Three's the Charm
Clutch three-point shooting was key as coach Mike Krzyzewski completed his own trifecta, leading Duke to its third NCAA title in 11 years
By Alexander Wolff
Mike Krzyzewski has a mental image of the way he used to coach, even the way he used to live, not so very long ago. He's at the wheel of his car, driving around, music blaring and the windows down. Innocent, a little heedless, virtually part of his players' generation, Krzyzewski used a youthful leadership style to guide his Duke basketball teams to NCAA titles twice in the early '90s.
Now, he says, the windows are up. He has no need for the world to hear his chosen station. He listens but does so alone, or with his wife, Mickie, riding shotgun and his daughters and grandsons in the back. "In some respects I would like to win the national championship anonymously, where it's only [the players and coaches], and the press isn't there," he said on the eve of Monday's NCAA final in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. "That's kind of where I am right now, and it's a better place."
Anonymity will not be Krzyzewski's companion, alas. After the Blue Devils' 82-72 defeat of Arizona, the record must reflect that he has won three championships, tying him with his college coach, Bob Knight, late of Indiana, and leaving him only one behind Kentucky's Adolph Rupp. He has won more Final Four games (10) than anyone but UCLA's John Wooden. Such a record will accrue to a coach who takes teams to nine Final Fours in 16 seasons, as Krzyzewski has done. Wooden didn't win the first of his 10 national titles until he was 53; Coach K already has three, and -- gracious sakes alive! -- he's only 54. "It was really special for us to separate Coach from the pack," said Duke forward Shane Battier after he had been named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. "A bunch of coaches have won two. Getting three makes you a legend."
The Blue Devils won their title with defense so stout that in January, Arizona coach Lute Olson screened a tape of a Duke game as a lesson for his own players. The Devils won with an offense that deployed so many passers and drivers and shooters that even a defense as good as Duke's would have found guarding them all a task.
More than anything, however, they won with Battier, their senior co-captain. From the time Arizona forward Richard Jefferson sank a three-pointer to pull the Wildcats to within 71-68 with fewer than five minutes remaining, hardly a play unspooled without Battier's affixing his brand to it. He put back one rebound with a dunk, then tipped in another like a conjurer, with the back of his hand. He slammed home a feed from guard Jason Williams, then returned the favor by setting a screen to spring Williams loose for a three-point shot -- "the shot that sealed it for us," Krzyzewski said.
As the game's final seconds counted down and Olson signaled his players not to foul, Williams and guard Chris Duhon began to celebrate on the court. Krzyzewski and his assistants embraced just off it. Battier simply crouched by himself on the wing, his eyes closed, a religion major perhaps offering a prayer. "He's the Player of the Year, Defender of the Year, Academic of the Year, Man of the Year," Jefferson said on Sunday. "He's All-Everything. Some people rank Shane Battier right below Jesus Christ."
Battier's coach had gone through a lot since 1992, when the Blue Devils won their last NCAA championship, also in the Metrodome. Krzyzewski had buried his friend Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State coach, in 1993 and his mother, Emily, three years later. In '94-95 the Duke coach had to leave his post after 12 games because of debilitating back pain and exhaustion. Sitting out the remainder of that season, he doubted that he had the drive to rebuild a team that went 4-15 in his absence. "He was thinking, Do I have cancer?" says Mickie Krzyzewski. "Am I going to go like Jimmy did? He'd sit and watch the team fall apart, thinking he should be there, that this was all his fault. He got so depleted that he didn't know if he could spark another fire."
He did, of course, guiding a surpassingly talented team to the 1999 championship game. But after Connecticut upset the Blue Devils in that game, three underclassmen bolted for the NBA and a fourth transferred. Suddenly Krzyzewski appeared to be the steward of just another common paraprofessional program.
Then, late in 1999, the coach who has always prided himself on making a family of his team had a life-changing addition to his own family. His eldest daughter, Debbie, and her husband, Peter Savarino, gave Krzyzewski his first grandchild, and this season Joey, now 16 months, has been a regular at practice. When he toddles onto the floor, all activity stops until Poppy K can coo and cajole him back to the sideline. Last Thursday, three days after Debbie had delivered her second child and named him Michael after his granddad, Krzyzewski appeared at an NCAA function in Minneapolis, where he learned that Arizona coach Lute Olson has 14 grandchildren. "We have a new motto in our household," said Krzyzewski, who now has to pull out a pair of reading glasses to peruse a postgame stat sheet. "Catch Lute!"
