Duke mens basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski in action against Presbyterian, Cameron Indoor Stadium, November 12, 2011.
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski in action against Presbyterian, Cameron Indoor Stadium, November 12, 2011.

CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—After watching Duke beat the belief out of Presbyterian College, 96-55 last night, I crashed a party—The Birthday Party, that is, the 1958 play that put Nobelist Harold Pinter on the map, in a very entertaining revival by Durham’s Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern.

It was the last night of the show. It was sold out, and I had no reservations, but they put some cushions on the floor in front of the first row for the overflow. So there we sat, with some other spectators looming right behind us in their chairs, we standby-fliers practically right onstage in the action, performers’ faces just inches from ours; and we watched Pinter’s black comedy of menace in which one party rips to shreds the spirit and soul of another party, leaving the latter alive but ruined, speechless.

All in all, a seamless transition from venue to venue.

I bring up The Birthday Party not only for its congruence with the basketball game, which Presbyterian head coach Gregg Nibert summed up, from his team’s perspective, as “coming to a knife fight with a toothpick.” There was more commonality: One of the high-dollar season donors listed in Little Green Pig’s program is named Matthew Zafirovski, and any rabid, knowledgeable Duke fan knows that Zafirovski happens also to be the last name of a reserve Blue Devil power forward called Todd. Perhaps one of those fans could inform Triangle Offense whether these Zafirovskis are related, and even inquire of them whether they might consider forming a trapeze theater act called the Flying Zafirovskis. I mean, it just sounds right. They could do Shakespeare histories in midair. (No, what? Ludicrous. Who on earth would attempt such silliness?)

Anyway, Todd, a Duke junior, got into his sixth career game yesterday, playing the final three-ish minutes. The Zephyr, as I will henceforth call him—a zephyr, which blows west-to-east, is an easygoing wind, and Duke’s Zephyr only appears in easygoing wins—was initially credited with his first career points on a tip-in of Josh Hairston’s missed shot. Later it was sadly but rightly determined that Hairston himself had followed his own miss; and so the final ledger was altered, and the Zephyr blew home still empty. (He did get a rebound, though.)

But there’s a far less breezy reason I mention The Birthday Party.

You need be neither a rabid nor unusually knowledgeable Duke basketball fan to know that, with yesterday’s resounding victory over the Blue Hose (Blue Hose? seriously?), Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski tied Bob Knight—his own coach, many years ago at West Point, when Krzyzewski was a point guard—for the most wins all-time in Division I Men’s Basketball history, with 902. This is a truly astounding achievement, and it’s worth taking a moment to let it sink in.

Over the last 30+ years, the City of Durham has had the privilege of watching Krzyzewski become quite probably the greatest head coach of his time, perhaps in any sport, right here before us. Yesterday’s milestone was a birthday of sorts for him: a day of both self-celebration and self-reflection, and a prompt to look back on his origins. He retold the story of the very day on which he was hired as Duke’s basketball coach—he took the job without asking what it paid (“I just wanted to coach,” he said.)

More importantly, he talked about his relationship to the man whose record he tied, his basketball father, Knight, who still (Coach K told the media) calls Krzyzewski “Michael,” a paternal ownership of his full name.

Indeed, before anyone in the post-game press room asked Krzyzewski any questions at all about the impact of the 902nd win and his feelings on the big day, he quickly dispatched with his two-minute assessment of yesterday’s game (what was he gonna say? “Yeah, we really put a run in those Hose”?) and moved toward the past.

“Whenever an individual coaching honor occurs, it’s because of your players and your assistants and the infrastructure you build. You’re just the recipient of a lot of good things then, because you’re at the head of it.”

That wasn’t really false modesty, despite its appearance as such. Krzyzewski knows quite well how successful he has been. “I know it’s a big thing,” he acknowledged. “I’m not”—and here he briefly searched for the right word—”I’m not minimizing it. It really will happen” (breaking Knight’s record, that is), “and the development of my team will only happen right now.”

Like anyone who is a true master of his work, Krzyzewski isn’t given to wide or long perspective on it. The amassing of wins simply happens, one win at a time, inevitably if you’re gifted, smart, tenacious, supported and (let’s face it) a little bit fortunate here and there. You simply have to do it, that’s all—you have to not only because it’s what’s right in front of you every day but, more deeply, because of some impulsion, some relentless internal craving. It’s that craving that gets you to 902 wins.

That and habit. “Always the same preparation,” Krzyzewski said. And then he described it: Stay up till the wee hours watching game film the night before. Don’t eat too much on game day. Preside over morning shoot-around. Take the nap. Wake up, feel antsy. (“Good butterflies, he called them.)

And then coach like every second matters, even in November against the Presbyterian Blue Hose. “You have to be in every second of every ballgame,” Krzyzewski concluded.

It wasn’t long before he was asked about Knight, and “Coach,” as Krzyzewski referred to him (he also called him “brilliant”), elicited a current of warm thoughts—a reminder that public prickliness, for which Knight is of course well known, often hides a decency that closely scrutinized, heavily pressured figures, especially those measured by wins and losses, keep guarded and private so as to sustain it.

Krzyzewski had plenty to share about his relationship with Knight. There were comic anecdotes, high praise and even a detour tribute to Dean Smith, who indirectly helped make Krzyzewski’s career and gave him a close-to-hand model for exemplary leadership.

“We can be completely honest with each other,” Krzyzewski said of Knight, which led to what may have been Krzyzewski’s most inadvertently self-reflective line on a red-letter (well, red-number) day he worked rather hard not to make all about himself. He was talking about Knight, and perhaps a little bit about Dean Smith, when he said this:

“You learn when you talk to people who are really smart and who don’t have an agenda when they’re talking to you, except to tell you the truth.”

Surely he was talking about himself, too, without meaning it, without perspective—which is why it describes him.

And then, at the very end of his press conference, what was he talking about?

He was talking about Michigan State.

One of those many assistants Krzyzewski had earlier credited with some of his success has already been looking at game film. “Chris Collins said, ‘Coach, they really rebound.’”

If his Blue Devils can stay on the boards with the Spartans on Tuesday in New York City, Krzyzewski might have that record all to himself, a giant step on an ascent toward an uncharted summit. His birthday is February 13, but here’s hoping he throws himself at least a little party.