Sports

Goodbye to the Sorest of Sore Losers

Does Mike Krzyzewski have one more great loss in him?

Mike Krzyzewski shouts on the sidelines
Mike Krzyzewski at the 2022 ACC Tournament. Sarah Stier/Getty Images

This article is from Indignity, a twice-weekly newsletter of essays, commentary, and reporting.

Sometime between today and never, Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski will lose one more NCAA tournament game. If he does lose, it would be the 32nd time he has lost in the NCAA tournament, and the final time, and one of the more satisfying ones. Krzyzewski is retiring after this season, and with him will go one of the purest pleasures in sports, the pleasure of watching one of the game’s—the nation’s!—greatest sore losers lose, sorely.

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Already, on his farewell tour, Krzyzewski has created one indelible joyous memory: getting pasted in his final home game by a bad and unranked North Carolina team, in what was supposed to be a celebratory walkover against Duke’s eternal archrival. The arena was full of worshipful fans and dozens of devoted ex-players and admiring national media, and the Tar Heels just clobbered the Blue Devils—Krzyzewski got outcoached, his team outhustled, however you might wish to describe it. He picked up a microphone afterward for a scheduled valedictory address and, in a classic Krzyzewski snit, declared the whole thing “unacceptable.”

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It would be simplistic moralizing to say Krzyzewski didn’t take the Carolina game seriously enough, but the coach himself has spent three decades simplistically moralizing about success, so it’s only fair to go along with it. This is who he is, the man who gave his name to the Duke business school’s Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics while serving as a national avatar of bad sportsmanship.

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The redeeming thing about overweening control freaks is that eventually, sometimes, they have to lose. And when they do, nothing else counts. The pinch-faced scowling and barking from the sidelines becomes not the hard price of greatness (paid, mostly, by his players) but a mere loop of misery feeding on itself. Their whole glowering sense of entitlement bursts open and the radiant light of comeuppance pours through.

Despising Duke and Krzyzewski has been the default among healthy sports fans for generations now, but I didn’t always hate them. The coach had to earn it, year by year. I was fond of the first Duke teams I can remember, from watching Atlantic Coast Conference games on black-and-white TV on fuzzy over-the-air feeds. They had a nice backcourt of Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker, and a couple of big inoffensive white dudes in Jay Bilas and Mark Alarie. (There were far more annoying white guys around elsewhere.) The defensive grinding that would become ostentatious for later Krzyzewski teams was handled by Billy King, the future NBA executive, who had to do it to make up for his weak offensive game.

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All I really knew about their coach was that he had been mentored by Indiana’s Bobby Knight, the sour and bombastic tyrant of boring Midwestern basketball, and that Knight had developed a burning grudge against him. So, by math, Krzyzewski would be a force for good until proven otherwise. I personally rooted for the Maryland Terrapins, a team of delightful talent and cursed luck, and by extension—or once Maryland was eliminated—I rooted for the rest of the ACC to uphold the conference’s honor, or for the Big East teams to uphold the honor of the Eastern Seaboard. I felt bad when Duke lost the 1986 national championship game to a seven-loss Louisville team.

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Duke went on to lose in the Final Four to Kansas in 1988 and to Seton Hall in 1989, and to get blown out by UNLV in the national championship game in 1990—the sort of merciless beating usually associated with the Super Bowls of that era. People began to consider the notion that their coach just might be the kind of guy who couldn’t win the big one.

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Then history turned. In 1991, they met UNLV in the Final Four again. There was considerable speculation at the time that UNLV—whose players were intimately friendly with a man convicted of fixing horse races and college basketball games, and which had gone undefeated through 34 games that season—was shaving points against a team that it was sure, from past experience, couldn’t compete with it. If so, it got away from them. Duke won by 2 points, then beat Kansas in the final.

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The universe where UNLV condemned Duke to another season as an also-ran, like the universe where the Oakland Raiders got credit for forcing young Tom Brady to fumble away his first playoffs, is inches away from our own reality but now unimaginably distant. However he got it, Krzyzewski had a national title, and he was beginning to work out a shtick to go with it—the taskmaster of a classy program where kids studied hard and obeyed orders and played the game right. Some people watch sports for vicarious excellence and excitement, and other people watch sports for vicarious success and control, and the latter group had found their man.

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Knight’s rebellious protégé swiftly evolved into a cold, corporate update on Knight, someone who could hold forth on character and integrity with that same disciplined emptiness with which a fraternity caught in a hazing scandal talks about its public service programs. Even if they weren’t speaking to each other, Krzyzewski and Knight shared a knack for taking credit for being the righteous guys, no matter how contrary to the facts that might be. In 1992, Duke got to the Final Four with a 1-point overtime win over Kentucky, on the immortal combination of a full-court pass from Grant Hill and a last-second shot by Christian Laettner. Earlier in the game, Laettner had stomped—with obvious malice and premeditation—on the chest of the fallen Kentucky player Aminu Timberlake, but had somehow not been ejected, and Duke went on to win another title.

