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SPECIAL K
Alexander Wolff
April 14, 2010
BEFORE HE COULD BE KNOWN BY JUST AN INITIAL, DUKE'S NEW HIRE HAD TO ESCAPE BOB KNIGHT'S SHADOW
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April 14, 2010

Special K

BEFORE HE COULD BE KNOWN BY JUST AN INITIAL, DUKE'S NEW HIRE HAD TO ESCAPE BOB KNIGHT'S SHADOW

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It's an article of faith with Krzyzewski that failure and success are connected like cause and effect. "That's why losing at the Final Four has never been a bother to me," he says. "It's because we reacted the way we did after we lost that we came back. If I'd acted like an ------- after we lost, why would they want to come back?"

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. Only the adenoidal voice seems at odds with his forceful mien.

Leaving the neighborhood was Krzyzewski's first big step. Even in the late '60s, 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. In the summer he and his buddies would put in a day of playing at the 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. "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." He was 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 he organized games himself. Even as he led Chicago's Catholic League in basketball scoring for two years and served as president of his senior class at Weber High, he didn't have beyond-the-neighborhood confidence. So when Knight, the young coach at Army, made overtures to him, he was a reluctant listener.

Mike's father, William, operated an elevator downtown in Willoughby Tower, ferrying prosperous Chicagoans to and from their offices. His mother, Emily, scrubbed floors at the Chicago Athletic Club. The Krzyzewskis saw the socially prominent up close, and so they gave their son a push.

"I can't believe he's not taking this opportunity," William said loudly in the kitchen one day, with Mike in the next room.

"If only we'd had such an opportunity," said Emily.

"How can he be so dumb as to pass up this opportunity?" said William.

AT WEST POINT, KRZYZEWSKI CONSTANTLY WANTED to quit. The entire U.S. Military Academy seemed to be set up so he would fail. On an overnight trip his freshman year, Krzyzewski pitched a tent for the first time. The other cadets dug ditches around their tents, the way they'd learned in Boy Scouts, but Krzyzewski didn't know better and nearly floated away that night when it rained. He also flunked phys-ed as a plebe. ("People think it's black kids who can't swim," Krzyzewski says, "but it's city kids who can't swim.") Yet by the end of his first year he wasn't merely swimming, he was leaping blindfolded into a pool from a 20-foot-high tower while wearing fatigues and boots and carrying a rifle. "At West Point," he says, "I learned how to grow from having my ego hurt."

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