New York — The energy outside the storied arena was noticeably heightened. People were hawking and begging for tickets. Street cart vendors were selling roasted chestnuts on the corners, all with a sweet sticky aroma. Souvenir peddlers were doing a brisk business with tee-shirts and hats.
Shortly thereafter and just like that, it was over and everybody was hugging. His Duke University (3-0) team and former players were trying to hug him. Coach ‘K’ that is. They have to share him though, as he is admired on a world stage.
Duke struggled to win the game especially with a Michigan State spirited run near the end. It was billed as the Champions Classic and was part of a doubleheader with the second game featuring Kentucky and Kansas.
Mike Krzyżewski, 64, went across the court and embraced his former coach Bob Knight after breaking the record for most coaching wins at 903. It was the 74-69 triumph over MSU (0-2) at a sold out Madison Square Garden that put ‘Coach K’ over the top. Krzyżewski, now in his 37th year of coaching had played for and had been an assistant for Coach Knight at Army – West Point.
When I asked ‘Coach K’ what he had said to Coach Knight, Krzyżewski said, “I just told him, Coach, I’m not sure people tell you this, but I love you, and I love what you’ve done for me, and thank you.” This had transpired after the game amidst jostling cameras, credentialed media and aggressive New York paparazzi. The two coaching veterans had hugged for a moment when Krzyżewski leaned over the ESPN television monitors to embrace Knight. Knight had held the previous record. It was a special moment for most as many of the 19, 979 strong stayed to watch the post-game reactions.
Krzyżewski grew up in Chicago and played for Weber High School which had an enrollment of immigrants and Polish-American students. When he attended the Army Military Academy he was recruited and mentored by Knight. Four decades later, he finds himself surpassing his old coach. Knight said in his booming voice, “You’ve done pretty good for a kid who couldn’t shoot.” ‘Coach K’ smiling added quickly, “So I think that meant he loves me, too.”
Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski has been around for many of Coach ‘K’s victories as a member of the staff and as one of his point guards. Wojciechowski was jubilant when saying, “He’d probably have gotten to this a lot sooner if I hadn’t played. It’s pretty sweet. Not just the wins, but how he did it. He didn’t talk one time about the record, which is pretty remarkable.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised because I saw firsthand the level of preparation, the level of passion he put into his program every single day,” said Shane Battier. Battier who won a title with ‘Coach K’ at Duke excitedly added, “It’s just amazing to be here on this night to see the culmination of this work.”
“It’s a special moment,” Krzyżewski said of his family and former players being there. “At halftime I wasn’t sure we were going to have this moment. We beat a really good team, and I’m glad now we can just move on and just develop our team.”
His body of accomplishments as a coach — 11 Final Fours, four NCAA championships, an Olympic gold medal, enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and 1991 induction into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame have more sparkle than this one game. “Ray, to me, it’s more relief to get on to the next thing,” Krzyżewski said. Next year he is even scheduled to coach the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in London. “You know, I had good players, he added smiling.”
His first career victory didn’t generate anything close to this energy but it was the start along the path that would lead to the all-time wins record. By the way, it was on Nov. 28, 1975, when Army beat Lehigh 56-29 in the season opener for both teams. That first Division-I head coaching win showed very clearly that the then, 28-year-old West Point coach was going to be very special.
Polish Roots and Family Always Highlighted
Many times Mike Krzyzewski highlights family and his modest Polish-American upbringing when speaking to the public. When he was presented with the game ball from the historic contest he said, “This is for our basketball family and will go into our museum at Duke.” ‘OUR’ was the key word and family is a cornerstone in his mission statement of life.
He spoke with feeling about how much it meant for his older brother to be here, especially since the passing of his mother and father. Mickie, his wife of 43 years was there, along with the grandchildren. At this apex moment, he was proud and grateful that his older brother William was there. William has been ailing from the effects of a 40 year Chicago firefighter’s career.
On this special night he showed that he loves his wife, he is proud of his three daughters, he adores his grandchildren, he misses his parents and he looks up to his brother.