CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—The players slumped off the court after the final horn sounded, faces gray with disappointment. A few minutes later, in the postgame locker room, they said things like “something has to change” and “immature” and “I’m kind of angry right now.” Then Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski conducted a gloomy press conference. “I didn’t think we played well,” were the first words out of his mouth.
He went on for a little over three minutes, praising St. John’s and lamenting his own team, saying that “we did enough to win” but that it “almost makes me sick to say that.” Then he said, “That’s the story. You can ask your questions… Maybe some question will open up some little thing that I have not looked at, but believe me, I do this all the time.”
Well, we did ask questions, of course, and the revealing thing was that Krzyzewski wound up holding forth for what may have been his longest postgame session of the season so far. There was in fact plenty to say, and some of Krzyzewski’s bitterest comments—made palatable by the occasional acerbic quip—shed new light on Duke basketball in his three-decade tenure.
Well, before we get to that, perhaps it’s worth choosing this moment to remind ourselves, in the words of Austin Rivers, “We did win. It’s crazy, because the locker room setting is like we lost.” Ah, yes: Duke beat St. John’s this afternoon at Cameron, 83-76. The Blue Devils put together a superb first half on both offense and defense. They had a 16-point lead at the break—had they converted a couple of easy layups, it could have been 20—and it swelled to 22 just three minutes into the second half.
St. John’s started five freshmen and was piloted by assistant coach Mike Dunlap (head coach Steve Lavin has been receiving treatment for prostate cancer). Nonetheless, the Red Storm made a game of it thanks to its two best players, national top-40 prospects Moe Harkless and D’Angelo Harrison, who scored 33 of their team’s 47 second-half points. St. John’s narrowed the Duke lead to seven points with a 21-9 run; but the Blue Devils went to the free throw line 16 times over the game’s final eight minutes, making 14 of the attempts, and salted away their 18th win against just three losses. Duke is tied for the lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings and is one of the top 10 teams in the country.
So why the long faces?
Here is another good quote from this afternoon: “Guys need to start cutting their fingernails.” That one is courtesy of Mason Plumlee, who looked after the game as though he had been playing in a briar patch. He set a career high with 17 rebounds, adding 15 points.
And he must do well in his English classes, because he was a walking metaphor: St. John’s scratched and clawed their way back into this one, and they did it with what Krzyzewski called “an AAU game”: they went schoolyard on Duke, settling into one-on-one basketball and succeeding with it. St. John’s had just five assists for the game on 30 made baskets. It worked for them. They had two excellent offensive players whom no Blue Devil defender could ever quite contain, and in the second half they stopped trying to force an uptempo game and simply got the ball into Harkless’ and Harrison’s hands.
Duke players—and Krzyzewski—were being really hard on their defense after the game, but perhaps pride prevented from going so far as to suggest that there might not be a Blue Devil who can really guard a top-level scorer. In response to the protestation that Duke held Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin to 16 points on Wednesday night, five below his season average coming into the game (21.2), consider that, had he shot his usual percentage from the free throw line, he’d have scored 19 or 20 points. Also, he’s small, and he hasn’t convinced me that he’s as good as his numbers suggest. This month, Duke has had a bad time against players like Temple’s Khalif Wyatt, Glen Rice, Jr. of Georgia Tech (who poured in 28 points against the Blue Devils) and Virginia’s Mike Scott. Wake Forest’s C. J. Harris scored 20 points on just eight shots. Who is going to cover North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes—twice?
Yet there they were, players and coach alike, over and over: dissing the defense. The best line belonged to Ryan Kelly, one the Blue Devils who tried to guard Harkless and failed (Harkless tallied 30 points, 13 rebounds and one turnover, while playing most of the game in foul trouble): “Our offense continues to dictate our defense,” was the White Raven’s diagnosis (oh, yes, that’s right: the White Raven, sportsfans). He’s onto something there. Duke shot 50 percent in the first half this afternoon, including 6-11 three-pointers, while holding St. John’s to 29 points on 42 percent from the field (and 0-6 threes). The Blue Devils posted a 23-14 rebounding edge in the game’s first 20 minutes.
But in the second half, the touch mysteriously deserted them. Duke shot an appalling 30.4 percent in the second half, missing seven of their eight three-point tries, including two wide-open, in-rhythm shots during a crucial stretch in which Duke could have re-extended its lead back out to a dozen or so points and made the last several minutes of action a formality rather than the uncomfortable descent it became. The Blue Devils lived at the free throw line, going 23-27 for the half. They did not score a field goal over the game’s final six-plus minutes.
