The Last Great Game
Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball
The definitive book on the greatest game in the history of college basketball, and the dramatic road both teams took to get there.
March 28, 1992. The final of the NCAA East Regional, Duke vs. Kentucky. The 17,848 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and the millions watching on TV could say they saw the greatest game and the greatest shot in the history of college basketball. But it wasn't just the final play of the game-an 80-foot inbounds bass from Grant Hill to Christian Laettner with 2.1 seconds left in overtime- that made Duke's 105-104 victory so memorable. The Kentucky and Duke players and coaches arrived at that point from very different places, each with a unique story to tell.
In The Last Great Game, acclaimed ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski tells their stories in vivid detail, turning the game we think we remember into a drama filled with suspense, humor, revelations and reverberations. The cast alone is worth meeting again: Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Bobby Hurley, Jamal Mashburn, Christian Laettner, Sean Woods, Grant Hill, and Bobby Knight. Timed for the game's 20th anniversary, The Last Great Game isn't a book just for Duke or Kentucky or even basketball fans. It's a book for any reader who can appreciate that great moments in sports are the result of hard work, careful preparation, group psychology, and a little luck.
The truth? The truth is Mike Krzyzewski liked the shape of her legs. Actually, he liked her legs, loved her miniskirt, and adored her address: Chicago— his hometown.
It was the Summer of Love. Haight- Ashbury was the capital of the hippie nation. The counterculture manifesto, as written by one of its founding fathers, Timothy Leary, exhorted America’s youth to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
But love and LSD had its limits. It also was the summer of rage and riots, when cities such as Detroit and Newark burned and crackled because of the matchstick of racism, when the polarizing war in Vietnam created a deep cleft between young and old, right and left, silent majority and vocal minority.
Krzyzewski was not a hippie and definitely wasn’t counterculture. He might have thought LSD was a standardized admissions test. His hair had never covered his ears, nor would it. He was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a place where those who were deemed worthy were trained at taxpayer expense to become, if all went well, the best and the brightest of military offi cers. Duty. Honor. Country. Those were their core beliefs, not the drugs, sex, and rebellion that belonged to the flower children.
Of course, being an Army man doesn’t blind you to a killer pair of legs. So when Krzyzewski stepped into the Lakeview- area apartment of United Airlines stewardess Carol Marsh that summer day in ’67, he couldn’t help doing a subtle double take.
Marsh shared a one- bedroom apartment, located only blocks away from Wrigley Field, with another woman. Marsh’s roommate happened to be the former girlfriend of one of Krzyzewski’s buddies. The buddy, who was visiting Krzyzewski in Chicago, arranged to see the former girlfriend and brought Krzyzewski along as his wingman. By pure accident, Marsh was there when they arrived.
Known as “Mickie” to her family and friends, Marsh was a Southern Baptist WASP from Virginia. Krzyzewski, also nicknamed “Mick” or “Mickey” by his boyhood pals, was a Polish Catholic from the northwest side of Chicago. He was home on leave from West Point, having just completed his second year at the Academy. In West Point– speak, he was no longer a Third Classman— a “yuk” or “yearling.” Instead, he was transitioning to junior status— a Second Classman or “cow,” as they were called.
It didn’t take long for Krzyzewski, in his nasally Chicago accent, to ask Marsh out. For their fi rst date, he took her to a Martha Reeves and the Vandellas concert. Marsh loved the Motown group and its conga line of rousing hits such as “Heat Wave,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “Jimmy Mack.” There was no question the cadet had scored major style points with the attractive Marsh.
His leave complete, Krzyzewski reported back to West Point, the achingly beautiful campus located along the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City. He later wrote a letter to Marsh, inviting her to a Chicago Bears game at Soldier Field when he returned home that fall. She accepted.
It was at Soldier Field that Krzyzewski mentioned, almost as an the last great game afterthought and with little regard for the collateral ego damage, that Marsh had been his third choice for the Bears game. She was livid.
Her pride was bruised to the bone, but beyond that her sense of competitiveness was challenged by this socially clumsy yet intriguing cadet.
That clumsiness was partly the result of having attended an all-boys high school and the then all- male West Point. He simply didn’t know any better.
