At exactly 2 p.m. Friday, Mike Krzyzewski emerged from a ramp in the northeast corner of the Caesars Superdome and was greeted to a rollicking hero’s welcome.
Duke was the last Final Four team to take the stage, and NCAA officials saved the best for last.
This was the moment everyone had been waiting for Friday.
The 7,499 fans packed in the stands on the East side of the massive stadium rose in unison and lustily cheered the legendary Duke coach as he carefully scaled the four metal stairs and stepped on to the raised purple, green and gold court for the first time.
Krzyzewski moves slowly these days, his gait measured, a slight hitch to his stride, the byproduct of age (75), multiple back surgeries and a creaky hip. But there remains a determination to his movements. Head down, Duke basketball binder in his right hand, gaze affixed straight ahead, he was oblivious to the grown man and woman waving their “Coach No. 1” and “Coach, Please Get Your Last ’Chip For Me!” signs a few rows to his left.
“I tried to say hello to him, just as a courtesy,” said Tom Burnett, the chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee. “But … nothing, which is understandable.”
Depending on how his Duke Blue Devils fare in their Final Four semifinal matchup with archrival North Carolina on Saturday, it could be the final practice of his 47-year coaching tenure. And the enthusiastic crowd was clearly appreciative of the historic nature of the moment. All eyes — and cell phone cameras — were on Coach K.
“Yeah, I’m excited,” Krzyzewski said to CBS’s Jim Nantz during his on-court interview at the end of the light workout. “At 75, it’s nice to get excited about something.”
It was one of the few smiles Krzyzewski allowed during the workout. He diverted his attention from the task at hand for only a few brief exchanges, to visit with former Duke All-American Grant Hill and longtime CBS analyst Bill Raftery on the sidelines, or to acknowledge the Duke cheerleaders.
Otherwise, he was all business.
After all of these years, games, players and practices, you’d think Krzyzewski would want to drink in every moment of the final days of his distinguished coaching career. After all, his protégé, Jon Scheyer, will be taking over the program in the days ahead, regardless of what happens this weekend.
But anyone who knows Coach K will tell you he is not a stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of guy. There was work to accomplish, business to attend to.
Practice is sacred time — even one like Friday, which was more ceremonial exhibition than serious workout. With Coach K, though, the hay is never in the barn. There’s always another detail to address, always another lesson to deliver, especially with a team as young as the one he is leading in his 42nd and final season at Duke.
“I can’t imagine there’s a 10-minute span that’s wasted throughout his day,” said New Orleans Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon, who played for Krzyzewski from 1994-99. “He’s very focused and deliberate in his actions.”
Krzyzewski spent much of the week leading up to Saturday’s tipoff in a full defensive stance. He downplayed the swan song storyline at every turn and steadfastly tried to divert the attention to his team and the game.
When a reporter asked Duke players Wendell Moore Jr., Mark Williams and Paulo Banchero on Friday how tough it was to stay in the moment, and to not think about the possibility of Saturday’s semifinal being Krzyzewski’s last game, the coach rolled his eyes on the dais.
“I know there’s gonna be TV, radio and a Duke guy and a Carolina guy talking stupid stuff to one another (about the game),” Krzyzkewski said earlier this week, “but it’s not for coaches and it’s not for players. … So go at it. But I’m not going to be a part of it.”
He refused to bite when asked if he’s allowed himself to think about the storybook ending and what it would mean for him and his legacy.
“I have not tried to do that, because then I think you leave a hole somewhere in your preparation for the game on Saturday,” he said. “I think you have to be all in on Saturday and then accept the consequences of it. … Really, any emotion that I’ve shown, it’s not been because it’s my last season; it’s been because of shared emotion and being able to share that emotion and accomplishment with these guys.”
This single-minded focus has allowed Krzyzewski to compile perhaps the greatest résumé in college basketball history. Five national championships. Thirty-six NCAA Tournament appearances. A record 13 Final Fours and 1,202 career victories, the most in NCAA Division I history.
Now he’s just two wins away from a sixth title, the second-most in college basketball history behind the late, great John Wooden, who had 10. Two more wins would also allow Krzyzewski to achieve the rarest of distinctions — to go out as a champion, something only Wooden was able to do at this level of the game.
“He’s been great for college basketball,” said Raftery, the longtime CBS Sports analyst. “It’s a thrill and a sadness to see somebody of this ilk pack it in. It’s basketball’s loss. I don’t think this is going to happen again.”
It’s fitting that New Orleans is the setting for this moment.
In the city’s first Final Four, the Superdome served as the stage for Michael Jordan’s national breakout, the place he introduced himself to the basketball world as a 19-year-old freshman with a game-winning shot to beat Georgetown in the 1982 championship game.
Now, 40 years later, the iconic stadium will serve as the showcase for the potential commemoration of another all-time great.
Coach K made his legend a long time ago. This weekend, he gets a chance to mint it.