The face looks as if someone has taken a diamond cutter's tools to a chunk of marble. It is abruptly faceted, with sharp lines of nose, cheekbones and hairline, and it looks as if it has come from a faraway country or time. The surname bespeaks that: There would be no fudging of the family name to speed Krzyzewski's grandparents through immigration or hasten their assimilation into American life. Only the grandson's adenoidal voice seems at odds with his forceful mien.
Leaving the neighborhood was Krzyzewski's first big step. Even in the late 1960s, one didn't do it lightly. Polish-Americans gave one another copious amounts of love and support, but for those who struck out on their own and did no better than muddle through, there was much I-told-you-so clucking back along Damen Avenue. "You could go to college," Krzyzewski remembers, "but you couldn't go away to college."
Not that Mike much wanted to venture beyond the neighborhood, with its well-swept streets and tiny, flower-festooned lawns. He was king there, the best basketball player in his age group and one of the best baseball players. With their parents always working and frequently speaking a language the younger generation didn't understand, Krzyzewski and his buddies took responsibility for their own amusement. In the summer they would put in a day of playing at the Columbus schoolyard, disperse briefly for dinner, then muster again until all hours. "You wanted to be on Mick's side because of his confidence," recalls Dennis Mlynski, one of the gang that called itself the Columbos. "He didn't scream for the spotlight, and he made you play better."
"Maybe," Krzyzewski says, "they mistook leadership for confidence. I just wanted to get things going." Krzyzewski was the one who would challenge the Hispanic kids from the adjacent neighborhood to a game, the one who asked the nuns at his school, St. Helen's, to establish an eighth-grade basketball team in a local league. The sisters had no interest in such earthly doings, so Krzyzewski did the next best thing, organizing games himself.
As he made his way through Weber High School, even as he led Chicago's Catholic League in basketball scoring for two years and served as president of his senior class, Krzyzewski didn't have be-yond-the-neighborhood confidence. So when Knight, the young coach at Army, made overtures to him late in his senior year, Krzyzewski was a reluctant listener. "He just wasn't military-minded," says his brother, Bill, now a captain in the Chicago fire department. "If someone told you you had to put in five years after graduation, you'd probably think twice."
The boys' father, William, operated an elevator downtown in Willoughby Tower, ferrying prosperous Chicagoans to and from their offices. There was a distance to him, an air of soldiering his way through life. "He talked about me a lot, but hardly ever to me," Mike says. "I knew my dad loved me. He just let me have my freedom." The boys' mother, Emily, scrubbed floors at the Chicago Athletic Club. She baked chocolate-chip cookies to die for, always three chips to a cookie, and threw out the whole batch if it didn't turn out just right. More than most parents in the neighborhood, the Krzyzewskis saw the socially prominent up close—William where they worked, Emily where they played. And so Mike's parents gave him a push. One day they staged a dialogue in the kitchen, knowing he could hear them in the next room.
"I can't believe he's not taking this opportunity," William said. "Can you believe he's not taking this opportunity?"
"If only we'd had such an opportunity," said Emily.
"How can he be so dumb as to pass up this opportunity?" said William.
With his neighborhood buddies telling him to stay and his parents telling him to go, Mike took his teenage jitters out to the low-slung fence in front of the Mlynskis' six-flat. "All we knew about West Point was, that's where presidents go," Mlynski remembers. "And we couldn't relate to that." The Columbos assured Mike he wouldn't be abandoning them if he signed on.