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Krzyzewski reigns as best of them all

One way or another, it always comes back to Kentucky, to the greatest college basketball game ever played. Bobby Hurley remembers calling timeout with 2.1 seconds left in overtime. He recalls how tired and disheartened the Duke players were when they gathered around coach Mike Krzyzewski, down by one.

“We were pretty beat up,” Hurley said Friday from Ohio, where he was preparing his UB team for a Saturday game. “That was a really hard, emotional game, with a lot of swings. We felt like our season was ending. But Coach put a charge in us in the huddle and brought us back emotionally to the moment.”

Krzyzewski stood before his team amid the din at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. “We’re going to win this game!” he said. Then “Coach K” asked Grant Hill if he was ready to throw the long pass. Hill nodded yes. He asked Christian Laettner if he was ready to make the shot. He didn’t need to ask twice.

You know the rest. Laettner made a turnaround jumper at the buzzer to win the game, 104-103, propelling Duke to a second straight NCAA title and elevating Krzyzewski toward the ranks of the top coaches in history.

It was a defining one for Coach K. As Hurley said, Krzyzewski has a sense for the big moment, for preparing players for a crisis and inspiring a belief in the people around him. It’s what made him great, in my mind the best basketball coach of all time.

Krzyzewski, who turns 68 next month, has continued to learn and evolve over his remarkable 40-year coaching career. Sunday at Madison Square Garden, he will go for his 1,000th career victory against St. John’s.

It’s fitting that Coach K would have a chance for the milestone in New York City. He won his 903rd game at MSG in 2011, breaking the record of his mentor, Bobby Knight. The Garden has long been considered the mecca of basketball, the Knicks’ recent play notwithstanding.

You don’t get to 1,000 by hanging around. Do the math: This is Krzyzewki’s 40th season (the first five at Army). Divide 1,000 wins by 40. That’s an average of 25 wins a season! St. Bonaventure has won 25 games once, the year it went to the Final Four. Canisius has never done it.

Krzyzewski has won four NCAA championships at Duke. He has reached 11 Final Fours. He has won 13 ACC tournaments. Coach K is 999-308 for his career, a .764 percentage. He has an 82-26 record in the NCAA Tournament, a winning percentage (.759) almost the same as his regular-season mark.

It’s astonishing that Krzyzewski (who sat out most of the 1994-95 season with back issues) could sustain a high level for so long. Hurley has coached 46 games as a college head coach. He laughs at the thought of 1,000.

“It takes a lot out of you,” Hurley said. “It’s amazing, just the investment you put in, the work, the energy you put in trying to do the job. He’s got an amazing ability to deliver that type of energy to his team over a long period of time.”

Hurley is a coach’s son whose father, Bob Hurley Sr., is a high school legend who has won more than 1,100 game at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City, N.J. Imagine being coached as a kid by the two greatest coaches the game has seen at their respective levels.

“I just think he loves what he’s doing,” Hurley said of Coach K. “He has a great passion for it. I think he’s content where he is. He’s in a place where he gets great support and people appreciate him. I think it’s relationships, all the people he’d been able to coach and the impact he’s had. I think he wants to continue to have that impact.”

Why would a man with Krzyzewski’s money and stature agree to coach the U.S. national team for a decade? For all his success at Duke, it was leading the Americans to gold medals in the last two Summer Olympics that validated Coach K as the best coach of his time.

The U.S. hoop program was staggered after losing in Athens. Jerry Colangelo reached out to Krzyzewski, who had turned down several offers to coach in the NBA over the years, feeling he was better-suited to the college game.

But he agreed to coach the U.S. team. Cynics feel he did it to enhance his recruiting at Duke. I believe that, as an Army grad and hoop lover, Krzyzewski felt an obligation to do it for his country. I imagine he also wanted to prove that his leadership skills could work on the best NBA players.

“I think the Olympic thing helped him,” Hurley said. “It gave him a new way to test himself. With USA Basketball, he gets to coach the very best players in the world. He talks about that quite a bit when I’m around him.”

After Athens, the U.S. was seen as a selfish bunch of all-stars who didn’t play like a team. Krzyzewski challenged the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to show the world that the top NBA players could subjugate their egos and play a beautiful, winning brand of hoops.

They responded, winning the 2008 and 2012 gold medals in sensational games against Spain (they also won gold at two World Championships). The NBA guys played with the verve and camaraderie of college kids. I remember how giddy they were when they came into the press conference en masse after the gold-medal game in Beijing.

Krzyzewski is no saint. He’s a coach. He can be a bully and thin-skinned. His Duke teams have been upset early in some recent NCAA tourneys because they’re too finesse-oriented and weak in the low post. But John Wooden had his flaws, too. Wooden also had a much easier run to the Final Four in his day.

Duke has inspired a lot of jealousy. They’re the precious preppies, the smug smart guys, the team that “does everything right” and graduates a much higher percentage of players than most other top programs. They’re an easy team to hate – like the Patriots in football.

It’s hard to get too warm and fuzzy about a college coach who earned $9 million last year. But there hasn’t been any scandal at Duke, no probation, no recruiting violations. I saw a post that listed the reasons to hate Duke. No. 1 was Laettner stomping on Aminu Timberlake in the famous Kentucky game.

I’ll admit, I’m biased. Coach K is a writer’s dream, at least in big events. I covered his four NCAA titles and his two Olympic golds. He has a sense of the moment in press conferences, too. He can be funny, serious and self-deprecating, but he’s gracious and respectful toward the game and his opponent.

When you’re writing about a big game, you’re thankful for a coach who can put things in perspective. This was Krzyzewski after the Kentucky game in ‘92:

“I know it’s an old cliche, but I’m not sure there was a losing team tonight. I think we’ve all been part of one of the great games ever. I’m a little bit stunned – as a guy who loves the game for the game itself. You hope some day to be part of something like this.”

People forget that Duke won a regional final in very similar fashion two years earlier, when Laettner hit a last-second shot – after Coach K called out an inbounds play called “Special” – to beat Jim Calhoun’s first great UConn team.

“Our ecstasy in winning can’t be complete because you have to have empathy for the team you played against,” Krzyzewski said that night. “It’s kind of like brothers in war. I really admire them.”

How do you not admire a coach who delivers that quote after a big game? I’m sure he’ll be humble and gracious if he wins Sunday. He’ll say it’s just one game in 1,000. But to hoop lovers, the man is one in a million.


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