From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 16, 1992
"YOU ALL RIGHT?"
IT WAS AN ODD THING FOR A COACH TO SAY TO A PLAYER WHO was about to shoot two hugely important free throws. It was an odder thing still for a coach to say to a player who on seven previous occasions that evening had launched the ball from the foul line into the ether of the Hoosier Dome and smartly through the hoop. Given the circumstances—12 seconds to play against mighty UNLV, tie game, a national title in the balance—it may have been oddest of all that the player, Christian Laettner of Duke, grinned back.
Let the coach, Mike Krzyzewski, explain: "Two years earlier we had met as a team after losing to Seton Hall at the '89 Final Four in Seattle. I was determined not to lay any guilt trips on the players. I told them we were staying through the championship game to celebrate what they had accomplished. Then I looked at my seniors and I started to cry.
"Laettner is sitting right in front of me. He's only 19. I'm not sure he's ever seen an adult cry. And later that night—it must have been 11 o'clock—I'm watching tape in my hotel room and there's this knock at the door. It's Christian. He wants to know if I'm all right. He sits down, and I tell him how proud I am of what they've done and how we would build on it. And again he says, 'Are you sure you're all right?' When he gets up to leave, before he shuts the door, he turns and says, 'You sure you're all right?'
"I threw a pillow at him and said, 'Get out of here.' "
LET OTHER COACHES THROW CHAIRS. KRZYZEWSKI, THE man from rigid and proper Duke, schooled at West Point, purportedly cloned from Bob Knight, will throw pillows. To all but the finicky few who believe that a coach fails unless he wins it all every time, Krzyzewski's record is unassailable. "He's the best in the business right now," says Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins. "I mean, the Final Four four years in a row, plus a national championship? It's totally ridiculous."
Krzyzewski is a most fortuitous fluke of demography, something no coach can acquire by studying tape or spending time at clinics. He grew up in what might as well have been Depression America, in a sparsely furnished brick two-flat in a Polish neighborhood of Chicago. Yet he is a card-carrying baby boomer who attended Army as a member of its most restless class, '69, one that kept an anxious eye on Southeast Asia. Thus even as Krzyzewski relates like some touchy-feely big brother, he's a schoolmaster preaching hoary precepts out of a simpler time, someone who can hammer home a coaching exhortation like "Give me the best that you've got" by playing an Anita Baker tape in the locker room.
This peculiar generational straddling act goes a long way toward explaining how Krzyzewski has risen to the summit of his profession. It's not, however, why Duke won the national title in 1991. (If there's any distinction Krzyzewski is both adept and relentless at drawing, it's the one between winning titles and being a successful coach.) Four times in five years he went to the Final Four and fell short, but he had understood long ago what can be learned from falling short.
He broke through at the '91 Final Four in much the same way he had risen above an epic washout recruiting year in '81 and overcome back-to-back 17-loss seasons in '82 and '83. In each case after flubbing, he retooled and tried again until he got it right. "How did he get to be where he is?" says his wife, Mickie, who shares his innocent steeliness. "He just worked at it. Yeah, it's a cliché. But there are so few people who are real clichés."