Upon seeing him at tournament time, his brother, Bill, a Roykoesque fireman from Chicago, usually tells him, "You look like s---." On Thursday, however, when they met at the team's hotel, Bill said, "You know, Mike, you look good." Balancing family with basketball, Krzyzewski has found an equipoise that kept him fresh enough to reinvent his team following a 91-80 loss to Maryland at home on Feb. 27 in which center Carlos Boozer suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. The injury appeared to have ended Boozer's season and reduced an essentially six-man team to five. It had been Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and as a cake to celebrate what would have been Battier's 122nd victory sat uneaten in a corner of the locker room, every player but Battier, ever the stoic, hung his head. A few shed tears.
Some people wondered if Duke would win another game the rest of the season. In fact, the Blue Devils wouldn't lose again. The coaching staff stayed up all night, watching tape. The next day, a Wednesday, was a mandatory day off for the players, so Krzyzewski and his assistants mustered to plot the team's makeover. They decided to start their quickest player, the freshman Duhon, and bring senior swingman Nate James off the bench.
During the season the Blue Devils rarely practice in the morning. But with Sunday's game at North Carolina looming, they met at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday and Friday to recreate a training camp atmosphere and persuade one another that they were about to make a fresh start. The players didn't watch tape or do drills, only scrimmaged for 45 minutes, with the clock and scoreboard running. "I was trained for that," says Krzyzewski, a graduate of West Point. "Next play, let's go. Whether it's muddy or sunny, let's figure out a way to win."
At first Krzyzewski wasn't entirely sure there was a way. After the loss to Maryland, his wife had found him in the coaches' anteroom, slumped in a chair, shaking his head. "I could feel sorry for myself," he told her, "but we don't have the time. We have to get ready for North Carolina."
"Mom called me the next day in my dorm room," says Jamie, the Krzyzewskis' youngest daughter, who's a Duke freshman. "She said, 'You might want to stop by your dad's office tomorrow and give him a hug.' The first thing he says to me is, 'So, do you think Reggie Love [a 6'4" walk-on reserve] can guard [7-foot Tar Heels center] Brendan Haywood?'"
He did, of course -- with the help of theretofore little-used backup center Casey Sanders. After Duke won in Chapel Hill, Krzyzewski told his players, "I'm as happy with you guys as I've ever been with any team." Without Boozer the Blue Devils would now sometimes launch a shot mere seconds into a possession. It might come from anyone's hand, from anywhere on the floor, not least from beyond the arc, which is where 42% of their shots were taken this season. In their sluggish 76-63 defeat of UCLA in the regional semifinals, the Blue Devils opened the game with six straight off-the-mark three-pointers, but not once did anyone look over at the bench. "Coach won't take us out if we miss a shot," says Duhon. "He'll be more upset if we don't take one."
Adds forward Mike Dunleavy, "We don't have a system, a 'triple-post offense,' or anything like that. We just kind of play basketball. When you have that confidence that everybody on the floor can stick it, the other team knows it. They stay closer to you, and you can drive and post up."
It's an approach that rests as much on minding your mental P's and Q's as your X's and O's. "We're here because we're good," Krzyzewski yelled at his players during a timeout early in the UCLA game. He stared at Battier and said, "You're good." He turned to Williams and said, "You're good." And so on, to each starter in turn.
As he joins the company of the Wizard of Westwood, Krzyzewski resembles no one so much as the Wizard of Oz, who can simply tell his Tin Men, "You! You have a heart!" How else did Williams rediscover his free throw touch in March after missing 16 of 18 during one worrisome late-season stretch? Why did Duhon begin stroking three-pointers late in the East Regional final against Southern Cal after looking hesitant for much of the game? What made Dunleavy, 6 for 19 from beyond the arc in the tournament before Monday night, suddenly successful on 5-of-9 threes in the title game, including a seven-minute stretch during which he scored 18 points?
"These guys believe everything Coach K tells them," says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played for and coached under Krzyzewski. "That's the power behind the program. He says it, they believe it, and eventually it comes true."
The flip side of Krzyzewski's new role as Wizard is that he has made it hard to get a look behind the curtain. Assistants answer much of his mail and do those quickie, on-the-way-off-the-floor halftime interviews with CBS. His players may be as available as ever to the local press, but he isn't. This year he moved into an office on the top floor of a six-story tower next to Cameron Indoor Stadium, from which he can survey his domain like a feudal lord. No one can gain access to his floor without an electronic thumbprint scan.
He and Mickie now live in a secluded, custom-built home nestled on 12 acres just outside of the Duke Forest. It's only five minutes from campus but is preceded -- much like a Jason Williams layup -- by a long, twisting drive. "I didn't get broken down because of the pressures of the job," Krzyzewski has said of his absence six years ago, which, in West Point fashion, he regards as a commander's abandonment of his men. "I got broken down because of being stupid."
