It was one of many beginnings of what will be one very final end. Mike Krzyzewski took a seat, wearing a blue Emily K Center track jacket, and began his final preseason briefing, a relatively routine event suddenly imbued with unexpected substance.
Each of these is the last for Krzyzewski, these things he’s done so many times before they become almost rote. It’s going to be a long season of them, one after another.
The last first practice. The last Countdown to Craziness. The last trip to Madison Square Garden. The last game at nine ACC arenas, all but two of which didn’t even exist when Krzyzewski first came to Duke. The last game at Cameron. The last ACC tournament … in Brooklyn, of all places. The last NCAA tournament, presumably.
Mixed in there, at some indefinite point, the milestones that matter to a coach and a grandfather: The last practice plan of thousands committed to paper, the last practice with his grandson.
The weight of history, personal and otherwise, already sits heavy and will only get heavier. Heavy enough that it’s something Krzyzewski is actively fighting against, parrying away any attempts at nostalgia or sentiment, giving himself the same command he gives his players: live in the moment.
“I’ve told my staff and everyone around me not to use ‘the last,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “This is my 47th year, my 42nd year at Duke, and I’m going after it the way I’ve gone after every year. As soon as you start saying ‘savor,’ ‘let’s remember this thing,’ whatever, you open up the door for rationalization of not putting it all out there, that it might be OK not to do it to this level. I know that can take place. We’re not having any of it. I’ll savor in May or whatever, after that.”
For more than four decades — with one interruption — his basketball calendar has proceeded apace, the persistent rhythm of a life spent in coaching from event to event, milestone to milestone, with no end in sight. But the end is most certainly in sight now, getting closer every day.
Tuesday, it was only a few feet away. To Krzyzewski’s right, a table sat ready for Jon Scheyer, the anointed successor. There were already four television microphones propped up there while Krzyzewski was talking, waiting for the coach in waiting.
So it’s a challenge that has to be acknowledged and confronted. It would be easy for the entire season to be played under a sepia-toned haze, a farewell tour for the sake of a farewell tour. This team has too much talent for that; whether it was intentional or not, Krzyzewski chose to make his exit with a roster capable of just about anything. A team, as he said, capable of making a mark “before we leave, in this decade.”
By the same token, while it seems like a long season stretching out ahead, with high expectations colliding with what could be a near-endless string of new distractions, it’s going to pass quickly, more quickly than seems possible at the end of September. It always does.
“As we go through this year, I’m trying to enjoy every single practice, every little moment with coach,” newly promoted assistant coach Nolan Smith said. “I’m going to enjoy this year. But we’re not going to make this year all about that.”
Krzyzewski has already made his final recruiting trip, handing the keys over to Scheyer and his staff, a 74-year-old man who decided he’d rather not put in the thousands upon thousands of miles anymore. Krzyzewski joked that his wife Mickie asked him why he didn’t get off the road 10 years ago.
So Tuesday was not even the first of the lasts, and they will proceed unrelentingly now over the next seven months and change. And just as unrelentingly, Krzyzewski will insist they neither exist nor matter, no matter how many times he is asked. And he will be asked many, many times.
“Just — I’m not doing to do that,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m 74, I’m going to live every moment I have. I don’t have a bad wish for myself or anything. But that’s how we’ve been successful, doing it that way.”
But even Krzyzewski can’t avoid it entirely in his rage against the dying of the light. He auctioned off four tickets to the final game at Cameron against North Carolina to raise money for the V Foundation. They brought in a cool million.
“I do think that will be a tough ticket,” he quipped, knowing the last of the lasts is out there somewhere, the moment when there will be no basketball moment left to live in.