It’s easy to stay hyped up to play D, which is pretty unsexy stuff, when you’re hitting shots on the other end and feeling generally good about your nothing-but-net self. Most players, especially this season’s Blue Devils, get off on scoring, above all else. Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Ryan Kelly, Austin Rivers: all shooters, first and foremost. That’s what their games are predicated on. “Our offense continues to dictate our defense,” as Kelly had it, because this Duke team is mostly offense. Duke is last in the ACC in opponent’s field-goal percentage: When you hear players saying “something has to change,” that’s what they mean, whether they know it or not. Foot-off-the-gas, let-them-up-off-the-floor, and so on: that is all just the rhetorical smokescreen that covers the very obvious flaw of this basketball team: Duke lets opponents get too many easy shots. Let’s not forget that Michael Snaer’s buzzer-beater to shock Duke at Cameron a week ago was no prayer, no wild heave. He was wide open. Duke was very fortunate that both Mike Scott and Jontel Evans missed open three-pointers in the last few seconds to seal Duke’s 61-58 win a few weeks ago.
Krzyzewski knows all of this about his team, of course. On their defense, he said: “We can do it; it’s just not in our nature to do it.” So he has to get many of his players to go, somehow, against their nature.
Nature: this was the inadvertent theme of Krzyzewski’s blackish remarks during what became, as it went along, an illuminating glimpse into how he thinks and how he tutors his players to think.
First there were the molar-grinding repetitions, e.g. “I’m not pleased with today. I am not pleased with today. One. Bit. One bit.” (About five minutes later: “To me, it was a loss today. It was a loss. I didn’t like today. I didn’t like today.”)
Then, comparing today’s play to “an AAU game”—of the high-school exhibition sort in which the players basically run up and down the court scoring on flashy one-on-one plays and defending cursorily if at all—he said, “That’s not the way it works, man.” The man at the end of the line gave it the feel of a sort of resigned dismissal of a misguided relative who can’t stop drinking. Like, Why do my guys keep doing this to themselves and making me come to their rescue? Why are they addicted to offense? Defense is basketball sobriety, honorable living. And he repeated this thought, too: “That’s not the way it works.”
Moments later, Krzyzewski invoked one of the quasi-New Age phrases he will sometimes go to, I think in an effort to widen his (and our) understanding of what goes on on the court: “I really think part of it is the ending of an energy cycle”—nature again—”that’s how you go through a year, go through a year.”
It wasn’t entirely clear what he meant by “energy cycle,” but it seemed to have to do with the bio-rhythms of players during the course of a season. Krzyzewski noted that January was a hard month for his team. He stopped short of saying that they might be a little tired—which would be a tacit admission that he has been overworking them—but note how attenuated the rotation has recently become. Quinn Cook, either injured, sick or merely unready for prime time action, has become an afterthought lately. He played eight minutes today, was apparently too sick to go to Maryland Wednesday (he didn’t make the trip), played just one minute against Florida State, 14 versus Wake Forest despite starting the game. Josh Hairston hasn’t played his way into more than a couple of cameos per game. Michael Gbinije is a virtual walk-on. The Blue Devils’ starting five played 166 minutes today.
Well, guess what? The Red Storm’s starters played 159 minutes, and only seven St. John’s players saw any action at all (nine Blue Devils played). “Energy cycles” can’t just be about physical stamina. It has to do as well, perhaps, with mental energy. Duke’s defense was pretty strong against Maryland on Wednesday, according to Krzyzewski (it should be said that Maryland isn’t a very good shooting team, unlike conference-best Duke) and in the first half today. But it was weak for most of the last 20 minutes. Reminder, again: these are kids. They will sometimes tune out. They will get distracted. They will lose focus, get lazy, grow content with past successes and unconcerned with the uncertain and often steep challenges of the future.
What? Oh: Yes, that’s right, adults do that, too. And this leads to the adult part of Krzyzewski’s conference (there is nothing naughty coming up, don’t worry—well, a little blue language, right near the end). It begins, shortly after “energy cycles,” with none other than ESPN color commentator Dick Vitale (that’s like calling Freddie Mercury a rock vocalist), who tried to soothe Krzyzewski’s worsening discontent by noting that St. John’s had just beaten West Virginia and West Virginia was, at that moment, leading No. 3 Syracuse late. “Expectations to win, to win always big: Do kids feel that?” he asked.
Krzyzewski’s quietly sarcastic reply: “I don’t think that what you’re saying is completely wrong.” No one seemed sure if he was jesting, so a moment of silence followed. Then: “Most of it is right. The one element I would add is that, in order to be, like, really good, you have to be different. There’s only a few programs that separate themselves. So you can’t do what normal people do. You have to do something better.”
Krzyzewski was then brought back by a reporter to “those energy cycles you go through in the middle of a game,” but before the questioner could finish and, you know, ask a question, Krzyzewski cut him off: “You shouldn’t go through them in the middle of a game. You should do preventive stuff before, and during, the game, that does not allow you to fall prey to human nature.”
(Later, he called Harkless and Harrison “hungry scorers,” repeating that phrase as well. Prey. “So you have to be hungry to stop them. You have have to be hungry to stop them.”)