Krzyzewski was not handsome in a traditional frat- boy way. His nose dominated his face, and you wouldn’t use the word stylish to describe his civvies wardrobe. He wasn’t a guy who’d wear a tennis sweater tied jauntily around his neck. Chances are he didn’t own a tennis sweater.
But he had a confidence and an almost naïve sense of right and wrong about him that attracted Marsh. “His blatant honesty was part of it,” she says. “He would say things that people shouldn’t say.”
Romance developed. Marsh eventually transferred to New York to be closer to Krzyzewski. Not long after visiting him at West Point, she received nine yellow roses from him. Nine? Not twelve? Not red? The odd number and color choice stuck with Marsh. Months later, she asked her boyfriend why he had sent nine yellow roses.
“To make you think about it,” Krzyzewski said. “Any guy can send you a dozen.”
Krzyzewski wasn’t any guy. He was born, raised, and hardened in Chicago. His parents were Old Country Poland, as was much of the Wicker Park neighborhood where they lived. His father, William, was an elevator operator for much of his working life at the 38-story Willoughby Tower on tony Michigan Avenue in the Loop. His mother, Emily, was a cleaning woman at the Chicago Athletic Club. He had an older brother, Bill.
Krzyzewski’s father, like most of the fathers in the neighborhood, worked all the time. Not just at the Willoughby Tower, but also at the restaurant he would later own (where Mike worked mopping floors, hating every second of it). Each day was a repeat of the previous day: work, sleep, work. The old man wasn’t a drinker, but nearly every night at 7:30 you could fi nd him walking wearily down the street to his favorite place for a cup of coffee.
The relationship between the younger son and his father was occasionally sparse and trying. Krzyzewski loved his father and the father loved his son, but the truth is, they had little in common.
“[Mike] didn’t spend a whole lot of time with his dad,” says Dennis “Mo” Mlynski, who was (and still is) Krzyzewski’s best friend. “There wasn’t a lot to share with Mick.”
It wasn’t a nuanced family, which helps explain Krzyzewski’s unfiltered honesty. You worked. You prayed (in sixth grade, Krzyzewski decided he wanted to become a priest). You endured without complaint.
There was no misunderstanding about what was expected of you. You would excel, even if that excellence was defined by the way you scrubbed a tile office floor or wore your uniform in the cramped, dreary confines of an Otis elevator.
Order, discipline, respect, religion, and, yes, love were all interwoven in the Krzyzewski family DNA. So was a sense of toughness. Even the Krzyzewski name, with all those concrete hard- sounding consonants, projected a certain no-nonsense ruggedness. Krzyzewski was always a leader, beginning with his school-yard friends known as “the Columbos.” Mick was the one who organized the seventh- and eighth-grade basketball league. Mick was the one who organized everything. He didn’t seem older than his friends, just more assertive.
He became a star athlete and star student at Weber High School, an all-boys Catholic school run by the priests and brothers of the Resurrectionist Order in the city’s predominantly Polish and Italian neighborhoods on the near Northwest Side. His résumé was impressive:
National Honor Society member, senior class vice president, and captain of the Red Horde basketball team. Krzyzewski wasn’t necessarily one of the most popular students (football players were first on the Weber food chain), but his classmates and teachers were aware of his potential.
“There were high expectations for him,” says Mike Siemplenski, who was the team manager during Krzyzewski’s sophomore and junior seasons. “People were demanding of him to perform at his highest level.”
This wasn’t uncommon at Weber. Students with solid B averages in a subject would occasionally be flunked for a six- week grading period if the teacher thought they were capable of A-level work. Nor did you dare challenge the traditions and conventions of the school. White shirts and ties were mandatory. Students were required each day to load all of their textbooks in a satchel, bring them home, and return with them the next morning. You couldn’t study, reasoned the priests, if your books were in your locker.
Corporal punishment was administered regularly, swiftly, and without bias. One priest carried a miniature Louisville Slugger bat with him as he patrolled the hallways. If he saw a student with his hands in his pockets, the priest would crack the bat against the student’s shoulder and say, “What are you doing, taking inventory? You’ve only got two.”
