I was 9 years old in 1992 when Christian Laettner hit his turnaround shot against Kentucky. Duke was already my favorite team, because Duke was the only team with Bobby Hurley. At that time, I was a year or so away from the hard realization that I would never play professional sports. I could still see my future in a tough, scrappy guard like Hurley.
Watching at my dad’s house on a Saturday, I remember the panic when Kentucky took the lead on Sean Woods’ runner in the lane. And then the elation when Laettner, who hadn’t missed a single shot all game, caught the ball, pounded it into the floor as he faked right, and spun left to hit the most famous shot in college basketball history.
My dad wasn’t around, so I had my stepmother take me to the elementary school gym. I don’t know why I asked her, and I don’t know why she agreed. But for an hour, I stood with my back to the foul line while she threw me overhand passes. Catch, fake, spin, shoot. Thinking back, it’s one of the few good memories we ever shared.
At the end of the pregame show Tuesday night, Hubert Davis picked Duke to beat Michigan State. Digger Phelps gave him a cheeky look while he spoke, telegraphing that he was going to take the Spartans. What Phelps forgot is that Duke rarely loses these high-profile early games. Coach K, who was attempting to earn a record-setting 903rd win, is a master of November discipline. At Duke, he’s 110-10 in the month, and has won 30 straight dating back to 2006. His teams seem to function at their most efficient level earlier than everybody else. This is useful for win totals and rankings, and for cohesion heading into the ACC schedule. This year, he had the added benefit of taking his team on a trip through China and Dubai, allowing a young team those extra competitive minutes to perfect the system. The fast start matters less in February and March, when other teams have had time to discover their identities and catch up, but in November it can be a huge edge.
Tuesday night was as much about Bobby Knight as it was about Coach K. In the week leading up to the game, the two friends expressed their admiration for each other in interview after interview, and Coach K repeatedly mentioned how special it was that he was passing the man he had played for in college. (Krzyzewski played under Knight at Army, and later joined his Indiana staff as a graduate assistant.)
But the truth is a bit more complicated. Anyone who has read John Feinstein’s excellent Season on the Brink, or followed the sport even from a casual distance, knows that along with Knight’s incredible drive and intelligence comes a darker side. He can be an egotistical, stubborn bully when things go wrong. And in the 1992 Final Four, just days after Laettner’s heroics against Kentucky, Knight’s worst qualities emerged. His famous blow-by handshake after Duke beat Indiana — when he barely looked at his former pupil — was the start of a serious rift that lasted a decade. Krzyzewski attempted to repair the relationship several times, but wouldn’t be successful until 2001, when Knight agreed to give the introduction speech at Krzyzewski’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The two have been on better terms since.
That aspect of the relationship wasn’t mentioned in Tuesday night’s broadcast, but Bob Knight’s presence as an announcer, along with Jay Bilas and Dan Shulman, ensured his perspective would be heard. For the most part, things went according to script. If you were listening for evidence that Knight wasn’t thrilled with his impending second-place status, you could hear it in select quotes. “I didn’t think Mike would do it in a period of four years,” he said in the second half, referring to the short time it took Krzyzewski to reach 903 after Knight’s resignation from Texas Tech. Moments later, when asked to give one piece of advice to Coach K, Knight said, “Keep it going. Keep it going as long as you can.” You got the sense that he wouldn’t have minded holding the record a while longer. And maybe there was fatigue in his voice, a noticeable lack of vigor, that hinted at the toll the long buildup to Tuesday had taken on the 71-year-old.
But otherwise, Knight praised Krzyzewski from the moment his former point guard entered the court at Madison Square Garden. Coach K looked nervous, his face drawn and rigid. Like many athletes on the verge of milestones, it wasn’t hard to believe that he was looking forward to the end. The chase for a record, with the stress and the obligations, is never as fun as actually holding the record. Tuesday night was a culmination, but it would also bring welcome relief.
Before the game, a video montage featured several coaches answering the question, “What makes a champion?” Coach K’s line was, “Is it simply winning it all?” He has a strange habit of pronouncing the “g” at the end of a gerund as a separate syllable, as though emphasizing the fact that it’s a sovereign letter. His speech is very precise, a bit nasal, and clipped. You get the feeling he only speaks the way he did as a Polish kid in Chicago when he’s angry. But anger isn’t a foreign emotion; he’s fond of saying that it’s been a motivating tool for him, and he considers it a useful catalyst for changing bad situations. The classic example came after an embarrassing blowout loss to Ralph Sampson and Virginia in the 1983 ACC tournament — a loss that would lead a group of boosters to try to have him fired. At the dinner afterward, a member of the Duke staff raised a glass and said, “Here’s to forgetting tonight.” “No,” Coach K said, “here’s to never forgetting tonight.”
Seven o’clock approached, and the players prepared for tip-off. Coach K swallowed tightly during the national anthem and put his hand over his heart. After the introductions, he sat on the bench. His eyebrows slanted inward in a trademark expression, making him look like a caricature of an evil genius, a mastermind scheming between the loyal, credulous faces of his assistants, Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski. His wife of more than 40 years, Mickie, was in the stands behind the bench, wearing Duke blue.
During the Spartans introductions, the camera found Michigan State coach Tom Izzo in total darkness, which seemed appropriate considering the circumstances. But his team had no plans to play second fiddle at a coronation. Brandon Wood opened the scoring with a jumper, and it occurred to me that the timing of the whole event was very tenuous. Duke scheduled two games prior to Michigan State to give Coach K a chance to break the record at MSG, in front of Bobby Knight and a national audience. One of the games, though, happened to be against a very tough Belmont team. Duke needed an Andre Dawkins 3 in the final minute to secure victory and preserve a two-year home winning streak. If they’d lost to Belmont, or Michigan State, the record would have to be set in less celebratory fashion on a Friday night in Durham against Davidson.
