Mike Krzyzewski celebrates with his players after Duke defeated St. John's for his 1,000th career win. (Photo courtesy of The Sporting News)
Even after reaching yet another height in his sport that no man before him had previously achieved, Mike Krzyzewski paused to soak it in.
"I'm not sure if I've ever been part of a game like that," the Hall of Fame coach reflected moments after his Duke team, the latest in a long line of memorable Krzyzewski-coached squads, wrapped up a 77-68 win over St. John's inside a sold-out Madison Square Garden to give the man known simply as "Coach K" his unprecedented 1,000th career win. "That's kind of nuts, huh?"
What is really "nuts," to anyone who knows college basketball and its rich history, is just how much Krzyzewski has meant to the fabric of the sport, how much one can simply listen to him speak and come away with an increased knowledge of not just the game of basketball, but one of life as well. Whether a Duke fan or not, everyone knows Coach K, and the majority have a respect for him that is as wide-ranging as career victory total that now encompasses four figures. The players may cause grief, the perceived favoritism among officials may be bewildering, but the one constant at the end of the day remains Krzyzewski, a beacon of doing it the right way more often than not.
So it was, then, that even after Duke built an 11-point lead in the first half, only for St. John's to respond with a run that put them up by 10 midway through the second half, that Krzyzewski; the relentless competitor and master tactician, won the game the right way, by outsmarting his counterpart. When the Blue Devils went to the 2-3 zone defense they stymied Louisville with eight days ago, St. John's had no answer. Steve Lavin's undisciplined team became helpless, and there was Duke to capitalize, closing the game on a 26-7 run to turn 19,812 in midtown Manhattan into Durham north, with Krzyzewski receiving big, well-deserved hugs from everyone on the bench in the final seconds.
But where some might expect Krzyzewski to bask in the moment, he instead heaped praise on Marshall Plumlee and Matt Jones, both of whom were instrumental in shoring up the Duke defense down the stretch. He went out of his way to complement St. John's, against whom he swore he may come up short for the majority of the day.
"I'm honored. Don't get me wrong," Coach K conceded when reflecting on the significance of what has come to be routine in his 40 years in the sport, first at West Point; where he played for Bob Knight, who he surpassed in the Garden ironically enough, to stand atop the mountain in 2011, and later, the last 35 years in Durham. "I like my place, Cameron, (Indoor Stadium) but this is a magical place, and we beat a really good team and a storied program."
Such magic was evident from the opening tip, when Duke and St. John's fans alike had their turns cheering the proceedings at hand. When Krzyzewski employed the zone defense, the fever pitch built. When Duke regained the lead on Quinn Cook's three-pointer with 5:41 to play, it reached a crescendo. Finally, as Tyus Jones, the forgotten freshman at times in a starting five featuring likely No. 1 NBA Draft pick Jahlil Okafor and fellow rookie sensation Justise Winslow, stepped beyond the arc and drilled a left corner trifecta, the roof was blown off the "Mecca" of college basketball. The buzz was contagious, and not lost on the unwilling center of attention, one who grew tired of the hoopla as this afternoon drew closer, deflecting the spotlight to his players and his deputies.
"I share today with all of my (former) players and assistants," Krzyzewski humbly stated. "My team is happy."
"Energy is not a matter of age," the coach; who turns 68 on February 13, continued. "It's a matter of commitment to your position, to what you do. As long as I do it, I'm going to bring energy, you know? And I want the people around me to give me energy, too."
On this night, Michael William Krzyzewski has enough energy to last a lifetime.
In fact, a thousand lifetimes, one for each of his victories that appears effortless, yet only reinforces the richness that this sport cultivates.