Stupid about time management and setting priorities. Now he makes time for walking the family Labs, Cameron and Defense, and puttering around the pool, and he often begins staff meetings with a comment about the way the deer treat his azaleas. "I like to plant pansies because they'll last during the winter," he said on Sunday, words that Krzyzewski's college coach, Knight, has probably never uttered.
If anything could break Krzyzewski's newfound equanimity, it was the prospect of a fourth frenzied meeting with Maryland, Duke's opponent in last Saturday's semifinal. In their first game against the Terps, the Blue Devils had made up 10 points in the final 54 seconds of regulation and won in overtime. Duke's Senior Night debacle served as the centerpiece of Maryland's own late-season resurrection. Then, at the start of their ACC tournament semifinal in Atlanta, the Terps took a 10-0 lead before the Blue Devils won in the dying seconds on a tip-in by James. "No tricks, no special effects," said Duhon, previewing a Final Four Game 4. "The strongest will survive."
Sure enough, Duke seized a 95-84 victory with strength, both physical and mental. Boozer outmuscled the Terps' Lonny Baxter on the blocks, scoring nine of his 19 points over the final five minutes while helping limit Baxter to 10 for the game. The Blue Devils refused to let a 22-point deficit late in the first half undo them, even though Duke hadn't trailed by such a margin since Krzyzewski was laid up, and no team in Final Four history is believed to have climbed out of so deep a hole.
To bring the Blue Devils back, Krzyzewski momentarily lost his Zen calm. He called his first desperation timeout of the season, only nine seconds before a TV timeout scheduled at the 12-minute mark. At the time, Duke trailed 23-10, and when Steve Blake bottomed out a three-pointer barely five minutes later, Maryland's lead would crest at 39-17. "You can't play any worse," Krzyzewski told his players. "What are you worried about? That you're gonna lose by 40? We're already losing by 20, so will you just play?"
About this time, back in Durham, Joey Savarino saw his Poppy on TV. "We were down, and they had a shot of me on the bench, and you could tell I was upset," Krzyzewski said on Sunday. "When he saw that, Joey went to the TV and kissed the TV set." Perhaps it was Krzyzewski family voodoo. In any case, the game turned into a Blue Devils highlight reel that could have been spliced together from the three previous encounters with Maryland: a large Terrapins lead evaporating; Williams slaloming to the basket with abandon; a tip-in from James giving Duke its first chance to consolidate a lead; Battier contributing whatever the moment called for, whether a three-pointer or a putback, a blocked shot or a charge taken.
Several times as the Blue Devils played defense, the Duke captain twirled his finger in the air to alert his teammates to a play Maryland was about to run for Baxter. It isn't enough for Battier to have a hand in everything his own team does. He must do the same with an opponent, too.
When Monday's title game was over, Battier spoke of two guardian angels who had worked the Metrodome on his behalf. One must have done double duty looking after Williams, who stood at the center of a brief stretch midway through the first half on which the championship turned. Arizona, an 80-61 victor over Michigan State in Saturday's other semifinal, couldn't have known it had just lost its last lead when Boozer arced a lefthanded hook shot over the Wildcats' 7'1" center, Loren Woods. Seconds later Williams, who had already picked up his second foul, tried to beat Arizona guard Jason Gardner to a loose ball. Williams lost that sprint and, trying to stop his momentum, wound up crablike over the crouching Gardner. For a moment the two looked like partygoers in a game of Twister.
If Gardner had simply stood up, Williams would have drawn his third foul and the course of the game most certainly would have changed to Duke's detriment. But the officials restrained themselves, as they did most of the night, particularly when the Duke point guard seemed to initiate contact at either end of the floor. "You have the obligation to write the truth!" one indignant Arizona fan yelled from the Metrodome mezzanine to the press workroom below, where reporters were filing their stories. "Williams fouled out twice! We wuz robbed!"
In the end, though, an old Krzyzewskiism, left over from those radio-up, windows-down days, told the tale: "Put a plant in a jar, and it'll grow to take the shape of the jar. Keep it outside a jar, and who knows what it'll grow to be?"
His latest team was a kind of botany experiment run amok, college basketball's Little Shop of Horrors. With each of its nine three-pointers in the title game, Duke increased by another its NCAA record for most in a season, which will go into the books as 407. Skeptics believed their reliance on the trey would do in the Devils. In fact, it set them free. "When Carlos went down, the tendency would've been to bottle them up and overcoach them," Krzyzewski said last week. "Instead we let them grow wild."
In college basketball, unfettered freedom doesn't always correlate with ultimate success. Michigan's Fab Five never won the game's great prize. Neither did Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma. All hail Poppy and his Bionic Pansies, who did.
Issue date: April 9, 2001