One of the priests, a former wrestler who taught Latin, once called two students up to the front of his classroom after he had caught them not paying attention to his lecture. He grabbed each of them by the collar and hung them on hooks attached to the blackboard. They dangled there for several minutes until the priest sent them back to their seats.
Krzyzewski didn’t mind Weber’s strictness or discipline. He liked order and a system in which effort was rewarded. He had embraced basketball after a failed tryout for the Weber football team. It was the first time as an athlete he had ever been told he wasn’t good enough.
Krzyzewski loathed failure. He despised losing and had a legendary bad temper to prove it.
So he turned to basketball, a sport that he could practice by himself and constantly invent scenarios in which he’d make the game- winning jump shot or the game- winning free throw (and if he missed the free throw, he’d imagine a lane violation on the opposing team, giving him a second chance). “It was much more than a game to me, and always has been,” he said.
His parents understood little about sports. But they understood that their youngest son thrived in a culture that emphasized work ethic, competition, will, and structure— and they approved. It didn’t matter that Bill and Emily were unfamiliar with or even uninterested in this distinctly American game. They supported their sons as they always had. If that meant Emily would tend to the house during the day and then clean offices at night— so her boys could afford to go to Catholic schools— then so be it. Meanwhile, for years, no more than two dresses would ever hang in her closet. Always, family first.
Krzyzewski was good but not great at basketball. He became the team’s starting point guard and the Chicago Catholic League’s leading scorer as a junior and senior, but, says Siemplenski, he was “a little bit slow on defense.” He was consumed by the game and took defeat personally, as if somehow it was his fault whenever Weber lost. He was always a high- effort player, but no matter the ferocity or outcome of the game, he was also the first player to seek out his opponent for a postgame handshake. But Krzyzewski was often his own harshest critic.
“Coach would be screaming at him from the sidelines, and Mike would be beside himself because he felt he didn’t execute,” says Siemplenski.
As his high school career was nearing its end, Krzyzewski faced the always important decision about where to go to college. His ultimate choice would have lifelong ramifi cations, since it brought him into the orbit of a hyperintense 25- year- old coach named Bob Knight.
Compared to the absurd fawning and attention showered on today’s high school prospects, Knight’s recruitment of Krzyzewski was almost skeletal. They sat in the Weber cafeteria, ate sandwiches, and discussed Krzyzewski’s future. Later that night, the young Army coach visited Bill and Emily at the apartment on West Cortez Street. Knight wanted players who were committed, tough, and mentally nimble. He needed them to be able to translate his basketball theory and language to the court. Krzyzewski could do that.
But West Point wasn’t his fi rst choice. Or second. Or third. He wanted to stay closer to home and play for a school in the Big Ten Conference. Creighton, the Jesuit university located in Omaha, Nebraska, was also on Krzyzewski’s short list. So he told Knight no.
It was an astounding decision, mostly because Krzyzewski had few options. Exactly zero Big Ten programs were actively recruiting him (or would). Creighton also took a pass. A coach from the University of Detroit Mercy was interested in signing him, and asked Krzyzewski to meet him on the South Side of the city, all the way down at 95th and Western. Krzyzewski, insulted that the coach wasn’t willing to visit him or his family, immediately ended the recruitment.
But his dismissal of the West Point opportunity confounded his parents the most. This nice, young Coach Knight had traveled all the way from New York to offer their son a chance to attend the United States Military Academy—just think, a Krzyzewski at West Point!—and he hadn’t jumped at the chance? How could their son be such a bright boy and yet so foolish? Didn’t he understand that his own parents had no high school diplomas, that a Polish surname was considered a liability?
(Krzyzewski’s father was so sensitive about his immigrant status and the stigma of being categorized as a “DP,” for Displaced Person— or “Dumb Polack,” as they were derisively called— that he often used Bill “Kross” as an alias. Neither of the two Krzyzewski boys was taught or encouraged to speak Polish in the house, for fear that they would develop Polish accents.)
One of the finest educational institutions in the country, perhaps the world, wanted him to join its elite club, and he didn’t want in? This wasn’t merely an opportunity; it was a social advantage— a rarity if you were a Krzyzewski.
