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Old School Ties

Lakers gave it a devil of an attempt, but they couldn't get Krzyzewski to break away from Duke

November 12, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — The Lakers called in June, but in October Mike Krzyzewski was back in Cameron Indoor Stadium, putting the Duke Blue Devils through basketball practice on a floor long since emblazoned with the words "Coach K Court."

In a nearby conference room, a young man painstakingly decorated plates for a heavy hitters' booster dinner, writing out some of Krzyzewski's motivational sayings in sauce around the plate rims.

Outside, signs on campus pointed to parking for the Coach K/Fuqua Conference on Leadership, a management seminar conducted by the school of business that included the announcement of a $2-million endowed chair in the coach's honor, the Michael W. Krzyzewski University Professorship in Leadership.

The Lakers offered Krzyzewski $40 million to become their coach.

These are the sorts of things they could not match.

Attached to Cameron Indoor Stadium is what amounts to Krzyzewski's ivory tower: The six-story Schwartz/Butters Athletic Center requires a fingerprint scan to open the elevator doors on the top floor, where the Hall of Fame coach's offices overlook the plaza known as Krzyzewskiville.

"The Laker thing -- it seems like eight years ago," Krzyzewski said.

"I'm happy to be coaching at Duke.... I didn't think I could appreciate it more, but I do, what I'm doing here and the people I'm doing it with."

Having his name on a court, his words on a plate and his fingerprint electronically memorized are not reasons to turn down a job.

But those things are symbolic of a status the 57-year-old Krzyzewski has at Duke that he could never have in the NBA: He is more than a coach, and he works for an institution that is known for more than a basketball team.

"How many basketball coaches in America are on faculty?" asked Duke President Richard Brodhead, referring to Krzyzewski's role as "executive-in-residence" for the Duke Center of Leadership and Ethics.

He added, "There is a way in which the real question is this: Do you want your work to be continuous with the larger work of human education and human development? Or do you want it to be something absolute, by itself?"

Shelden Williams, a bruising Duke forward, could never quite imagine Krzyzewski with the Lakers.

"Coach K wants his environment controlled," Williams said. "I'm a big Laker fan, but what happened there with Kobe and Shaq, it was silly. That's little-kid stuff. Basketball should be more professional."

Yet, in a way, the Laker overture made by General Manager Mitch Kupchak seemed to come at just the right time to lure Krzyzewski.

"It was, from the beginning, always a longshot as far as we were concerned," Kupchak said. "I thought it would be one of those calls where you bring it up and then within an hour you're on to the next person. Quite frankly, that was the way my conversation with Roy Williams went."

Krzyzewski, however, was listening.

Duke freshman Luol Deng had left for the NBA after one season. Shaun Livingston, now a Clipper, had decided not to go to college after originally signing with Duke.

"I thought the state of college basketball could weigh into his decision," Athletic Director Joe Alleva said. "One of the things he takes great pride in and loves in his job is his ability to mold a player, to mold a man. And if you only have them for one year or two years, it's hard to reap the benefits of that."

It was all becoming frustratingly fleeting.

"That was just my take, with the environment in college, the point in life, having been somewhere 25 years and knowing this may be one of your last chances to try something different," Kupchak said.

College basketball, Krzyzewski said, was losing its "brand," and he didn't believe various NCAA policies he saw as misguided were helping.

Duke also had a new president.

"It's no joke: To become known as the person who lost Coach K on your first day would be a dubious fame," Brodhead said.

So began what has become almost a ritual in North Carolina -- the all-consuming coach-watch.

The previous two involved Williams and rival North Carolina, and both were memorable for Williams' emotional angst. (He turned down his alma mater to remain at Kansas the first time, then took the job the second time.)

There is no indication Krzyzewski came close to picking up the phone to tell the Lakers yes.

"In my heart, I didn't think we'd lose him," Alleva said. "But the amount of money they were throwing around, he is a human being. You've got to think about it, because it was just an unbelievable amount of money. You could establish your family's future for a long time. That was the only thing that scared me."

News reports speculated that Krzyzewski and his family had gone to the Carolina coast to ponder the decision over the Fourth of July weekend.

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