CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—With about five seconds left in the first half last night, and Duke leading Davidson by one point, the Blue Devils ran a little set play in which a driving Austin Rivers was either supposed to lob the ball to Ryan Kelly cutting along the baseline to the basket, or perhaps just shoot it himself and trust Kelly to pull down the rebound if he missed.
But the freshman Rivers misunderstood his assignment. Instead he made a bounce pass to Kelly. Kelly, of course, wasn’t looking for it, and it went behind him and out of bounds for a turnover. “Up!” he admonished Rivers, too late.
Davidson guard Tom Droney took the ensuing inbounds pass, dribbled down the court and penetrated all the way inside the three-point line, with Miles Plumlee trailing him after a midcourt screen. Plumlee couldn’t stop his momentum in time to keep from bumping Droney as Droney put up a last-second shot. With 0.08 seconds to go, Droney made two free throws, and what probably should have been a 36-33 Duke lead at the intermission became instead a 35-34 Davidson advantage.
The Blue Devils had made two mistakes in less than five seconds, lost what little momentum they’d built—Duke actually trailed for nearly all of the first half—and headed into their home locker room losing to an unranked team. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski stalked off the court looking a little less than pleased, to put it mildly.
It was just the kind of early-season moment a growing top-ten team needs.
Who knows what sort of tongue-lashing Krzyzewski gave his team at halftime? You don’t become the all-time wins leader in your sport by leading Cat Stevens singalongs in the clubhouse. After the game, one of his players said that Krzyzewski challenged them to take possession of their own house. Duke hasn’t lost a non-conference home game since Bill Clinton was president, and Cameron is as much Krzyzewski’s kitchen as the one he shares with his wife, Mickie. He wasn’t about to let his youngish team allow Davidson—that other elite, private North Carolina university—to come into it and steal the cookies.
In other words, it was time to defend the castle. At the start of the second half, a visiting Wildcat fan behind the Davidson bench raised a sign that read “#Occupy Cameron Indoor.” No chance. After a few misspent minutes early in the second half, Duke upped its defensive effort. It was 41-39, Davidson when the Blue Devils’ Ryan Kelly, who had gotten himself in early foul trouble, blocked a J. P. Kuhlman layup. Wildcat forward De’Mon Brooks scooped up the rejection, but he missed a rather easy follow shot—his third close-range miss in about 2 1/2 minutes—and Seth Curry rebounded.
Duke scored the next 14 points.
The damage was almost all Plumli-inflicted: Mason layup, Mason dunk. Crowd went berserk, helping defend their house. Official timeout. No matter, Duke took it higher: another Mason layup (he scored 16 points on 7-10 shooting and added 13 rebounds); then two free throws by Miles after rebounding a Tyler Thornton miss; then Mason fed Miles for a dunk. Austin Rivers, essentially unguardable all night by any Wildcat, added a breeze-by-you layup, one of a number of them he scored. Then two more free throws for Miles.
53-41, Duke. Just like that. The Blue Devils built the lead all the way up to 19, started burning the clock with a little over four minutes to go, and coasted to an 82-69 win.
“Our defense caused offense,” Krzyzewski said. His team’s ball pressure slowed Davidson down “and gave us time to talk.”
Where Duke basketball is concerned lately, there has indeed been an awful lot of talk. You probably know by now that Mike Krzyzewski became the most victorious coach in NCAA men’s basketball history on Tuesday in New York City, when Duke beat Michigan State for Krzyzewski’s 903rd career win.
When Duke beat Presbyterian at home last week to pull Krzyzewski into a 902-win tie with Bobby Knight, Krzyzewski gave a long postgame interview. There was a media session with Krzyzewski two days later, in the afternoon. During the Michigan State game, ESPN showed clips of basketball coaches from all over the US praising him (or do I mean Him?). “The pinnacle of our profession,” declared Kansas coach Bill Self.
After Duke held on to beat the Spartans, there was a presentation at center court—but not before Coach K made his way to the sideline, where he shared an intimate moment with Knight, his mentor, who was doing color commentary for ESPN.
The hagiography was in full swing by now. Before last night’s game, the fans in attendance at Cameron Indoor Stadium got commemorative “903” T-shirts. They went bonkers when Krzyzewski made his entrance onto the court a few minutes before tipoff.
And after Duke’s second half surge secured win No. 904 (you can see the “4” peeking out behind the “3” on the silkscreen counter on the T-shirt), there was another on-court presentation. Chairs were placed on the hardwood. Mike and Mickie Krzyzewski, their three daughters, the grandkids; former Duke athletic director Tom Butters, who hired Krzyzewski in 1980, and his wife, Lynn; etc.