Dennis Mlynski’s family lived a block and a half away on Leavitt Street. One day, as they sat on the fence outside Mlynski’s apartment building, Krzyzewski mentioned that his parents were pressuring him to attend West Point.
“West Point?” said Mlynski. “Where’s that? Isn’t that the school where all the presidents went to?”
Krzyzewski heard his parents’ conversations around the kitchen table, where they would sit each morning and discuss the topic of the day. These days it was impossible not to hear them chattering away in Polish and then, for their son’s benefit, lapsing briefly into English and saying, “Stupid, Mike!”—just so there wasn’t any confusion about the thrust of the conversation and their stance on the issue. After two weeks of listening to his parents’ unsubtle urging, Krzyzewski relented. He couldn’t disappoint Bill and Emily, especially Emily.
“I’ll go to West Point,” he told them. “I’ll do it.”
The U. S. Military Academy can be a place of profound loneliness, pressure, and incalculable stress. And it was all those for Krzyzewski. He went to West Point, but he almost didn’t stay. Several times during his first year he considered quitting and returning to Chicago. He missed his family and friends, but he especially missed his freedom. When Mlynski and another friend visited him during his plebe year, Krzyzewski was waiting for them at the gate in his cadet uniform, tears somersaulting down his cheeks. “He was so happy to see a friend,” Mlynski says.
Krzyzewski was accustomed to discipline. His family and a Catholic education had made sure of that. He understood the need for boundaries and rules, but what he didn’t understand— and what he would come to resent, even hate at West Point— were rules written without involving those who would have to abide by them. He didn’t see the logic of it. He survived his first year, and as time passed his occasional urge to quit and go home faded. Basketball helped.
During his three varsity seasons at Army, Krzyzewski was never among the team’s leading scorers (averaging 5. 3 points as a sophomore, 6. 4 as a junior, 6. 7 as a senior). He wasn’t the Black Knights’ best player, but he might have been their most dependable. He was consistent but not flashy. He was controlled and efficient, but there was nothing that suggested basketball artistry. He was an extension of Knight, which is to say he was a mouse on a treadmill, always chasing after perfection and never letting up. In Krzyzewski, Knight found someone who shared his craving for excellence. It was hard to say which drove them most: the longing for victory or the dread and ache of defeat.
Krzyzewski, more than any other player on the Army roster, could handle Knight’s furnace blasts of criticism and anger. He knew Knight was using him as a conduit to the rest of the team, accepted his role as the designated yellee, and separated the message from the messenger like slag from iron ore.
In the 1967, ’68, and ’69 Army team photos, there is no hint of a smile on Krzyzewski’s black- and- white face. He wore Chuck Taylors and a look of determination. In his junior year, Army recorded its first ever 20-win regular season and earned a berth in the National Invitation Tournament, when the NIT still meant something. The next season, with Krzyzewski as senior captain, the Black Knights won 18 games, including a 54– 52 win against Bradley at the Kentucky Invitational Tournament on December 20. Krzyzewski hit two late free throws, despite an injured eye, to clinch the victory. The next evening, after a 15-point loss to Kentucky in the championship game, Knight kicked a locker in anger and spat on the second- place trophy in disgust. Happy holidays. Army again was selected for the NIT and reached the semifinals—no small feat for a service academy. It remains the second- best ever postseason showing for Army. At least as important: Army beat Navy, as it had during each of Krzyzewski’s three seasons on the varsity.
After that victory against the Midshipmen, on Saturday, March 1, 1969, Krzyzewski was presented with the game ball. Later that same day, a phone call came from Chicago: his father had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. William Krzyzewski was dead by the time Mike could get home. Bob Knight, who preached loyalty to his players, now practiced it.
He left the team and followed his senior captain back to the Chicago apartment where he had recruited Krzyzewski, or more accurately, Krzyzewski’s parents. Knight stayed for three days. He sat with the grieving Emily for hours at a time in the family kitchen. “It was as if nothing else mattered to him right then other than helping my mom and me,” Krzyzewski told author John Feinstein years later.
