Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

How West was won: Why Coach K’s 13th Final Four berth at Duke is among his sweetest


Mickie Krzyzewski stood near the corner of the court and waited. The final minutes turned into the final seconds, the anticipation building. It was real now, one part of the storybook dream turning into reality. This is a walk she’d made many times, from the first row of the seats at an NCAA tournament regional final to the edge of the court and then onto it to celebrate with her husband, another trip to the Final Four secure.

Now it was different, though. She knew this would be the final time, just like everybody knew this would be the final time. Mike Krzyzewski is retiring whenever Duke’s NCAA tournament journey ends, and for a while it looked like it might end last week against Michigan State, in Greenville, S.C., just like for a while it looked like it might end here at the Chase Center on Thursday night, against Texas Tech.

Instead, here were the Krzyzewskis, Mike and Mickie, embracing on Saturday night in a far corner of the court near the Duke bench. After two agonizing victories, the kind that might age a younger coach and even tested Krzyzewski’s mettle, the Blue Devils made it look comparatively easy during their 78-69 victory against Arkansas in the West Regional final.

The horn sounded and the celebration began and Mickie waited patiently for her husband to find her in the aftermath. When he did the cameramen gathered all around them. Their family was lined up nearby, their daughters and their grandchildren, and a few of their longtime friends, too. A crew of workers hustled past, carrying parts of the makeshift stage they were assembling for the victory ceremony. Blue and white confetti had fallen from the ceiling. Duke had done it.

“I can’t explain it,” Mike Krzyzewski said several minutes later, while some of his granddaughters bent to the court and gathered pieces of that confetti and tossed it up over their heads, creating a blue and white paper shower. “I’m a grandfather, and I’ve lived through my daughters. (Now) I’m living through my grandchildren.”

Krzyzewski first experienced this kind of moment back in 1986, when his hair was jet black and when his future as a college basketball coach seemed much less certain than it soon became. Some Duke supporters had wanted him fired before that breakthrough. In ‘86, when Krzyzewski first led Duke to the Final Four, he was a much younger man — not even 40.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, walk off the court after Duke’s 78-69 victory over Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament West Regional finals at the Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., Saturday, March 26, 2022.

He and Mickie were a young couple, at least much younger than they are now, after more than 50 years of marriage. His trips to the Final Four became milestones to mark the years, and perhaps there was a part of him on Saturday night that could look back and see some of those past celebrations, his little girls becoming young women and then mothers themselves; his family expanding, some of the grandkids growing up before his eyes.

That was part of why his voice cracked a bit Saturday night, during the celebration on the court. He’s a 75-year-old man now — an “old man,” he called himself at one point during Duke’s postgame press conference — and he’s traveling this road for the last time. That the journey will end in New Orleans, in his 13th Final Four, is all Krzyzewski could’ve hoped for when he announced his retirement early last June; indeed, it’s the stuff of Hollywood or boyhood dreams, to go out like this.

Yet what makes this regional championship even grander, beyond the fact that Krzyzewski is now at most eight days away from coaching his final game, is how the Blue Devils won it. It wasn’t that long ago when Duke was thought to be too young and too inconsistent. Wasn’t that long ago when the rap against the Blue Devils was their toughness, and whether they possessed the kind of fortitude to survive this tournament.

They were a consistent top-10 team throughout the season, yes, but they melted down during that humiliating defeat against North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s final home game. In the ACC tournament championship game defeat against Virginia Tech, Duke allowed the Hokies to look a little like the Golden State Warriors, and there in Brooklyn, too, Duke lacked much fight. And besides, before Thursday Duke had never won a game out West in the NCAA tournament in Krzyzewski’s 42-year career.

And so yes, he said on the court after his team had won the one regional he never had, this is different. It’s the first time since 1994 that Duke has advanced to the Final Four without being a No. 1 seed. It’s the first time ever that Duke has made a Final Four with this kind of roster composition, with a team so reliant on freshmen and without a senior starter.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the team celebrate after Duke’s 78-69 victory over Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament West Regional finals at the Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., Saturday, March 26, 2022.

“This isn’t that four-year team,” Krzyzewski said, “or even (2015), where you have Amile (Jefferson), Quinn (Cook), Matt Jones — they’re really young.”

Now Jefferson is a member of Krzyzewski’s staff and Jones was there Saturday night, among the masses in the maw of the postgame celebration. Mike Dunleavy, a member of Duke’s 2001 national championship team, was there, too, while Grant Hill, among the leaders of the 1991 and ‘92 title teams, worked the West Regional with Jim Nantz and the rest of CBS’ lead broadcasting crew.

Krzyzewski’s farewell season has been the dominant story in college basketball over the past several months and everything surrounding that story — the drama and the exposure and the attention — has only increased in March. It has made for a cauldron of pressure and yet for once, after stress-test victories against Michigan State and Texas Tech, Duke allowed itself a chance to exhale in the final minutes against Arkansas.

The folks behind the Duke bench, Krzyzewski’s family and friends and one white-haired man in the first row who goes by Pucci, could feel the impending victory throughout much of the second half. They could feel it especially when the lead grew to 18 with 6 1/2 minutes remaining, and soon enough Mickie Krzyzewski was making her way to the corner of the court to greet her husband.

