A Conversation With Duke's Mike Krzyzewski

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Some head basketball coaches have succeeded at the college and pro levels. One, who has led a college team to four NCAA championships, has also maneuvered two different collections of pros to Olympic gold, most recently two summers ago in London. That would be Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.

BL: We are having this conversation in part because of your work on behalf of an organization called Getting Back to Giving Back. Please tell us a little about your involvement with them.

[sidebar title="Is The 'Hot Hand' Real?" width="330" align="right"]Scientists and statisticians have dismissed the idea of basketball's "hot hand" phenomenon for decades, but a new study by Harvard students claims to prove that it's real.[/sidebar]MK: Well, DePuy Synthes Joint Reconstruction has started this campaign, and I’ve launched it with them, and it’s inspiring stories about people who’ve had joint reconstruction — hips, knees — and they’ve not only gotten their lives back, their energy, their movement back, but they’ve decided to get more meaning back into their lives and have helped people in their communities through a variety of activities.

BL: And you are, of course, one of the people who has benefited from that and, hence, is giving back once again.

MK: Well, I am. I’ve had both of my hips reconstructed. Really I’m coaching today as a result of having that reconstruction surgery, and I never would have been the Olympic coach if I had not done that. But I’ve also tried to give back, whether it was through the Duke Children’s Hospital to fight cancer — we actually have a center here in Durham named after my mom who passed in the '90s, the Emily Krzyzewski Center — we have our third graduating class of youngsters who have gone through our educational programs to get into college, and these are all first-generation for college.

BL: For a long time, Duke had the reputation of holding onto players while guys at other universities might be leaving school for the pros. Are you ever discouraged that more players, whether at Duke or elsewhere, don't stay in school for more than a year or two?

"The '80s and '90s in college basketball was better [than today] because kids stayed longer. You had older, great players playing the game."

Mike Krzyzewski

I don’t get that with every one of my players, but you try to pack in as much as you can in that short period of time. College basketball is still exciting and really good, and it’s enjoying immense popularity. But as far as the quality of it, the '80s and '90s in college basketball was better because kids stayed longer. You had older, great players playing the game, and those older players were teaching the younger players. But obviously it’s still terrific.

BL: As I mentioned, you have been successful not only at the college level but also coaching pros, particularly at the Olympics. Can you think of something you might say to your players at Duke before a big game that you'd never say to LeBron James and his teammates before the gold medal game?

MK: Well, I can think of a lot of things. You know, you’re coaching two different levels of teams. In college, you’re coaching youngsters who pretty much have to adapt to you because they haven’t crossed the bridge of experience in a lot of these areas, and you have. When you’re coaching the NBA players, they’re professionals, and they’ve crossed a lot of bridges. Sometimes they’ve crossed bridges that you haven’t crossed. And so what I try to do is be incredibly adaptive to one another. You know, before a gold-medal game you have LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and those guys, you don’t say much. But what you do say better mean something. The other thing is, I would allow more of my players with the pros to say something. Whereas with a collegiate team, I might do that, but it’d be infrequent.

BL: As a man who has experience at both the college and pro levels, and that’s the understatement of the day, I’m sure, what if somebody in the Cleveland Cavaliers front office were to call you up and say, "Hey Coach, who should we get with this first pick?" What would you say?

[sidebar title="UNC's Dean Smith Struggling With Dementia" width="330" align="right"] Dean Smith won 879 games and two national titles while coaching the North Carolina men's basketball team from 1961 to 1997. Now he's suffering from dementia, a struggle chronicled by Tommy Tomlinson in his piece "Precious Memories."[/sidebar]MK: They already know, so they’re not gonna. If they’re considering Jabari, they would call me. We get that a lot. Two of our kids went early, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, and Jabari will be one of the top three picks, I think, and Rodney Hood should be a good first-round pick. So teams will come out and visit with us and sit down and talk about that youngster, what kind of youngster he was, how was he to teach, stuff like that.

They do a really in-depth analysis of these guys, and we try to cooperate fully with them, but they won’t ask that. Although one time, it was Cleveland, they had the No. 1 pick and they chose Kyrie Irving. They said, "What would you do?" and I said, “Look, you’d be making a big mistake if you don’t take Kyrie.” They made a wise choice in taking him.

BL: Have you ever been tempted to coach in the NBA? Or is Duke just such a comfortable place – you are among the highest-paid college coaches in the country – is Duke comfortable enough so that you’re not even tempted to go to the pros?

MK: Yeah, I’m not interested in the pros. There were a couple of times in the past, Boston in 1990 and the Lakers in 2005, but I love where I’m at, and I love having the opportunity to coach on the national team. I really want to thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about this website that we have to promote this campaign. Hopefully it’ll inspire some people who need joint reconstruction to get on with it, and get on with a better life.

This segment aired on May 24, 2014.


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