Bill’s death rocked the family, but Knight’s presence was a godsend— and something Krzyzewski would never forget. Knight had been unbearably hard on Krzyzewski, but that was basketball. When it truly mattered, Knight was there for him and his family.
On the afternoon of June 4, 1969, Bill Krzyzewski’s younger son, the one who had been reluctant to even consider West Point, received his bachelor of science degree, his Second Lieutenant bars, and his wedding ring. Graduation ceremony at noon; marriage ceremony at the West Point Chapel at five.
His brother Bill Jr. was the best man, and Mlynski was in the wedding party (Krzyzewski presented Mlynski with a miniature bust of a West Point cadet as a present). Emily watched proudly as the newly commissioned officer and his wife, Mickie, exited the chapel, walking under an arch of shined silver sabers to begin their lives together.
Krzyzewski served in the U. S. Army for five years and resigned as a captain in 1974. He liked the Army, but he loved basketball more.
He then enlisted as a graduate assistant on Knight’s Indiana University coaching staff for the ’75 season. He was 26, married with a young daughter. It was the beginning of a coaching odyssey.
“What I recognized that year was how all- consuming the job is,” says Mickie, who slowly sanded down some of the jagged edges of Krzyzewski’s personality. “The family can be put on the back burner forever and ever and you end up not being together. I told him that if this was going to be his career, I was going to be part of it. He agreed, but this was a time when women didn’t get to be part of that.”
At West Point, coach Dan Dougherty was putting the finishing touches on a 3– 22 season (wins only against Scranton, Iona, and Pitt-Johnstown) that would cost him his job. Thanks to both power broker Knight’s recommendation and Krzyzewski’s convincing interview, Army hired one of its own.
Krzyzewski’s 1976 Army team finished 11– 14; the program he had just left, Indiana, went undefeated and won the national championship.
In 1977, Krzyzewski’s Black Knights won 20 games and followed it up with 19 victories and an NIT appearance in 1978. He was a coach on the rise. And then he wasn’t.
Army won 14 games in 1979, but then dropped to 9– 17 in 1980. Krzyzewski’s coaching career was beginning to track the wrong way.
Not long after the regular season ended, the phone rang at the Krzyzewski house. Mickie answered.
“This is Tom Butters,” said the caller in a booming, authoritative voice. “I have the awesome responsibility of hiring the next basketball coach for Duke University.”
A shocked Mickie said, “And you’re talking to me?”
Duke had reached the national championship game two years earlier (losing to Kentucky), and was again on an NCAA Tournament run.
But Bill Foster, the popular coach who took the Blue Devils to the title game in 1978, had already accepted a job to coach South Carolina, effective at season’s end. His decision prompted instant predictions of doom for Duke.
“If he leaves, Duke has nothing left,” Art Chansky, Durham Morning Herald sports editor, told the Washington Post. “Its whole athletic program is down the tubes. He’s the only winner they have over there.”
Butters had recently hired a former Duke basketball player named Steve Vacendak to join the athletic department staff. A captain on Vic Bubas’s Final Four team in 1966 (the Blue Devils lost to Kentucky in the national semifinal game), Vacendak was not yet officially on the university payroll. That didn’t stop Butters from asking him to assist in the coaching search.
“What are you looking for?” said Vacendak.
“I’m looking for someone who is the best defensive coach in the country,” Butters said. “Because I believe you win most games on defense. If we can be successful against the team eight miles down the road [Dean Smith’s mighty North Carolina program], then we are a national power. That’s all we have to do.”
Butters wanted Vacendak’s help, but Butters was essentially a one-man search committee. The decision was going to be all his, which is how he wanted it. A former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Butters came to Duke in 1967 as director of special events, was named AD in 1977, and had earned a reputation for being decisive, independent, fearless, and soaked in integrity.
He initially considered contacting the legendary Jack Hartman about the Duke opening. Hartman, then a 55- year- old coach at Kansas State, would eventually retire as one of the best coaches never to have won an NCAA title. He was everything Butters admired: ethical, loyal, a man of high character. His teams played unselfishly, they defended, and they won.
“I was really fascinated by him,” says Butters. “To this day he doesn’t know that, because I never talked to him.”
