June 17, 2024

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Duke’s resounding farewell to Coach K, even in the event of defeat

Duke's resounding farewell to Coach K, even in the event of defeat

DURHAM, NC – Before we get to the score, you should – no, you should – know what it was like at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night. This is the only way to appreciate what happened.

The occasion was the last game in which Mike Krzyowski, winner of the most Division I men’s basketball games in history, was patrolling Cameron’s sidelines as Duke Maestro. Saturday was the appointed time for believers to yell or squawk all they could through the noise.

What came out was the expulsion of feelings in surround sound, emotions that had built up over 42 seasons that resulted in some of the best college basketball ever. For the last Saturday night Krzyzewski fueled in Cameron, he tore the band apart again: sadness, delight, shock and ecstasy, all measurable in decibels.

Cameron, you see, is a stifling cathedral of stone, copper, wood, percussion and threatening instruments—especially when the University of North Carolina comes to play—with a listed capacity of 9,314, and on Saturdays it’s probably as many prayers as prayers. The fire chief was not a fan of Tar Heel.

There were some, but very few, North Carolina supporters around. Calling in Saturday a full Duke family reunion, though, may be too much because it’s tough for a family reunion when ticket prices exceed Super Bowl prices.

But it was a night the Blue Devils knew was coming, the last confirmed event on the tour designed to end Duke’s career that began in 1980, when almost no one around Durham knew what to do with hiring Tom Butters from West Point. She wraps up with at least five national championships — with another chance at the NCAA Championship that ends next month in New Orleans.

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Krzyzewski, 75, said last year it was time to move away. With the Conference and National Championships approaching, there could be as many as nine more matches. But none of them will be in Durham.

So the blue body paint started peeling or sweating away long before the hint between the No. 4 Duke and unclassified North Carolina, but the masked students wore it anyway. The band will be paused, even if fans close to Earth never make it to the end. One young man, who was impossible to see through the forest of signs, outstretched arms, and stuffed animals, passed behind a journalist’s row and apologically choked on a question as basic as it was daunting: “Oh my God, how am I going to pass here?”

But, an hour later the next day, one evening when dozens of former Krzyzewski players (and Jerry Seinfeld) descended on Durham, he and his mostly blue-clad brothers were thundering in a manner befitting a college athletic dynasty.

To celebrate every national championship cited in the pre-match video. To taunt the heel of tar. To declare their loyalty to Krzyzewski, who will end his career with 572 wins at Cameron. to make a ruckus.

The direction on the students’ cheerleading paper, after all, was: “Just be louder than ever today.”

The Duke’s seat wasn’t calm either. The man routinely called Coach K, almost alone there in not wearing it in honor of his career, often was.

Tipov approached. He sat up, arms crossed and might cry a bit. The horn sounded to indicate the approaching match. He clapped his hands, extended his fingers, and clenched his fists silently. I peer into the middle of the court. He clapped his hands again.

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The basketball game, the 257th encounter between Duke and North Carolina, finally began.

He frowned when North Carolina first scored. Twenty-four seconds later, he rose for the first time, pointing and shouting because his guidance had no hope of being heard otherwise. The masses were already responsible.

He faded into the mists of the game, though, even now, even after all these decades, he was still nervous at times, freezing in the moment, when one of his players shot.

No Duke’s Eyes—and in the audience were people with nicknames you’ll remember, like Brand, Hill, Lattner and Riddick—looked terribly distant from him, though. A glance at the bench, several old players were standing and watching their old coach, their faces turning toward him like the scoreboard above.

Besides Krzyzewski, they often seemed like the quietest men in the place, though they and Coach hit the air and roared in united anger at a foul call that went down Carolina’s road.

The calm will come between Saturday and Thursday, when Duke plays in Brooklyn as the top seed in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships. Some quiet moments came as Duke fired free throws, but his eardrums can’t draw very fast.

And calm sometimes began to go beyond. Duke slipped by 10 with about 52 seconds of play, done through a porous Blue Devil defense and a dynamic North Carolina team with first-year coach, Hubert Davis, who muffled a grin and spoke after the game about how to tell him. His team “to let all this side things go” and continue to focus on his tar-heel craftsmanship.

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Krzyzewski, whose team beat North Carolina by 20 points during a visit to Chapel Hill last month, was left on the sidelines, his arms back up again. He clasped his hands behind his back. He bit his lip watching a less promising team and later said “played a lot better than we did” go down in history as the team that spoiled their farewell spoiled him. The noise is still stirring, and it hasn’t completely gone out.

Everyone knew the outcome, though. They were simply referring to the time needed for a win in North Carolina, 94-81, which odds makers and believers alike thought unlikely.

“I’m sorry about this evening,” said Krzyzewski, who spent much of the afternoon mixing notes of gratitude with harsh criticism of his team. “It is unacceptable. Today it was unacceptable.”

Boss, the season isn’t over. But so was his time at Cameron.

He still has 1,196 career victories, including 1,123 as Duke’s coach.

The last one, if there are any, has to come somewhere else. This weekend, at least, has proven once again that the hype and blessing will take just about any team and any coach so far, especially when one of Tobacco Road’s rivals is in town.

“I’m glad that’s over,” said Krzyzewski, who capped Cameron’s first regular season by upsetting North Carolina in overtime, after the night’s ceremony. “Let’s just train and see what the hell happens in the tournaments.”