The mercurial Dawkins was Duke’s best player again, hitting four 3-pointers in the first half to keep his team even. Austin Rivers, the highly touted freshman, was out of sorts all game, unsure what to do after driving past his defender with a lightning-fast first step. As the defense collapsed, he mostly careened into stationary defenders or watched his shots get blocked from the help side. If the difference between Rivers and last year’s freshman phenom, Kyrie Irving, wasn’t already apparent, it is now. Whereas Irving was Duke’s best player and a perfect fit from day one, it’s obvious that Rivers’ talent will have to be honed and harnessed throughout the season.
Michigan State, a team that lacks a true dynamic scoring threat, played intelligent basketball in the opening half. Adreian Payne and Draymond Green dominated the paint, muscling the ineffective Plumlees underneath the basket and grabbing rebound after rebound. Green, in particular, showed his veteran smarts as he maneuvered against the Devils. On an early Duke offensive possession, Miles Plumlee prepared to set a baseline pick for a teammate. Green, guarding him, saw it happening early and waved Brandon Dawson over the top of the impending screen. He then stood to the top side of Plumlee so the Duke senior couldn’t move up to obstruct Dawson’s path. Effectively, he was setting a screen to prevent a screen. As Dawson slipped by untouched, Green rolled back between Plumlee and the basket, inviting the entry pass. What could have been an open baseline 3, Duke’s bread and butter, was now a potential feed to the post. When it came, he and Dawson swarmed the awkward senior, forcing a turnover almost immediately.
The Plumlees are veterans too, but these kinds of subtleties are completely lost on them. Over the course of their time at Duke, Miles and Mason have demonstrated almost no court sense. Each year, articles are written predicting a breakout season for one or the other. And each year, the expected improvement never materializes. The silly fouls, the late rotations, the lack of real post moves, and a thousand other shortcomings have dogged their entire careers at Duke, and each was on display Tuesday. By the end of the game, they would combine for 8 points, 4 turnovers, 9 rebounds, and one technical foul apiece. And the old cliché about plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet holds true for the Plumlees in the negative. In one first-half sequence, Seth Curry retrieved a loose ball and threw it off a Michigan State player as he was falling out of bounds. The ball stayed in play, and Mason rushed over. He reached the ball in plenty of time, but instead of picking it up, he mysteriously put both hands in the air and shuffled along as he watched it roll out of bounds.
The lack of a reliable post presence will surely cost Duke multiple victories this season, but it wasn’t their Achilles heel against Michigan State. After a big three by Curry, the point guard with limpid eyes who looks like nothing will ever bother him, Duke went into the half with a one-point lead. In the second frame, the Duke legends who had congregated at MSG — Shane Battier, Grant Hill, Carlos Boozer, and Chris Duhon, among others — watched as their alma mater went on a 28-8 run. Dawkins was the spark plug, hitting two more threes, and Ryan Kelly made his presence known with nine points. The pressure man-to-man defense that has been the hallmark of Krzyzewski’s time at Duke, full of switches and jumps, began to wear the Spartans down. The Devils also benefited from several missed interior shots by Derrick Nix after the Plumlees had lost position. Nix would take out his frustration by separately kneeing and elbowing Dawkins.
Things began to turn back in Michigan State’s direction over the last seven minutes, when Duke transitioned to a stall offense. As it has in the past, the cautious approach led to several easy baskets for the Spartans, and with two minutes left they brought the lead to single digits. Keith Appling made it even closer a minute later with a 3-pointer, after which he drew close to Curry and barked in his face. Curry, true to character, rolled his eyes and turned away. Michigan State scored twice more to cut the lead to five, and then Mason Plumlee put the cap on one of his worst performances in a Duke uniform by running up and down the baseline with the ball, unable or unwilling to throw it in, gifting the Spartans a last crucial turnover. But Green missed his three, Curry tore down the court with the ball, and Coach K secured victory for the 903rd time in his career.
His first move, after shaking hands with Izzo and the Spartan players, was to approach the scorer’s table. He reached across and embraced Knight, and the two held each other’s heads together. It was a poignant moment; two great men, one slightly greater than the other, flawed for different reasons. In his interview, Coach K was asked what it meant to have Knight at the Garden. “The basketball gods are good,” he said. He was at a loss to explain his success. “It’s astounding that we’ve won this much,” he continued, “I wish my mom and dad were here.” As he was presented the game ball, he began to cry. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m going to go say hello to my family.”
The shot against Kentucky was the defining sports moment of my childhood. In 1992, as I waited at the foul line of the elementary school gym in my starring role as Christian Laettner, I longed for the rush I’d felt hours earlier. Pass after pass came from my stepmother — a very brief bond created between two people who could never trust each other — and I thought about Duke. I thought that the team must be special; that the kind of magic I’d witnessed could only happen to great people. Time has erased most of that naïveté, but in the case of Mike Krzyzewski, I still think I was right.
Previously by Shane Ryan:
About Last Night: Vacation Season
The 2011-12 College Football All-Name Team, Part II
College Football Recap: The 8 Best Finishes of Week 11
The Return of the Most Depressed Fan Bases
Week 11 College Football Preview: BCS Countdown
Fantasy Fantasy Football: The Experts’ Week 9 Picks
Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.
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