Instead, Butters put together a list of possible candidates that included Mississippi’s Bob Weltlich, Duke assistant Bob Wenzel, Old Dominion’s Paul Webb, and one other name: Mike Krzyzewski. Vacendak lobbied hard for Krzyzewski, telling Butters, “I think he’s one of the best young defensive coaches in America.”
But the best young defensive coach in America was coming off a horrible 9- win season at Army. How was Butters going to sell that to his alums, to his big- money donors, to his school president, and to any prominent recruits? The Duke AD called Bob Knight, whom he had long valued for his bullshit- free opinions. Knight could be dictatorial, rude, and crude. But he was also a brilliant basketball tactician and strategist, bright, loyal to a fault, and, when so moved, charming. When asked about coaching candidates, Knight often campaigned for his own coaching protégés. This time he began selling some of his favorites to Butters: Weltlich, Tennessee’s Don DeVoe, and Oklahoma’s Dave Bliss.
“What about Mike Krzyzewski?” Butters said.
Butters knew that Knight wouldn’t mislead him. If Butters was seriously going to consider an Army coach coming off a 9– 17 season, he wanted to hear Knight’s unvarnished truth. Knight was many things, but he wasn’t a liar.
“Butters, you have always liked my style of coaching,” said Knight.
“This is a man who has all my good qualities and none of my bad ones.”
Knight actually was concerned about one of his boys taking the Duke coaching job. He knew Butters was an honorable athletic director, that academics was a priority at Duke, and that Krzyzewski was ready to take the next step in his career. But he thought Krzyzewski was better suited for the opening at Iowa State, which had just dismissed Lynn Nance. The pressure to win there wouldn’t be as immediate and as intense as it would be at Duke, where Blue Devils fans had been spoiled by Foster. But Butters asked for his opinion, so Knight gave it to him.
The recommendation prompted Butters to make that first surprising phone call to the Krzyzewski house in New York. They arranged to meet in West Lafayette, Indiana, where Duke won its second-round NCAA Tournament game against Pennsylvania. Krzyzewski and Butters spoke for several hours, but the Duke AD sent him back to West Point without an offer.
Meanwhile, Duke advanced to the Mideast Regional in Lexington, Kentucky, where it would play (and win) its regional semifinal game against Kentucky. While there, Butters called Krzyzewski and asked him to come to the tournament site for another interview.
“We got 13 inches of snow, but I’ll figure out a way to get there,”
This time Butters and Krzyzewski spoke for nearly five hours before the interview ended again without a hint of an offer. Butters couldn’t get that dreadful 9– 17 record out of his head, but he also couldn’t bring himself to cross Krzyzewski’s name off the short list. If anything, the 33-year-old Krzyzewski was moving up the list. “Aside from his record,” says Butters, “he had all of the qualities I was looking for.”
Duke lost to Purdue in the regional final, and Butters returned home and brought in his finalists: Weltlich, Wenzel, Webb, and Krzyzewski.
He had asked Krzyzewski to bring Mickie on the trip to Durham (after all, he told Krzyzewski, Duke was hiring not a man but a family) and arranged for the Army coach to be the last candidate to speak to the Duke athletic council: Butters, school senior vice president Chuck Huestis, and chancellor Ken Pye.
The interviews were held at Huestis’s home. The Krzyzewskis spoke to the council, answered a barrage of questions, and then were taken to the airport. Afterward, the three council members and Vacendak sat at Huestis’s kitchen table, and Pye and Huestis gave Butters the go-ahead to hire any of the four candidates.
Butters didn’t hesitate. He turned to Vacendak and told him, “Get to the airport. Don’t let [Krzyzewski] get on that plane.”
“My god, you’re not going to interview him again.”
“No, I’m going to hire him.”
Krzyzewski and Mickie were scheduled to take separate flights: Mickie to Washington, D. C., to see her parents and retrieve her children; Krzyzewski to New York and West Point. After arriving at her parents’ home, Mickie called the house at West Point (this was the pre cell phone age). No answer. She called again. And again. And again. Worried, she called the airline and was assured that the flight to New York had landed safely.
Mickie was nervous. This was unlike her husband not to call and check in. It wasn’t until midnight that the phone rang. It was Krzyzewski.