“The most amazing moment,” said John Pucci, a longtime Las Vegas casino executive formerly at the Wynn and now with Caesar’s Palace, who insisted people only knew him by the one name, his last, like Madonna or Prince. “Like Zorro.”

Pucci and Krzyzewski have become close friends over the past 20 years — close enough that Pucci was right behind the Duke bench Thursday and Saturday nights; close enough to hear Krzyzewski pleading with his team to muster some defensive stops against Texas Tech, and close enough to watch Krzyzewski breathe easier with the Blue Devils in control against Arkansas.

“We’ve become so close,” Pucci said. “But tonight was an amazing moment because he’s retiring, and everybody thinks when you’re going to retire you’re done. He’s not done. We’re going on. We’re going to carry the flag out in New Orleans, too. … He’s going to go out with a sixth ring. That’s what I think.”

It is becoming a more and more realistic thought, though that was for another night to decide. On this one, Krzyzewski embraced the people closest to him and stopped to share a few quick thoughts while all around him his players and their families soaked this in.

Duke is certainly Duke, as former Virginia coach Pete Gillen once said, creating a meme before anyone knew what a meme was. And yet the Blue Devils celebrated Saturday night not as though they represented one of the most successful programs in the history of the sport, but as if they weren’t sure this moment would arrive.

A good number of these Blue Devils had never played in an NCAA tournament game before this team’s first, which had come eight days earlier, in Greenville, when Duke’s direction seemed much less certain. And in college, at least, no member of this Duke team had ever climbed a ladder to cut down a net following a championship. Paolo Banchero, the Blue Devils’ freshman forward, had wanted to climb such a ladder after a high school championship. He’d been left somber that it didn’t happen.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski hands the net to his players after cutting it down after Duke’s 78-69 victory over Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament West Regional finals at the Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., Saturday, March 26, 2022.

He shared the story Saturday night, wearing a hat that said FINAL FOUR on it.

“My mom won a state championship as a coach, and she got to go up on the ladder and cut the net, and I remember her swinging the net around and (saying) I always wanted to do that,” Banchero said. “Then I won state in high school, and they lowered the hoop to cut the net. They didn’t bring the ladder, and so it kind of ruined the moment a little bit.”

When he climbed the ladder Saturday night, Banchero said, he locked eyes with his mom. He said he told her, “Make sure you get this on video, and get a picture.”

Listening to the story to Banchero’s right was Krzyzewski, beaming like a father.

“That was good,” he said. “That’s really good.”

Moments earlier Krzyzewski had turned to his players when they’d arrived in the interview room and, unprompted, told them that they’d been “terrific,” which is one of Krzyzewski’s go-to words when he’s pleased, along with “my guys” — as in, “proud of my guys.” He hadn’t had an opportunity to use any of those during the first two Saturdays in March, after defeats against Carolina and Virginia Tech, but he could use them now.

“I’m so proud of you guys, and happy for you,” Krzyzewski said. “You’ve crossed the bridge, man.”

For the next several minutes, Krzyzewski did his best to keep himself and his players in this moment. It was as though he didn’t want to think about anything except having just won the West. He deflected one question about the prospect of meeting North Carolina, again, in the Final Four.

Krzyzewski swatted away another question, directed at Banchero, about whether the Blue Devils felt confident they could send their retiring coach out a national champion for the sixth time. That was when Krzyzewski referred to his age, saying, “They’ve won a (conference) regular-season championship and they’ve won the western regional championship. They did that.

“They did it for us, and enough about doing it for the old man here,” he said.

It was true, in a way: Krzyzewski has aged. The hair isn’t quite as black. The step isn’t as spry. He limps when he walks, especially when he’s out of sight, away from the bench and in the bowels of an arena before or after a game. Sometimes it looks as though he’s in pain, like the work isn’t comfortable anymore. Not that he showed it, much, in the heat of the moment.

Next to him his players were trying to put this all into words, with Jeremy Roach, the sophomore point guard, acknowledging the pain of last season and how “we came back hungry,” and Wendell Moore, Jr., a junior forward who is a captain and the most experienced of Duke’s starters, saying, “You come to Duke looking to get to moments like this.”

Moore and Roach, like their teammates, were carrying souvenirs — the pieces of the net they’d cut down — and earlier, on the court, Krzyzewski had done the honors on the final strand. He’d just spent a few minutes around a crowd of reporters, a couple of his granddaughters playing in front of him, when he said, “I’m going to go cut down the net,” and with that he made his way slowly to the ladder and climbed it while someone handed him some scissors.

Soon he was waving that net around, as jubilant as when he’d first done it a decades ago, and it had been a long time, seven years, since he’d had the occasion to climb a ladder during an NCAA tournament. If Duke had lost before now, Krzyzewski’s career would’ve ended with its longest Final Four drought. Instead, it continues on.

A good 45 minutes after the final buzzer, some of Duke’s players and their parents were still on the court, taking everything in. They posed for pictures. They embraced each other. The blue and white confetti was everywhere, still. It was almost like nobody wanted to leave, as if they wanted to remain in this moment forever.

But the journey wasn’t yet finished. Duke would celebrate throughout the night and return home to North Carolina, if only briefly.

Krzyzewski’s final March would stretch into April. New Orleans awaited.

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