Epic ending for Mike Krzyzewski, the man in the arena

Epic ending for Mike Krzyzewski, the man in the arena

NEW ORLEANS — Mike Krzyzewski took his seat in the back of a golf cart next to his bride of 53 years, Mickie, the flight attendant he married the day he graduated from West Point. He faced some reporters who were documenting the moment, and decided to have some fun with the bitter end of his incomparable career.

“Maybe you can superimpose a sunset,” he said.

And off he went down a Superdome tunnel with a smile on his face, and with a smile on Mickie’s, after North Carolina shut down his bid for a sixth national title just as it had shut down his bid for a proper farewell in his last home game at Duke. Krzyzewski saw his players cry in the locker room Saturday night and actually called it “a beautiful sight.”

Beautiful because those tears proved how much his kids cared, and how hard they had competed.

These impossibly young Blue Devils gave him a precious going-away gift. They came together in the nick of time, delivered those remarkable five endgame minutes against Michigan State in their second NCAA Tournament game, and sent Coach K on this wild ride. He was never going to break John Wooden’s record of 10 national titles, of course, but these kids pushed him past Wooden with that 13th trip to the Final Four, and Krzyzewski could never fully repay them for that.

When it was over and this 81-77 North Carolina victory was frozen in forever’s lights, I asked the 75-year-old grandfather of 10 if that Michigan State rally that started it all would be his enduring tournament memory after the pain subsidies. Eventually he started talking like old warriors talk.

Mike Krzyzewski leaves a news conference with his wife Mickie after Duke's 81-77 Final Four loss to North Carolina.  “Maybe you can superimpose a sunset,” Coach K jokingly said to reporters.
Mike Krzyzewski leaves a news conference with his wife Mickie after Duke’s 81-77 Final Four loss to North Carolina. “Maybe you can superimpose a sunset,” Coach K jokingly said to reporters.

“I’ve been hurt to be in the arena,” Krzyzewski said. “And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony. But you always will feel great about being in the arena. And I’m sure that’s the thing when I’ll look back that I’ll miss. … But damn, I was in the arena for a long time. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”

Amen to that.

Krzyzewski watched Duke’s final futile possession from his chair on the elevated court, with his arms crossed against his chest. As the last seconds bled from the clock, he rose and walked solemnly toward the Carolina bench to congratulate the winners, who greeted him graciously. Hubert Davis’s Tar Heels did manage to party on the court like it was New Year’s Eve. Man, did they ever earn the right.

And yes, this was a fitting final act for Coach K, given that he’d effectively started his Duke career by picking a fight against North Carolina. In his third game as Blue Devils coach, with a Tar Heels victory secured, Dean Smith made the mistake of walking toward the Duke bench for a handshake while two meaningless free throws still needed to be shot.
Coach K rejected the handshake. “The damn game isn’t over yet, Dean,” he barked. On the Carolina bench, assistant Roy Williams initially thought an ACC rookie shouldn’t treat a legend like that before he pivoted on further review. “This is a competitive guy,” Williams said of Krzyzewski back then. “He has the right to his own standards. And he was right, the game wasn’t over.”

All the games are over now for Coach K, his 42-year run at Duke closed down for good in the Superdome, which opened the same year (1975) that Krzyzewski started his career at Army. At times Saturday night Coach K jumped out of his chair and pumped his fists and urged his team with a fury, to no avail. Mark Williams missed two crucial free throws late, followed by a Caleb Love 3-pointer that was the dagger. In a rivalry defined by hate, Love was the difference, finishing with 28 points.

Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Krzyzewski
Getty Images

Now the Blue Devils have to deal with those consequences of losing one of the biggest games in the sport’s history to their neighbors. Frankly, Krzyzewski and his legacy will be just fine. His five national titles equal the combined total won by Roy Williams (3) and Smith (2). He also retired with a personal winning record against the Tar Heels at 50-48, and with a victory total of 1,202 — including 101 in the NCAA Tournament — that no man will ever match.

But he won’t be returning to the arena, and that will hurt more than anything. Krzyzewski ran his first basketball program at age 12, when his Chicago elementary school, St. Helen, refused to give him the team he wanted to enter in a CYO league. Young Mike instead organized a team that took on all comers in other neighborhoods. “No parents involved,” he said. His winning percentage was better than most.

Sixty-three years later, it’s all over. No more pep talks to give. No more plays to call. No more games to win.

No more teams to lead.

His career started seven months after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and ended five weeks after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. It started in an old, dusty fieldhouse near the river at West Point and ended in the Superdome in New Orleans. What an incredible journey it was.

The greatest to ever do it, Krzyzewski sure adored his last group of players. “They’ve been a joy for me to coach,” he said.

Late Saturday night, Coach K knew when it was time to say goodbye. He loaded himself onto that golf cart, and slowly disappeared down a tunnel. All good West Point men know how it goes.


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