“You okay?” Mickie said.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Krzyzewski said. “Just before I got on the plane I was paged. The people from Duke wanted to ask me one more question.”
Mickie had a meltdown. Another question? You’ve got to be kidding. How many questions did these people need to ask? Why didn’t they ask their precious question during one of the three interviews they had already done? Seriously, the nerve of these people. Krzyzewski let her vent. Then he told her the question.
“They wanted to ask me if I would take the job.”
Krzyzewski had returned to Huestis’s home, been offered the coaching position, and had accepted the offer.
“How much are you going to get paid?” said Mickie.
“Mike? How much are you going to get paid?”
More silence and then finally, “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
Krzyzewski had taken the job without bothering to discuss the salary.
There were no agents involved. He had taken a leap of faith, but so had Butters and Duke.
On March 18, 1980, Butters cleared his throat, stepped to the front of a room at the on-campus Alumni House, and introduced the new Blue Devils basketball coach to the local media.
“He is my first choice,” said Butters, almost defiantly.
The coach’s name was Krzyzewski, which was confusing enough. Or as a local sports anchor said as he fumbled through the pronunciation on the evening broadcast, “Mike Prishevski.” Prishevski’s first-year salary: $40,000.
The hiring was met with disbelief by ACC observers and many Duke followers. If the obscure Krzyzewski was Butters’s first choice, they said, who was number two— the Coast Guard Academy coach? The New York Times was so impressed that it devoted 14 words to the announcement. Even the Duke student newspaper, The Chronicle, mocked the hiring. Read the front page headline: Krzyzewski: this is not a typo. North Carolina, only eight miles away, had the great Dean Smith. North Carolina State had just hired a human caffeine pill named Jim Valvano. Smith and Valvano were NCAA Tournament regulars. Meanwhile, Krzyzewski was fresh off that 9-win season at Army, with more than half of those victories coming against programs even more obscure than Krzyzewski: Manhattanville, Lycoming, Merchant Marine Academy, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Rochester.
In one day’s time Krzyzewski had gone from the flyweight division to the heavyweight, from the west bank of the Hudson River to fabled Tobacco Road and the cutthroat ACC.
“First of all,” said the new coach to the media, “it’s K-R-Z-YZ-E-W-S-K-I. If you think that’s bad, it was a lot worse before I changed it.”
Kenny Dennard, a carefree 6'8" junior forward for Duke, was on spring break and drinking a mai tai at the Pier House Resort bar in Key West, Florida, when he glanced at the TV screen and saw that he had a new coach. The new coach was the same guy who had tried to recruit him to Army.
Dennard knew he wasn’t a West Point kind of guy. Now, through nothing other than blind fate, Dennard would play for Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski wasn’t quite Knight Jr., but he had a military edge to him and a biting sarcasm; he was familiar with all the four- letter words and used them often. “This was the late ’70s, early ’80s,” says Dennard.
“Nobody had this open, Oprah, investigate- your- feelings thing going.
It was Robby Benson’s coach in One on One. . . . [Krzyzewski] wasn’t Oprah- like at all.”
With seniors Dennard and All- American Gene Banks, Duke finished 17– 13 in Krzyzewski’s first season, but missed the NCAA Tournament and was left to accept a berth in the lesser- regarded NIT.
While the Blue Devils settled for the NIT, Smith’s North Carolina team, which lost to Duke in its final regular-season contest, went on to reach the NCAA championship game, where it played Indiana. Krzyzewski was not unhappy when his mentor Knight and the Hoosiers defeated the Tar Heels.
In 1982, Duke staggered to a 10– 17 record. Krzyzewski’s emotions poured out when he cried in the locker- room shower after a 17-point loss at Princeton that dropped Duke to 1– 4. Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, a baby- faced freshman assassin named Michael Jordan helped give Smith his first NCAA championship.
There was pandemonium and joy on Franklin Street, the celebration area of choice for Carolina students and followers. At Duke there was embarrassment, shame, and growing dissatisfaction with Krzyzewski.
The situation did not improve the following season, when Carolina tied for first in the ACC and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, while Valvano led N. C. State to an improbable national title.