Duke President Richard Brodhead tipped it up. He told the crowd, and Krzyzewski, that “there are a million things people can do,” and do well. “You chose something to do in your life… and have done that better than anyone who ever attempted it.” Krzyzewski is “unexcelled, unsurpassed,” Brodhead continued. “You may have reached the limit of human achievement in this field.” And as befits a university president, he added that Krzyzewski is not only the best coach there is but also “a great teacher.”
Up next was ACC commissioner John Swofford, who still looks like the football player he once was: burly, big hands, upper body reaching the limits of human containment in his jacket. Swofford recalled that he was hired as the athletic director at UNC-Chapel Hill within days of Krzyzewski’s appointment as Duke’s head coach in 1980. (Swofford left for his current post in 1997.)
Swofford called Krzyzewski “one of the great leaders in American sports and one of the great leaders that we have in America today.” Krzyzewski “wins with class, dignity, integrity, with players that graduate—and he’s done it with family.”
Duke athletic director Kevin White came last—before Krzyzewski himself, of course—and finally put it best: “We need better superlatives.”
Unfurl banner: “Most Wins in Men’s Division I History.” “Simply the Best” blares on the PA.
Krzyzewski takes microphone: “I’m still trying to get over the game we just played.”
Well, he’s a smooth one. He’s smooth because he means it. “That was a heckuva game,” he said, and it was—for about 30 minutes, when suddenly Duke started playing like the Duke he made in his image, and then it was a blowout. He introduced some old teammates from Army who also “all served our country in combat.” The veterans stood. Crowd exploded. This whole record-breaking narrative unfolded right around Veteran’s Day, remember—Krzyzewski tied Knight on 11/11. Just days before Duke beat Michigan State at Madison Square Garden to break the record for Krzyzewski, the Spartans had played Duke’s arch-rival, North Carolina, on an aircraft carrier, in camouflage uniforms, with bomber jacket-wearing President Obama in attendance. We’re living in a military-athletic complex these days.
Krzyzewski said it was sweeter to be fêted here at Cameron than it had been up in New York, because this was his family, this was his home, this was a place where magic happened—and here he gestured at the many championship banners hanging in the rafters. He said he hoped we would all find a place where we, too, felt at home and in the realm of magical possibilities.
It didn’t always seem so, he said. He went 38-47 in his first three years as Duke’s head coach. He now addressed Tom Butters, who as Duke’s athletic director hired him in 1980. “I never worried about getting kicked outta here,” though, Krzyzewski said. Tom Butters believed in him, Krzyzewski suggested, perhaps more than Krzyzewski believed in himself—and that arrowed him to the ceremony’s most affecting moment: Krzyzewski said that it was precisely that extraordinary level of belief—outsized, generous, almost profligate—that Krzyzewski has, transitively, always striven to confer upon his players. Which is why he’s won 904 games, and counting, with not always the most talented team in the land, or even on the court. In Krzyzewski’s address to Butters, we saw a small but essential source of his great power and success at what he does: Belief, in give-and-go practice.
Then Krzyzewski introduced his wife and three daughters, who along with him form what he referred to as “the starting five.” He said we must surely have presumed that they were adopted, the daughters, because he’s no Adonis. But no, they’re biological offspring, Coach K insisted, because “they look exactly like their mother.” Awwww, went the crowd.
He’s smooth because he means it. He’s a showman—you can’t do what he does unless you are—but he isn’t dissembling. “He is acting, and he means it,” as Alice Munro puts it in her great short story, “Royal Beatings”—a title well-suited to the second half of last night’s game.
The personal touch: He ended his speech by kidding around with a Cameron Crazie wearing a Stormtrooper helmet.
And then, one more thing: “Thank you, and let’s win in Maui.”
Ah, Maui. Fun, sun, and the culmination of what Krzyzewski, in his postgame press conference a few minutes later, called a “murderous schedule” in the early season: seven games in 12 days, two against a pair of strong mid-major NCAA tournament teams (Belmont, Davidson); one in hypeville—Madison Square Garden, 903rd win on the line, Knight doing color (along with former Duke baller Jay Bilas, now the nation’s best basketball pundit)—against perennial power Michigan State; and now Maui, where top-25 teams Memphis, Michigan and Kansas await.
And then, after a Thanksgiving breather, the Blue Devils go to Ohio State to play the No. 3 team in the country.