Questioner [resumes]: “My question to you is—”
Krzyzewski: “That’s my answer.”
Questioner [perseveres, undeterred]: “—where does the internal leadership have to come from on the court?”
Krzyzewski [interrupting after “come from”]: “Me. Me. Me.” [His voice drops a little with each “Me,” landing with a firm, grim finality on the last of them.] “That’s where it has to come from: me. It’s my responsibility.”
He managed to get a laugh-line in response to the next question, which someone else asked and which had nothing to do with the game or his team (a broad question about knowing when a player is ready for the NBA). But the anvil had dropped.
To pick all of that apart for a moment, note that Krzyzewski wants his players to deny their human nature. He wants them to be superhuman, and he is taking—demanding—complete and autocratic responsibility for making them that way. (When he told Vitale that “in order to be better you had to be different,” what he might have meant by “different” was: different from humans; it has nothing to do with the difference between boys and men, but between species.)
In just a few sentences, Krzyzewski is raising his standards for his players to an almost impossible—indeed, virtually inhumane—level, and also coming as close as he has has gotten this year to admitting to that most human, that most natural of acts: failing. He is not placing blame on his players, on his staff, on St. John’s, on the stars. No, he is blaming himself, and also gathering everything into himself, making himself the axis on which the entire Duke world spins, the teapot from which the tempest pours. This is a coach who is reported to have hurled himself on the floor in order to encourage his players (and show them how) to dive for loose balls. This is a coach who gave Christian Laettner free reign to torment, antagonize, embarrass, manipulate, shake and rattle his teammates—Laettner his cat’s paw, his whip, his double, another working-class kid with aspirations to blueblood status. Krzyzewski, a mastermind, needed another mastermind on the floor, the only place in his players’ world where his influence cannot extend.
Laettner, in Gene Wojciechowski’s The Last Great Game, comes off as more or less inhuman, an unnatural being. You know what he is instead? His own teammates had a word to describe him; in fact, it was his nickname: “Asshole.”
Asshole led them to consecutive national championships.
The 2011-12 team, frankly, doesn’t have a Laettner, and Krzyzewski knows it. For one thing, no current Blue Devil has Laettner’s prodigious talent, not even Austin Rivers, who single-handedly restored Duke’s equilibrium this afternoon, temporarily, after St, John’s got within seven points: on four or five straight possessions, he drove to the basket; twice he scored easy layups, twice he found wide-open teammates for three-point shots. They both missed. But there was Rivers, taking control. Me. Me. Me.
Rivers, although he has Laettner’s cockiness and wilfulness and attitude, is a freshman, prone to occasional lapses—to being human—and he does not have the authority Laettner had. Beyond Rivers, Duke mostly comprises players of whom you would be likely to say, “Nice kid.” Krzyzewski, if he’s going to will them to become one of those “few programs that separate themselves,” will have to do it basically on his own. If he pulls it off, he’ll remind us once again why he has won more games than any other coach in the history of his sport.
Dick Vitale, an avowed Krzyzewskian, needs no reminding. After telling Vitale that “in order to be good, you have to be different,” and then saying, twice, that “I didn’t like today,” Krzyzewski concluded his response thus:
“And if my team doesn’t like today, then we’ll get better. If my team is OK about today, then we’re gonna fight. ‘Cause I’m not gonna change,” said the coach of four national championship teams. “You know, I’m not gonna change on this.”
Another reporter then threw a whole new line of questioning at Krzyzewski, and as he did so, Vitale leaned toward the guy he was with and whispered hoarsely, loud enough for half the room to hear: “That’s why he’s a fuckin’ winnah!“
Mike Krzyzewski likes to talk about men: “This was a game for men”; “I hope we’re men on Saturday”; “Mason played like a man tonight”; etc. And that was a man’s moment between Krzyzewski and Vitale: two veterans assessing the end of a grueling, bitter fight. The thing is, Krzyzewski wants his kids to evolve through manhood and into supermanhood, that Nietzschean condition that transcends, that triumphs. He volunteered early in his post-game comments that “there’s something missing” in his current approach with his players, “because it’s not resonating with our team”—another near-miss admission of failure.
Asked what tactic might need to be taken instead, he joked: “It’ll come out in my next book.” [laughter] “I’m going to read all my books and see what I’m missing.” If he doesn’t come up with answers in those pages, he might want to try Nietzsche, who knew a little something about energy cycles, or at least the will to power. Krzyzewski might point his impressionable, championship-aspiring charges to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where they will find these lines about transcending their human nature:
I teach you the Übermensch. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughingstock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to Übermensch: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.
Behold, I teach you the Übermensch! The Übermensch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the Übermensch shall be the meaning of the earth!
Man is a rope, tied between beast and Übermensch—a rope over an abyss… what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.
But does he also play defense?