Duke Began basketball practice Sunday morning, and once again all was right on the campus where Final Four banners get hung like washday linen. The football team was safely below .500. No basketball starter went down with an injury on this Oct. 15, as guard Chris Collins did one year ago. And after sitting out the final nine weeks of last season to recover from exhaustion, coach Mike Krzyzewski was back wielding the whistle at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Actually Krzyzewski doesn't use a whistle, because he wants his players to listen for the sound of his Chicago-bred voice. The Blue Devils were so attuned to those inflections last season that, after assistant coach and Massachusetts native Pete Gaudet took over a 9-3 team in January, Duke went 4-15 the rest of the way (box, page 96). "We weren't a team," says junior guard Jeff Capel. "We were individuals on the court. We tell our sophomores, Ricky [Price], Trajan [Langdon] and Wojo [ Steve Wojciechowski], they really haven't seen the Coach K we know." As the Blue Devils failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in a dozen years, there was glee twice over down Highway 15-501 on the campus of archrival North Carolina: The Blue Devils had finished last in the league, and their commander had bailed out on his troops. As one Tar Heel fan was heard to sneer, "If Coach K still had Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner, think he'd have sucked it up and coached?"
How much Krzyzewski tried to suck it up last season has come clear only since he publicly reemerged in March and eased back into his old job—and only his job: Krzyzewski, 48, vows to eliminate all the nonessential demands on his time that have increased with Duke's successes. "It's like another tropical storm," he says of the whoopee of attention that followed each of the Blue Devils' seven Final Four appearances since 1986. "Oh, boy, here comes another one."
Krzyzewski thought he would have more time to spend with his wife, Mickie, and their three daughters as the 1993-94 season began. The previous spring Duke had ended its run of five straight Final Fours, and Krzyzewski would be relying on Capel, then a freshman, at point guard in place of Hurley, who had been a four-year starter. Expectations were low, but the Blue Devils improbably made it to another Final Four, in Charlotte, in April '94, and that only redoubled the demands on Krzyzewski. When his 83-year-old mother called from Chicago one day and said, "Mike, I don't want to take much of your time...," he knew something had to be done.
But even with all the success he had achieved at Duke, Krzyzewski was still driven. Shortly after practice began in the fall of '94 he had to undergo surgery for a severely herniated disk that had caused weakness in his left leg and chronic back pain the previous summer. Doctors normally recommend up to 10 weeks of recovery time, during which the patient is advised to severely limit his activity; Krzyzewski was back at practice within 10 days.
He muddled through the first month of the season. But to get to the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu and back in late December, he had to subject his back to the worst possible thing: constant sitting. As the ACC season was about to start, he couldn't sleep at night because of the back pain and had all but stopped eating.
The Blue Devils were to practice at Cameron on the afternoon of Jan. 6 and then fly to Atlanta for the next day's game with Georgia Tech. That morning Krzyzewski woke up and showered, then stumbled back to bed. A while later he got up and shaved, then stumbled back to bed. Soon thereafter he got up and pulled on his coaching sweats, then stumbled back to bed. Seeing her husband ashen, with sunken eyes and a stooped look, Mickie had had enough. "You're going to the doctor," she said.
"I'm going to practice," he replied. "I've got appointments with the players."
"You don't have the strength," she said before leaving the room and calling the doctor.
She came back to the bedroom. "The appointment's at 2:30, Mike," she said.