Duke finished 11– 17 overall and 3– 11 in the conference, losing by 21 and 24 points to Carolina and by a mind- numbing 43 points to Virginia in the ACC tournament. After the Virginia defeat, Mickie Krzyzewski accidentally wandered into the Duke hospitality suite at the team hotel. It was there that she realized that a group of “concerned” Iron Dukes— the fund-raising and booster arm of the athletic program— had convened an impromptu meeting. The first and only item on the agenda: Fire Krzyzewski.
Three years in Durham had brought zero NCAA Tournament appearances, a single- season record for losses, and a 1– 6 mark against North Carolina. Some opposing coaches were telling Duke recruits that Krzyzewski could be dismissed any day. Krzyzewski’s oldest daughter, Debbie, was even taunted at school. She called home in tears, asking Daddy to pick her up, but found no sympathy; Krzyzewski said he would give her a Duke T-shirt to wear to school the next day. “A Krzyzewski,” he told her, “doesn’t back away from something like that.”
Meanwhile, Butters’s office was flooded with phone calls and letters demanding that he take immediate action. One prominent Blue Devils booster wrote, “Why don’t you hire an American coach?”
In short, says Butters, “Everybody wants his ass and my ass out of Durham, North Carolina.”
Butters wasn’t going to quit. “You can’t succeed while running scared,” he says. And Krzyzewski wasn’t going to quit. To do so would be a betrayal of everything he had learned from his parents, at Weber High, and at West Point, from Knight, and from his own family. He had signed a handful of high school recruits— Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, Mark Alarie, David Henderson, and Bill Jackman— whom he was convinced would give his program a much needed infusion of blue-chip talent. And he was right.
In 1984, Duke won its first 8 games and 15 of its first 16, including a payback victory against Virginia. But then came four consecutive ACC losses, and the anti-Krzyzewski drumbeat grew deafening again.
Butters summoned Krzyzewski to his office. When Krzyzewski arrived, Butters immediately noticed what poker players call a “tell,” a gesture or facial expression that tips a player’s hand. Krzyzewski’s tell was his mouth. It was small to begin with, and Butters had noticed that when Krzyzewski was especially angry about a situation, it would get even smaller and more tightly pursed. As Krzyzewski sat down in Butters’s office, the Duke AD realized that “you couldn’t have driven a tenpenny nail between his lips.”
Said Butters: “Mike, we got a problem.”
Krzyzewski said nothing.
Butters continued. “The problem is we’ve got a public that doesn’t know how good you are. We’ve got a press that’s too damn dumb to tell them how good you are. But my greatest problem is that I’ve got a coach who I’m not sure knows how good he is.”
And with that, Butters handed Krzyzewski a new five-year contract.
Krzyzewski stared at the contract in disbelief. Tears began streaming down his face.
“Tom, you don’t have to do this,” said Krzyzewski.
“Coach, on the contrary, I not only need to do it, I need to do it right now.”
Butters received death threats after the contract extension was made public. But Krzyzewski and those freshmen finished 24– 10 that season and reached the NCAA Tournament. Two seasons later they would play for the national championship.
“And the rest is history,” says Butters. “I’ve been credited with that decision for 25 years, but it was a no-brainer. When you looked [at those freshmen] . . . the handwriting was on the wall for anyone who knew anything about basketball. I would love to take credit for making a brilliant move, but I made the move that anyone sitting in my seat would have made.”
But not even Butters could have envisioned what would come next.
He knew he had brought in a great coach, but he hardly suspected he had hired a dynasty maker
“[R]ecaptures the energy of one of sport’s greatest moments….A fitting, illuminating tribute to a game that many believe was the best ever.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“Wojciechowski offers a nice blend of past and present perspectives as he tells the story of how an unlikely classic came to be, how it played out, and how it lives on … [The Last Great Game] is both fun and thorough without getting tedious.”
- Erik Spanberg, The Christian Science Monitor
“[A] fascinating portrait ….This thoroughly enjoyable book will attract college basketball fans across the country, regardless of team loyalties.”
“You think you know all the stories? So did I. But I had not heard these.”
- Louisville Courier-Journal
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