NEW ORLEANS – Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski walked out of his last post-game press conference and jumped on the back of a golf cart with his wife, Mickey.
Coach K won’t cut the net in his final season; There is no perfect end to his 42-year career, nor a sixth National title. Instead, Krzyzewski provided a moment of hovering for members of the media gathered around him in the Superdome tunnel.
“Maybe you can force the sunset quite a bit,” Krzyowski quipped, before the golf cart drove away, as the 75-year-old was retiring.
Krzyzewski’s behavior turned shades on Saturday night. In one, he was touched and grateful for Duke’s thrilling Final Four that ended in a 81-77 loss to North Carolina. There was no outpouring of feelings about coaching his last college basketball game.
“I’m not thinking about my career right now,” he said.
In another moment, Krzyzewski was consoling his team, hurting them and doing his best to lift their spirits. He was comforting the players as Tar Heels celebrated and was late in the handshake streak after the match.
“As a coach, I’m just worried about these guys,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, they’re already crying on the field. And I mean that’s the only thing you can think of. Then I walked into the locker room, I’ve said throughout my career that I wanted my seasons to end where my team ends either you cry tears of joy or tears of sadness because you knew Then she gave it all.
“And I had a locker room full of guys crying. It’s a beautiful scene. It’s not the scene I want. I want the other one. But it’s a scene that I really respect and makes me understand how good this group was. That’s what I’m concerned about.”
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The pain was so deep for Krzyzewski’s players that the game was rated the “game of the century” and “the biggest game in college basketball history” as the first-ever Final Four meeting between Duke and UNC.
Krzyzewski had two crowning chances thwarted by North Carolina State – first in his final home game on March 5 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and then on Saturday in front of a crowd of 70,602. Among the crowd were former players, including two beloved, Christian Latner and Bobby Hurley, who helped Krzyzewski win his first two National titles in 1991 and 1992. Looking desperate in the stands, Hurley repeatedly said “Fuck.”
Throughout the week, Krzyzewski tried to divert attention away from his final season – to cut out the noise and focus on getting to a national championship. After the default, Coach K’s focus shifted to putting his players’ feelings first and his own against the background. Behind closed doors, Krzyzewski said he has a responsibility to curb the deep pain of his players from the loss.
“You take care of the people you love,” Krzyzewski said. “And you care about the people who have committed to you and believed in you. And they tick every box. So we’re going to help them get through this and then move on because these are all really young people.”
The youngest Blue Devils in his career, in fact. Krzyzewski explained that the Duke’s brotherhood would last for life. Big man Mark Williams missed a pair of late free throws that were costly, and Krzyzewski was quick to reframe.
He said, “I don’t want any of these guys to leave and say, ‘I should have done one free throw; I should have made that throw.” “We win and we lose together.”
The players said they felt his love. Wendell Moore Jr. said: It’s a “dream” to play for Krzyzewski – the most winning coach in college basketball history. But he said it was Coach K’s influence that he felt was a lifelong imprint.
“He loves each of us very much,” Moore said. “And we all love him. So we can do nothing but thank him for everything he has done for us.”
New star Paulo Banchero added: “Just being able to go to war with the coach (Krzyewski) and the team all season – he was very committed to us all year. They were able to go out and fight, fight a fight with the coach in every game.”
Krzyowski later refers to former President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Ring” speech, which states in part: “The credit goes to the man already in the arena. … who knows great fervor, and great loyalties; who spends himself in a noble cause” .
Coach K didn’t set off on a perfect sunset. But he said his latest team helped him finish his career exactly the way he wanted.
“I’ll be fine,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve been blessed to be in the arena.” “And when you’re in the arena, you’ll either walk out feeling great or you’ll feel agonized, but you’ll always feel good about being in the arena.
“And I’m sure that’s one thing I’m going to miss when I look back. I won’t be in the arena anymore. But damn, I’ve been in the ring for so long. And those kids made the last time in the arena was great.”
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