m sure! GO BLUE DEVILS!

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