Commentary

The numbers don't define Coach K

It was all about No. 903 on this night, but Mike Krzyzewski's career is so much more

Originally Published: November 15, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- She wasn't allowed on the team bus. Back then, Army's game-day transportation was considered government-issue military transport, designed for cadets only.

So Mickie Krzyzewski, only a handful of years into her marriage, would pile her two daughters (the youngest, Jamie, would be born later) into the Toyota station wagon and follow her husband and his team to games.

Forty-two years of marriage later, the transportation has improved slightly, the stage has grown exponentially and the guy with the one-letter last name has become Norm -- everyone knows his name.

[+] EnlargeCoach K and wife
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesAfter Tuesday's win, Mike Krzyzewski celebrated with his wife of 42 years, Mickie.

And there on Tuesday night sat Mickie Krzyzewski, trying to figure out how they got there.

"He always thought he would be a coach, but I don't think he knew what that meant,'' she said. "It didn't mean all of this.''

All this would be a scene befitting college basketball's royalty, which is what Mike Krzyzewski officially is.

Duke's 74-69 win against Michigan State was Krzyzewski's 903rd career win, making him the all-time winningest coach in Division I men's college basketball history.

Swarmed by a paparazzi crew usually reserved for Beyonce in this town, Krzyzewski crossed the court as the buzzer sounded, making his way to the television table to embrace ESPN analyst Bob Knight, his college coach, his mentor and the man whose record he had broken.

Knight grabbed a teary-eyed Krzyzewski by the scruff of the neck and whispered into his ear while the crowd and media surrounded them.

Later, Krzyzewski said he told Knight that he loved him, to which Knight replied, "Boy, you've done pretty good for a kid who couldn't shoot."

"I think that means he loves me,'' Krzyzewski quipped.

That Knight was here was just one of the fortuitous moments to make a meaningful evening even more poignant.

The misfortune of the NBA lockout allowed Duke's former players to flood a makeshift reception in the bowels of Madison Square Garden. Bobby Hurley, Carlos Boozer, Grant Hill and Shane Battier were just a few of the Blue Devils alums to gather and embrace their former coach.

The game also was played at the Garden, the game's grandest court and a building a mere 55 miles from the U.S. Military Academy, where a cadet -- just three hours after graduating -- took a bride and began a life he couldn't dream of.

"It's all so weird -- weird because this was never a goal,'' Mickie Krzyzewski said. "We got this, 903 or whatever you want to call it, while we were pursuing other goals. When we got started, we had no clue what we were doing.''

Sports fans like numbers. We are, at some level, slaves to them.

Statistics tell us who won, who is better and who is best.

Yet a man whose entire adult life has been defined by numbers has, like his wife, trouble making sense of 903.

[+] EnlargeCoach K, Bobby Knight
AP Photo/Kathy WillensIt was only fitting that Krzyzewski would break his mentor's record with Bob Knight calling the game courtside at Madison Square Garden.

"I don't know what it means yet,'' Mike Krzyzewski said honestly. "I coach every game the same way. Maybe when it's all over, I'll be able to comprehend it all.''

Certainly it means he is unrivaled in his success.

In 35 years as a head coach, Krzyzewski has had just four losing seasons and none since 1983, a run of almost incomprehensible success.

He's won four national titles and made 11 Final Fours, driven by the opposite of what most people would expect.

"I'm more into not losing than winning,'' he said.

Four and 11.

Again, those are only numbers. Success in the modern sports era doesn't come easily. There are too many obstacles and challenges, and the chronic evolution of the game can leave the less innovative far behind.

Yet Krzyzewski has won pre- and post-3-pointer, before the one-and-done and after.

"It's more than numbers; it's leadership,'' said his assistant coach and former player Jeff Capel. "He's been given this amazing opportunity to lead young people, and he's run with it. When you're around Coach, you learn basketball, but you learn about life.''

The message Krzyzewski tried to deliver this week was to ignore the noise. It was "business as usual,'' Capel said. Krzyzewski used what his assistant called "incredible tunnel vision" to concentrate solely on Michigan State.

He told his players to do the same. Except that's an easy message for a 64-year-old to digest and an entirely different one for teenagers and guys in their early 20s.

Duke looked tight early against Michigan State, perhaps too aware of the moment.

"Coach told us it was just a normal game, but you know it's hard not to think about it. You want to be part of the team that does it,'' guard Andre Dawkins said. "Then last night, coach Knight came to the hotel to talk to us. He said if we didn't win, he was going to run practice for the next two days, so that's why I decided to go out and score some points.''

Dawkins fortunately scored more than a few. He dropped 26 on the Spartans, including an unconscious 6-of-10 from the arc. Coupled with 20 from Seth Curry, it was more than enough for the Blue Devils to get the win and put the milestone in the books.

[+] EnlargeCoach K
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireIn his record climb, Coach K wasn't able to escape talk of that one big number in the record book.

Or perhaps more accurately, get the albatross out of the way.

Once No. 903 was secured, Krzyzewski admitted the week hadn't necessarily been a lot of fun. There was too much concentration on him and too little focus on his team.

"I'm tired of talking about me,'' he said. "I look in the mirror and I don't see Brad Pitt. I'm more of a realist. I know I'm a good coach, but I also know I've had really good guys and we fight like hell to win.''

Mostly there has been too much trying to define a man's accomplishments by a number.

Or at least the wrong number.

"There are numbers that evoke such emotion and meaning, but for us 903 isn't one of them,'' Mickie Krzyzewski said.

Three, she pointed out, that's a big one. The Krzyzewskis have three daughters.

Or seven. There are seven grandchildren now.

Then there's 11. That was the number Bobby Hurley wore, Mickie remembered, and 33 belonged to Grant Hill.

"But 903? What does it mean?'' she said. "It doesn't really mean anything.''

Except that when Mike Krzyzewski went into the crowd to hug his family -- his older brother, Bill, a fireman plagued by bad knees and a bad back, his girls, sons-in-law, grandchildren and wife -- Mickie was holding a sign.

"903 [and] Kounting,'' it read.

The Toyota station wagon is long gone.

The road continues.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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