I would not trade anything for growing up in Burlington, North Carolina. I was lucky, blessed, fortunate. Burlington was sandwiched between Winston-Salem and Raleigh.
In that stretch of miles through the Piedmont of the Old North State were the four universities that made up the heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference(ACC)—Wake Forest, N.C. State, North Carolina, and Duke. Slowly, this conference would develop into one of America’s hotbeds for men’s college basketball.
Nicknamed Tobacco Row, the stories of the players, coaches, and fans became legendary in the intensity of their rivalries. Perhaps, he didn’t know it on March 18, 1980, but Michael William Krzyzewski, Coach K, in his own unique way was going to add to those stories and rivalries when he was hired to coach the men’s basketball team at Duke University.
It took a while for the young man from Chicago, who played college basketball for Bobby Knight at Army, to find his footing at Duke and the ACC. At the end of his first four years, the impatient Duke alumni wanted Coach K’s head.
Despite the demands of alumni, Athletic Director, Tom Butters, did something remarkable.
Instead of firing Coach K, Butters tore up his existing contract, and gave him an extension. That brazen decision changed the course of basketball at Duke for forever.
But, we all know that forever, doesn’t last forever. On June 2, 2021, we learned that Coach K planned to retire upon the conclusion of the 2021-22 basketball season.
Since the fourth grade, I have followed Duke basketball.
That allegiance came courtesy of my fourth grade friend, John Huffman, whose father was a Duke graduate. I remember tagging along with the Huffman family for football and basketball games at Duke.
My parents were Duke fans too. As Methodists, they liked the strong affiliation the denomination had with the Duke Divinity School. Perhaps in their parental dreams, they held out hope that I might find the path to becoming a preacher. They could see me attending graduate school at Duke. Somehow, I sense God is relieved that didn’t happen.
As a young Duke fan, I was a poor sport. I would cry if they lost. I would really cry angrily if they lost to that team based in Chapel Hill. And yet somehow, in those furious tears, my father did teach me about sportsmanship.
Later, my wife, the Commander Supreme, had to revisit those sportsmanship lessons. No doubt this was needed. Especially, when I attempted to watch a Duke basketball game on television with our children. Our son’s young genes were very similar to his father’s after a tough Duke loss.
In truth over the last several years, I have watched very few Duke games on television—even championship games. I don’t want to put myself through the anguish. I’m still capable of “chastising a the screen of an unresponsive television too vehemently.”
When Coach K’s retirement was officially announced much was written. During this upcoming season, even more words will be put in print. And, I’m sure, win or lose, this last season will be chronicled for a book or even a documentary.
Coach K would not know me from Adam.
Yet, displayed on our basement wall, where I spend time writing are the following: a piece of hardwood floor from Cameron Indoor Stadium, a picture of Coach K, our son, and me from when our son attended basketball camp at Duke, and two framed letters from the coach.
I have a third letter from him in my desk drawer. That letter deserves to be framed too. After all he said: “Your letter was terrific.”
As much as I admire him and respect what he has accomplished, if given the opportunity, I would have told him to retire earlier.
I have no understanding of why he insisted on chasing the one and done players. Personally, I believe his desire to win betrayed his judgment.
Quietly, I thought to myself, why couldn’t he see this?
From my inexperienced perspective, Coach K’s success had come from his ability to develop players over time. This was because his knowledge of the game and his ability to teach the game were unsurpassed.
Additionally, I also wondered why highly recruited players sometimes ended up transferring after a couple of years? I guess they wanted more playing time. But, were there other reasons?Does loyalty receive any consideration in these decisions?
And, I questioned his stubbornness. It appeared Coach K relied upon the same rotation of players even when that configuration didn’t seem to be working in games.
In truth, I too am loaded with stubborn imperfections. My flaws are questioned. I guess this is part of being human.
And to show you how little I know about basketball, I figured Johnny Dawkins or Tommy Amaker would be announced as the new head coach— not Jon Scheyer.
But, I think this handpicked selection of Scheyer by Coach K is another example of Coach K’s ability to think and analyze deeply. He has exceptional psychological insights. Coach K contemplates all angles like a puzzle maker analyzing shapes for a precise, perfect fit.
Personally, I like the selection of Scheyer. To me he holds something special. In 2010, he captained the Duke team that won the national championship.
At the beginning of that season, not many experts or fans would have given this team much of a chance at winning a championship. But, they did.
Who knows, someday, tactical historians of the game might conclude— that season, that team was Coach K at his absolute best. Experience, hard work, and a cohesive bonding of the player’s personalities had something to do with that team’s run—no one and done mentality was present.
I guess the Duke haters in the world are momentarily satisfied. Their venom will be resupplied once the new season begins in November.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas are probably already contemplating this team chances of winning the national championship.
But, in a blink, a layer of pressure was instantly installed over this team. I’m sure Coach K is already thinking about how to deflect this distraction. My hunch is he will tell them to go out and play and have fun. We all know that will be easier said than done.
But, at the end of the day, I think that is what Coach K did during his career as a player and coach.
He had fun.
He led with his heart.
And most importantly in all his success, his heart had the capacity to build relationships.
Hard fought and heartfelt victories come from the building of relationships.
Coach K, thanks for sharing your heart with basketball.
But, I also think your heart gave us lessons beyond basketball.
And, at the end of the trail that might be worth more than you will ever know.
Author’s note: This piece is dedicated to my father William Avery Pike, Sr. He was a good son, brother, husband, father, son-in-law, brother-in-law, grandfather, father-in-law, cousin, friend, and neighbor. His goodness came from his big, gentle, caring heart. I was lucky to have that heart for my father.