INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL
November 16, 2011
NEW YORK -- Mike Krzyzewski became the winningest coach in the history of men's major college basketball at 9:36 p.m. on Tuesday, when his Duke Blue Devils defeated Michigan State, 74-69, at Madison Square Garden. The achievement, however, was not sealed until a minute later, when Krzyzewski walked to the broadcast table and shared a teary embrace with the man whom he had just surpassed, Bob Knight, who had analyzed the game for ESPN. "I know a lot of people don't tell you this, Coach," Krzyzewski said. "But I love you."
As Krzyzewski spoke, Knight had his face buried in Krzyzewski's suit jacket. Then he pulled back, smiled and said, "Boy, you've done pretty good for a kid who couldn't shoot." Knight laughed and slapped Krzyzewski hard on the shoulder. "I think that meant he loved me, too," Krzyzewski said later. "I'm going to take it as that."
It has been a long, winding, tumultuous, heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking ride that brought Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight to that embrace. But there they were, sharing the happy coincidence that allowed them both to be present for this moment in history. The record now shows that Krzyzewski has 903 career wins to Knight's 902, but their relationship cannot be defined by mere numbers. It only took five decades, but these two men finally speak each other's language, even if those closest to them don't.
"Their relationship fascinates me. It kind of defies description," Krzyzewski's wife, Mickie, said Tuesday night. "It's sort of unbelievable that they're a coach and player who together have 1,800 wins. But the relationship between Coach Knight and Mike, which healed years ago, is much more unique to me than the fact that they share this honor."
It's amazing enough that a man would surpass his former college coach to break the NCAA's most significant coaching record. What's even more amazing is that the university which brought them together wasn't a basketball factory like Kansas, Kentucky or UCLA. It wasn't even Ohio State, where Knight was a reserve guard on the 1960 NCAA championship team. Rather, it was the United States Military Academy at West Point, a place known more for churning out generals and presidents than Hall of Fame basketball coaches.
Knight was just 25 years old when he walked into Bill and Emily Krzyzewski's living room in the spring of 1965 to recruit their son, who led Chicago's Catholic League in scoring while playing point guard for Weber High School. (Krzyzewski's dad used the surname Kross because he believed it would be easier for him to find work.) Mike's parents were enticed by the idea that their son could attend such a prestigious university, but to his parents' consternation Mike told Knight he wasn't interested. He hoped that he could play for a Midwestern college with a better hoops program such as Creighton, Detroit, maybe even a school in the Big Ten. When those offers never came, his parents' prodding -- their "ethnic pressure," as Krzyzewski calls it -- eventually changed the boy's mind.
As Army's point guard, Krzyzewski earned his minutes by accepting Knight's abuse and heeding his strict instructions never to shoot. During his three years on the varsity, Krzyzewski never averaged more than seven points per game, but he led the Black Knights to two appearances in the NIT. That included a trip to the semifinal his senior year, when Army lost to Boston College in Madison Square Garden.
Later that night, Krzyzewski's father suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. He was dead before Mike could get home. Knight dropped everything, followed his point guard to Chicago and stayed at the Krzyzewskis' house for three days. Mike never forgot the kindness Knight showed his mother that week as he consoled her while the two of them sat in the family kitchen. "That's when I saw Coach Knight start to emerge as a father figure to Mike," Mickie said.
Following his five-year stint in the Army, Krzyzewski joined Knight's staff at Indiana as a graduate assistant. The following year, Krzyzewski took over as head coach at his alma mater. The Knights had won just three games the previous season, but they won 20 and 19, respectively, during Krzyzewski's second and third seasons. From there, however, they backtracked, and in Krzyzewski's fifth year they finished with an overall record of 7-19.
During the spring of 1980, Knight got a call from Tom Butters, the athletic director at Duke. Butters was looking to hire a basketball coach, and he wanted to float a few candidates. According to Gene Wojciechowski's forthcoming book, The Last Great Game, which tells the story of the epic 1992 regional final between Duke and Kentucky, Knight actually thought Krzyzewski was better suited for a place like Iowa State, where he wouldn't have to face so much pressure. Still, he told Butters the truth: Krzyzewski was a great defensive coach, and coming from West Point he would understand Duke's academic mission. That prompted Butters to interview Krzyzewski, and he eventually shocked the public by tapping the unknown cadet to be his coach.
Over the next decade, Knight and Krzyzewski remained close as they circled each other from afar. As Krzyzewski built Duke into a winner -- surviving a combined 21-34 record his second and third seasons -- he often relied on his former coach's friendship and advice. On the eve of Duke's matchup with Louisville in the 1986 NCAA final, he asked Knight to speak to his team. When Duke lost, Knight called Krzyzewski every day for a week to make sure he was OK. The next year, their teams played each other for the first time, meeting in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament. Indiana won en route to capturing Knight's second title.
Five more years passed before fate again brought their teams together. It happened at the 1992 Final Four. By that time, their career arcs had begun to diverge. In the five years since their teams last played, Knight had not returned to the Final Four. Krzyzewski, on the other hand, made five more trips, and in '91 he broke through to win his first NCAA championship. In the days leading up to the game, the two men's baser instincts -- pride, combativeness, insecurity, envy -- surfaced in subtle ways. Krzyzewski was deferential in his public remarks, but he downplayed the obvious storyline by pointing out that while Knight had had the most influence on him, he also benefited from relationships with other coaches. Krzyzewski could also become prickly when Knight's specter was invoked. During a news conference the day before Duke's second-round game against Iowa, a reporter asked him whether he had called Knight for advice on how to beat the Big Ten school. "No," Krzyzewski snapped. "Somewhere in my 17 years as a coach I've figured out how to scout an opponent."
