An epic ending for Mike Krzyzewski, The Man in the Ring

NEW ORLEANS – Mike Krzyzewski sat in the back seat of a golf cart next to his 53-year-old bride, Mickey, the flight attendant he had married on his graduation from West Point. Encountering some reporters documenting the moment, he decided to have some fun with the bitter end of his incomparable career.

“Maybe you can install a sunset,” he said.

He exited the Superdome tunnel with a smile on his face, and a smile on Mickey’s face, after North Carolina shut down his bid for a sixth national title just as it shut down his bid for a proper farewell at his last game at Duke. Krzyzewski saw his players crying in the locker room on Saturday night and actually described it as a “beautiful sight”.

Nice because those tears proved how caring his kids are and how tough the competition can be.

These impossibly little blue demons gave him an expensive gift. They came together just in time, delivered those amazing five minutes into the game against Michigan State in their second game of the NCAA Tournament, and sent Coach K on this wild ride. He wouldn’t have broken John Wooden’s record of 10 national titles of course, but those kids pushed him to overtake Wooden on that 13th trip to the Final Four, and Krzyzewski couldn’t repay them in full for it.

When this is over 81-77 victory for North Carolina Frozen in lights forever, I asked the 75-year-old grandfather out of 10 if the Michigan State Rally that started it all would be his lasting memory of the championship after the pain subsided. Eventually he started talking like a veteran.

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Mike Krzyzewski leaves a press conference with his wife Mickey after the Duke lost 81-77 at the Final Four to North Carolina.  Coach K joked to reporters
Mike Krzyzewski leaves a press conference with his wife Mickey after the Duke lost 81-77 at the Final Four to North Carolina. “Maybe you can install a sunset,” Coach K joked to reporters.

“I was lucky to be in the arena,” Krzyzewski said. “And when you’re in the arena, you’ll either walk out feeling great or you’ll feel tormented. But you’ll always feel good about being in the arena. And I’m sure that’s the thing I’m going to miss when I look back….But damn, I’ve been in the ring for a while. Long. And these kids made their last time in the arena great.”

Amen to that.

Krzyzewski watched Duke’s final useless possession from his high-court chair, arms crossed on his chest. With the final seconds out of the clock, he got up and walked earnestly toward Carolina’s seat to congratulate the winners who had kindly greeted him. The Tar Heels from Hubert Davis managed to celebrate in the stadium as if it was New Year’s Eve. Oh man, did you get that right?

And yes, it was a proper last-ditch measure for Coach K, given that he effectively kicked off Duke’s career by picking a fight against North Carolina State. In his third game as the Blue Devils coach, with the Tar Heels secured, Dean Smith made the mistake of walking toward Duke’s seat for a handshake while two meaningless free throws were still required.
Coach K refused to shake hands. “The damned game is not over yet, Dean,” he exclaimed. On the Carolina bench, assistant Roy Williams initially thought that an ACC rookie shouldn’t deal with a legend like this before he focused on further review. “This is a competitive guy,” Williams said of Krzyzewski at the time. “He has a right to his own standards. And he was right, the game is not over.”

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All games are now over for Coach K, as Duke’s 42-year career was closed for good at the Superdome, which opened in the same year (1975) that Krzyzewski began his Army career. On occasion, Coach K jumped out of his chair Saturday night, pumped his fists, and prodded his team angrily, to no avail. Mark Williams missed two crucial free throws of late, followed by a Caleb Love 3 pointer who was the stiletto. In a competition defined by hate, love was the difference, as he finished with 28 points.

Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Krzyzewski
Getty Images

Now the Blue Devils have to deal with the consequences of losing one of the biggest games in sports history to their neighbours. Honestly, Krzyzewski and his legacy will be fine. His five national titles equal the combined total won by Roy Williams (3) and Smith (2). He also retired with a personal winning record against the Tar Heels at 50-48, and with a winning total of 1,202—including 101 in the NCAA Championship—no man will ever match.

But he will not return to the arena, and this will hurt more than anything else. Krzyzewski ran his first basketball program at the age of 12, when his Chicago elementary school, St. Helens, refused to give him the team he wanted to join in the CYO League. Instead, Young Mike organized a team that accommodated all comers in the other neighborhoods. “None of the parents were involved,” he said. His win rate was better than most.

Sixty-three years later, it’s all over. No more spirited conversations to offer. No more playing to connect. No more games to win.

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No more teams to drive.

His career began seven months after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and ended five weeks after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. It began in an old, dusty house near the river at West Point and ended in the Superdome in New Orleans. What an incredible journey.

Greatest to have ever done, Krzyzewski has definitely adored his last group of guys. “It was a pleasure to train,” he said.

Late on Saturday night, Coach K knew it was time to say goodbye. He loaded himself onto that golf cart, and slowly disappeared into a tunnel. All the good West Point guys know how it goes.

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