On a lovely spring day in 1983, when my son Russ was attending elementary school in northern Durham, I joined him for a “field day.”
That mainly amounted to organized games for the kids on the playground and other outside areas, a nice break from class, and a chance for parents to get a little taste of the school.
It also included a box lunch picnic, which was nice.
I didn’t know anyone there, so Russ and I picked up our boxes and found a nice grassy spot on the side of a hill. We sat down by ourselves and were just getting started when a slender guy approached with his young daughter.
“Can I join you?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “Please do.”
As he and his daughter folded themselves onto the grass, he stuck out his hand with a friendly smile.
“Mike Krzyzewski,” he said. I was not a huge basketball fan at the time and had not yet started my Ph.D. work at Duke, so I didn’t know much about him.
But I faked it as best as I could. “It’s good to meet you,” I said. “You’ve brought a lot of energy to the program.”
At the time, most of the energy around Krzyzewski was coming from disgruntled members of the Iron Dukes booster club who were trying to get him fired three years into his tenure. He was still a young coach and Duke was not yet an elite basketball program, but he was recruiting hard and working on it.
I didn’t know the pressure he was under at the time, and he didn’t mention it. We talked mainly about our children and what a nice day it was, that sort of thing. It was a pleasant lunch.
With the recruiting class of 1986, Krzyzewski’s fortunes were on the rise, and by 1992 he’d won two national championships.
He was heading toward the Hall of Fame, then, in January of 1995, when I wrote him a letter. The one-year anniversary of my daughter Bethany’s death was approaching (she’d have been 36 on March 9). I asked Krzyzewski if he would be willing to wear a teddy bear tie pin on his lapel during a game, one that I’d been wearing in her memory.
He agreed to wear it, but back troubles sidelined him for the remainder of the season before he could do so. The teddy bear didn’t make it onto TV, but the sentiment was there.
The rest of the story is familiar. Coach K’s rocky start turned into 42 record-breaking years at Duke. As he winds down his storied career this spring, he’s won more games than anyone, along with 15 ACC tournament championships and five national championships – not to mention leading three U.S. teams to gold medals in the Olympics.
But he would tell you in a heartbeat that those records are not the primary focus of his life. What means most to him is family.
He’s made that clear throughout his career, at no time more emphatically than in ceremonies after his final game at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The game was a bummer, as the Duke squad – no doubt somewhat distracted by all the hoopla surrounding the game – got out of rhythm and forgot how to play defense, losing by double digits to arch-rival University of North Carolina.
In post-game ceremonies, Krzyzewski appeared incredibly uncomfortable at being the center of attention, especially after apologizing for what he described as an “unacceptable” performance by his team.
He’s showing his age, too. He limped onto the court before the game, rubbing his right hand as though it was numb. He walks stiffly, as if his back is always hurting.
But the misery on his face disappeared when he took the microphone and called his family – his wife Micki, three daughters, and 10 grandchildren – to come and stand with him at center court.
He thanked them for understanding why he’d worked such long hours coaching basketball, and he expressed gratitude that not one of them had ever accused him of loving basketball more than them.
He wanted everyone to know that nothing mattered more to him than his family.
Then he turned to his “Brotherhood” of former players, more than 90 of them in the stands, wearing commemorative shirts, come to pay tribute to the man they all call “Coach.”
Throughout his career, Coach K has worked to nurture his teams to feel like brothers, to be unselfish, to support each other.
That’s not the only reason he has been so successful, but it’s one of the reasons.
Watching Krzyzewski bring his time at Cameron to a close with a paean to family brought me back to that spring day when Russ and I sat alone because I didn’t know any of the other parents and wasn’t outgoing enough to take the first step.
It was the day when Coach K asked if he and his daughter could sit with us, and he made us feel a bit like family, too.
Krzyzewski’s drill sergeant style of leadership wouldn’t work just anywhere: his drive for excellence sometimes leads him to spice his love for the team with vocabulary more fitting for his army days.
But still I wonder: can our own families — and the family of faith — learn something from the old coach?