Unbeknown to Krzyzewski, Knight, who already had an unseemly tendency to feel threatened by his friends' successes, took offense. After the game, which Duke won 81-78, a slew of cameras predictably surrounded the two men as they approached for the postgame handshake. Krzyzewski stopped to share some words and perhaps a hug. Knight, however, stuck out his hand and blew right on by. Krzyzewski was visibly stunned.
He was even more surprised a short while later after Knight wrapped up his postgame news conference, stepped off the dais and came upon the Duke contingent waiting to speak. Knight congratulated the players on their win but said nothing to Krzyzewski. Later, a mutual friend handed Krzyzewski a note from Knight that essentially said, if a divorce is what you want, then a divorce is what you've got. As his players later conducted postgame interviews in Duke's locker room, Krzyzewski sat in a backroom with tears in his eyes and lamented to his assistants, "There are days when life's not fair."
The incident led to a deep freeze between the two proud men that lasted almost a year. In December, when Krzyzewski was asked about his mentor, he replied, "My relationship with Coach Knight is like my relationship with my wife. And I don't talk about my relationship with my wife." (The statement was unconvincing considering Krzyzewski frequently talked about his relationship with his wife.) "I was mad because Mike was hurting, and I just knew the problem could be solved," Mickie said. "This was a misunderstanding. It was people saying things that are being attributed to other people. It was very frustrating for me to see Mike in that kind of agony and miss Coach so much and not be able to do anything about it."
Finally, in January of '93, Knight reached out. At first, Krzyzewski refused to take the call, but eventually the two men talked for over an hour. Knight never technically apologized -- saying he's sorry is not exactly the man's strong suit -- but Krzyzewski forgave him anyway and decided it was time to move on.
For the next few years they were friendly but not especially close, the scars from their Final Four rupture still raw. In the winter of 1995, Indiana and Duke played each other without incident at the Great Alaska Shootout. Krzyzewski assumed the two were still on good terms when they met again in Madison Square Garden during the championship game of the preseason NIT in 1996. Krzyzewski knew that Knight liked to come out on the court close to tipoff, so he went over to the Indiana bench and waited for him. The horn sounded to mark the end of warmups, but Knight had still not emerged. The player introductions began. Still no Knight. Finally, Knight walked out ... and ignored Krzyzewski while chatting amiably with legendary horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Indiana pasted Duke by 16 points. Afterward, Krzyzewski was more resigned than heartbroken. "I'm almost glad it happened that way," he told author John Feinstein for his book, A March to Madness, a look inside the ACC. "It lets me put a period on the end of the sentence. The end. You know, it's really kind of sad. He keeps turning friends away. I'm not the first or the last. I tried to do the right thing. I'm over it now. Five years ago, that would have hurt me. It doesn't hurt anymore."
As Knight and Krzyzewski went their separate ways, their careers did the same. After his team defeated Indiana in the '92 Final Four, Krzyzewski coached in three more championship games, winning his third title in 2001. Meanwhile, from 1995 to 2000, Knight's Indiana teams won a total of two NCAA tournament games. In September of 2000, Knight was fired by Indiana president Myles Brand for violating the zero tolerance policy Brand had put in place just four months before. Knight was humiliated and devastated, but Krzyzewski never called to console him.
Their friends and spouses weren't sure how to repair the breach, or even if they wanted to. "I stayed out of it because I knew that the pain came from a real place," Mickie Krzyzewski said. "That place was anger. Mike had to work through that before he could sincerely pick up the phone."
The moment to do so finally arrived in 2001. Krzyzewski had been voted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and he needed to select a member of the Hall to present him for induction. Krzyzewski and Mickie bandied names for several days. Finally, Krzyzewski told his wife he had chosen Knight. "I said, 'Coach Knight? Why?' And he said, 'He's the only one,'" Mickie recalled. "It was the perfect salve for that wound."
Knight accepted the invitation. As Krzyzewski's three daughters took the stage that night to introduce him, Knight, whom Mickie once thought was "the meanest man in the world" while he coached her boyfriend at Army, walked off the stage, took Mickie by the hand and led her up the stairs so she could stand beside her husband. Knight's speech that night was eloquent and stirring. He told the audience that Krzyzewski was a much better player than he had given himself credit for. He said the only important thing Krzyzewski had learned from him was what not to do. And his voice quavered as he brought Krzyzewski to the stage by calling him "the best coach that I've had a team play against." Krzyzewski climbed the stairs, shook hands with a few dignitaries, and then fell into his coach's arms and sobbed. It looked exactly like what it was: a father and son, previously estranged, reconciling in front of thousands of people.
Since that day, their relationship has continued to evolve, as relationships do. They're still equal parts coach-player and father-son, but they're also fellow coaches, colleagues, best friends. They're older now, more comfortable in their own skin, less susceptible to the pettiness that almost severed them for good. When Krzyzewski praises Knight these days, there is no hint of equivocation. He has also gotten smarter about avoiding potential triggers. After Brand left Indiana to become president of the NCAA, he reached out to Krzyzewski and invited him to Brand's house to talk. Before saying yes, Krzyzewski called Knight to make sure it was OK with him. (It was.)
Now, thanks to Tuesday night's events, they can enjoy one more bond, a remarkable moment when they switched places atop the NCAA's record book. Krzyzewski thanked the "basketball gods" for arranging for Knight to be there -- at Madison Square Garden, no less -- but the truth is, the gods have been arranging that moment for over 40 years. When it finally arrived, it didn't matter how turbulent or hurtful their journey had been. The only thing that mattered was where that journey had taken them, and where it takes them still.