Mike Krzyzewski’s hardscrabble upbringing fueled his legacy

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The first time I sat directly behind the Duke bench, I could not believe what I heard. Mike Krzyzewski was already an all-time great college basketball coach, but I had no idea he was a world-class curser too. Even a drunken sailor would have insisted that he be ejected from the game.

Coach K’s profanity knew no bounds. Refs, players, assistants, you name it — nobody was spared. I remember thinking to myself, “There are a lot of grandmothers across America who adore this guy who would be mortified if they sat within 15 rows of him.”

Not that I really cared, beyond my curiosity over the source of his rage. Krzyzewski might be held up as a saintly figure in the corrupt enterprise that is major college sports, but at his core, he is a low-income street kid from Chicago, the son of a cleaning lady who owned just two perfectly pressed dresses and an elevator operator who was too busy working to get to know his two boys.

But that elevator operator, William, was only working himself to the bone so his sons, Big Bill and Mike, could do something he could not — carry the name Krzyzewski proudly. The son of Polish immigrants, William changed his name to Kross to avoid discrimination. William and his wife Emily did not want their boys taking Polish as part of their Catholic school education, or really having any conspicuous connection to the homeland. The parents were afraid that if their sons spoke with accents, they would be denied employment opportunities, and a chance to someday live among the wealthy class that William and Emily labored for.

So you want to know why Krzyzewski spent 47 years as a head coach, the last 42 of them at Duke, hard-driving his players (and himself) on every single practice and game possession of every single day while collecting his staggering record of 1,170 Division I victories before choosing to end his career after next season?

Start with that Polish neighborhood in Chicago, and the Krzyzewski two-flat on West Cortez. Mike’s friends called him Mickey. They called their neighborhood gang the Columbos, after the local Columbus elementary school, though they were a gang in name only. Whenever Mickey wasn’t playing sports with the Columbos, he would be out on the schoolyard courts, all alone, day and night, rain or snow or shine, shooting baskets and whispering to himself that the game would someday take him to an unimagined place.

He played basketball for Bob Knight at West Point. He learned what to do as a coach from Knight and, more importantly, what not to do. Krzyzewski survived the lean years at Duke in the early 1980s, when boosters called for his head, and soon enough he starting making the Final Four an annual trip, as if it were just part of the Blue Devils’ schedule.

In 2011, Krzyzewski broke Knight’s all-time victories record by beating Michigan State in Madison Square Garden, where Knight was doing the commentary for ESPN while wearing a green sweater — Michigan State colors. Their relationship had been effectively shot to hell at that point, mostly because Knight couldn’t deal with a former protégé surpassing him. They hugged after the game, and Knight told him, not for the first time, “Boy, you’ve done pretty good for a kid who couldn’t shoot.”

Krzyzewski told people later that he always hated it when Knight said that.

Coach K became the first man to win 1,000 games. He broke the late Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt’s all-gender Division I record, too. When he realized there were no more records to break, Krzyzewski started talking to his family about retirement a month or so ago. Not everyone was in favor of a farewell tour, but Coach K decided he couldn’t recruit the next class in good faith while knowing he was a goner.

The pandemic, and this last unholy mess of a season, took a toll on Krzyzewski, and reminded him that he’ll turn 75 in February. It was time to let go, and turn over the program to his longtime assistant and 2010 national championship player, Jon Scheyer. It was also time to assess Coach K’s legacy, and identify what, exactly, separated him from everyone else.

“It was his ability to adapt,” said his son-in-law, Chris Spatola, a former Duke assistant and current ESPN analyst. “He kept reinventing himself over decades and decades.” Spatola pointed out that his father-in-law and former boss won national titles with traditional upperclassmen-loaded teams and with one-and-done wonders, and also won three Olympic gold medals with NBA megastars.

Krzyzewski doesn’t have the energy to reinvent himself one more time.

In the end, this Blue Devil was never a saint. It wasn’t the constant cursing — his players’ parents got used to that. But Krzyzewski always had a hard time accepting criticism, and apologizing when he was wrong. He has gone too far at times in berating his players behind the scenes, yet he always stopped short of that Bob Knight line.

Where did his relentless drive and rage originate? From that Chicago childhood and the examples set by his parents, two laborers who taught Mike Krzyzewski that he had no choice but to fight for his place in this world.

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