Epic end for Mike Krzyzewski, the man of the arena

NEW ORLEANS – Mike Krzyzewski rode in the back of a golf cart next to his 53-year-old wife, Mickie, the flight attendant he married the day he graduated of West Point. He faced reporters documenting the moment and decided to have fun with the bitter end to his incomparable career.

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

And he descended into a Superdome tunnel with a smile on his face, and with a smile on Mickie, after North Carolina ended its bid for a sixth national title just as it ended its bid for a fitting farewell in his final home. game at Duke. Krzyzewski saw his players crying in the locker room on Saturday night and called it a “beautiful sight”.

Beautiful because those tears proved how much his kids cared about him and how well they competed.

These incredibly young blue devils gave him a valuable parting gift. They came together in no time, delivered that remarkable five-minute endgame against Michigan State in their second game of the NCAA Tournament, and sent Coach K on that wild ride. He was never going to break John Wooden’s record 10 national titles, of course, but those kids pushed him past Wooden with that 13th trip to the Final Four, and Krzyzewski could never fully repay them for it.

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

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

“I was lucky to be in the arena,” Krzyzewski said. “And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to feel good or you’re going to feel the agony. But you’re still going to feel good being in the arena. And I’m sure that’s the thing when I’ll look back who I miss…. But damn, I was in the arena a long time. And those kids made my last time in the arena an amazing experience.

Amen to that.

Krzyzewski watched Duke’s last futile possession from his chair on the high court, arms folded across his chest. As the last seconds bleed from the clock, he stood and walked solemnly to the Carolina bench to congratulate the victors, who saluted him graciously. Hubert Davis’ Tar Heels managed to party on the court like it was New Year’s Eve. Man, did they ever win the right.

And yes, it was a fitting final act for Coach K, considering he 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 assured, Dean Smith made the mistake of walking to the Duke bench for a handshake when two meaningless free throws were still to come. be drawn.
Coach K rejected the handshake. “This fucking game ain’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 looking into further consideration. “He’s a competitive guy,” Williams said of Krzyzewski at the time. “He has the right to have his own standards. And he was right, the game was not over.

All games are now over for Coach K, his 42-year run at Duke finally ended in the Superdome, which opened the same year (1975) that Krzyzewski began his career in the military. Sometimes on Saturday night, Coach K jumped out of his chair and raised his fists and furiously urged his team, to no avail. Mark Williams missed two crucial free throws late, followed by a 3-point Caleb Love who was the dagger. In a rivalry defined by hate, Love was the difference maker, finishing with 28 points.

Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Krzyzewski
Getty Images

Now the Blue Devils must deal with the consequences of losing one of the greatest games in sports history to their neighbors. Frankly, Krzyzewski and his legacy will be fine. His five national titles equal the combined total won by Roy Williams (3) and Smith (2). He also retires with a personal best win over the Tar Heels at 50-48, and with a win total of 1,202 – including 101 in the NCAA Tournament – ​​that no man will ever match.

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

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

More teams to lead.

Her career began seven months after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and ended five weeks after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. She started in a dusty old lot near the river at West Point and ended ended at the Superdome in New Orleans. What an incredible trip it was.

The greatest ever to do so, Krzyzewski loved his last group of players. “They have been a joy for me to coach,” he said.

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