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I didn’t mind Kentucky getting stomped on, just then. At the time, the Maryland basketball program was on the brink of collapse from NCAA penalties, ostensibly for a long list of petty rule infractions but really to punish the program for the cocaine overdose death of Len Bias, the most glorious player I would ever see. The legendary Kentucky program, meanwhile, had been caught shipping an express package full of cash to a star recruit and was somehow already back in the championship picture. (“The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky they gave Cleveland State two more years of probation,” UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian, the cheerfully scandalous anti-Krzyzewski of coaches, said.)

Duke’s program was built to fill the opposite angle of the NCAA racket from the sharps and outlaws, to balance things out: Krzyzewski was the person willing to treat—and promote—as a moral code whatever restrictions the athletic association might wish to put on the working conditions of its unpaid employees. Duke was the institution for players who would make a four-year commitment to the college product, not the ones eager to try themselves against NBA competition and earn an NBA paycheck as soon as they were ready. Duke fans would elevate this to a point of fanatical belief, until the supply of NBA-caliber players willing to serve a four-year apprenticeship had dwindled so far that Krzyzewski suddenly could see the virtue in offering two- or one-year terms to his scholar-athletes.

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Back in those first years of real championship success, Duke seemed to be attracting more and more players who wanted to be the stomping Laettner, rather than the pass-slinging Hill. The team’s idea of hard-nosed defense turned chippier and chippier, with Krzyzewski berating the referees until they learned to defer to his views on whether Duke’s endless poking and slapping to get the ball away was legal. As Maryland started getting better, these things started to matter not just aesthetically but directly to my rooting interests, two or three or four times a year. The old sense that excellence in the league was broadly good for everyone gave way to Duke’s zero-sum notion of superiority.

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Then—in what is even now the subject of the longest paragraph under “Duke” on Mike Krzyzewski’s Wikipedia page—the burgeoning sense of superiority cracked. After a loss in the national championship game to Arkansas in the spring of 1994, Krzyzewski found himself in charge of a bad team the following fall and winter. That season, ACC fans had the incandescent fortune of seeing Joe Smith, Rasheed Wallace, and Tim Duncan all playing head-to-head, for Maryland, North Carolina, and Wake Forest respectively. To counter this generation of spectacular big men, who were entering their sophomore years together, Krzyzewski had Erik Meek.

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And so, after losing the opening game of the ACC schedule, he bailed out. Claiming unbearable back pain, the future face of the Center on Leadership and Ethics abandoned the team, and arranged for the rest of the season, all four wins and 15 losses of it, to be officially dumped on the coaching record of his assistant Pete Gaudet. The rationalizations for this are well preserved on Wikipedia, in inadvertent testimony to how desperately unconvincing they are. Did his back hurt? Backs are funny that way. The pain became manageable again after a few months of rest, during which Smith and Wallace opted out of their junior years to become the No. 1 and No. 4 picks in the NBA draft, respectively.

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The episode passed, and Duke got good again, and again, and again. Maryland improved too, but Krzyzewski’s teams would beat the Terps over and over, in horrible and humiliating and sometimes overtly rigged ways. Almost none of the specifics return to mind, except Maryland’s point guard, Steve Blake, fouling out on a phantom call while playing against—and dominating—Duke’s Jason Williams, leaving the Terps without a ballhandler as Williams and the Blue Devils rallied in the final minute.

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The item on the balance sheet that really endures, though, is the play in a later matchup between the two: when Williams turned his full attention to the sideline, to dutifully receive his coach’s instructions about what to do on the final possession of the first half, and Blake simply pounced on Williams’ dribble, swiped the ball, and beat Duke downcourt for a layup in the final second. It was a perfect little parable; Maryland went on to win the national championship.

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Maryland has never won another one. College conferences mutated and spread; the ACC became some sprawling thing with Notre Dame, Boston College, and Syracuse in it—Louisville, even—and Maryland, in the doomed pursuit of football success nobody wanted, joined the now-14-member conference still called the Big 10. I stopped caring about the basketball team, off playing against Iowa or Rutgers or Nebraska. There was nothing really left to love.

But there was still Krzyzewski to loathe. If Duke’s turn toward one-and-done NBA-level talent made his teams less annoying to watch, his seething smugness as he climbed all alone to the top of the coaching records only grew more unbearable—and along with that, each new loss became a more palpable insult to his legend. The one thing he could never be was invulnerable, and that fact made every wound a mortal wound.

Yes, the bad guys won, and kept on winning, more than anyone else had ever won; nevertheless, the bad guys also sometimes didn’t win. When Mike Krzyzewski did lose—when the TV screen filled up with his face, clenched in outrage that someone had come out ahead of him in a fair and competitive sporting event—it was possible to believe there was still such a thing as justice.

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