U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2011 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE

FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
Coach K: A three-part profile of a college basketball icon
Dan Wiederer, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer

Part I: Family Guy

This look.

Where had they seen this before?

Their father in a moment of pure satisfaction his eyes closed, head tilted back, a one-sided grin stretching toward his right ear.

Debbie Savarino and Lindy Frasher fought hard to place it that look.

Just a few feet away, Mike Krzyzewski, their dad and beach bocce partner for the night, shook his head.

"There's no way," he said. "There's just no way."

As the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crawled up the Figure Eight Island shore, Krzyzewski was still trying to figure out how he had done it, how he could possibly be this damn clutch when his teammates needed him most.

His youngest daughter, Jamie Spatola, and two of his three sons-in-law stood nearby in their own state of amused disbelief, sudden losers because of Krzyzewski's miracle roll.

By all accounts, this was the exclamation point on a vacation week full of brilliant Krzyzewski tosses, shots so improbable they continually made the Duke basketball coach laugh out loud.

This final fling, with ideal loft and velocity and a physics-defying hop over another ball, secured game point. Championship point.

Krzyzewski shrugged, so incredibly thrilled with himself.

He tilted his head, shut his eyes and grinned.

There it was. That look.

Debbie and Lindy had it placed:

April 6, 2010. Just after midnight at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Their father was on a grand stage at the Final Four with his fourth national championship trophy and his body tingling with goose bumps.

Krzyzewski looked around that platform at his players this old school, buy-into-the-process-and-enjoy-the-ride team that probably had no business achieving this much and felt overcome with gratification.

He made eye contact with his daughters and shook his head, feeling undeserving of yet another moment so powerful. "No way," he mouthed to them. "No way." Now here again on the beach was that same look.

Well, almost the same look.

Unlike that genuine feeling of pride Krzyzewski exuded in Indianapolis, this look had all sorts of sarcasm and conceit attached. It was impossible to contain.

Krzyzewski suddenly felt like Kobe Bryant, so focused and sure of himself under pressure.

Coach K knew Bryant was nicknamed the Black Mamba because, when under duress, he's deadly. Was it possible, Krzyzewski thought, that he too was now an ambush predator in competition?

"I'm the 'Black Mamba of Beach Bocce!'" he told his girls. "I'm telling you. I'm a little bit amazed by it myself."

Now, nearly seven months since that triumph on the beach, Krzyzewski is still referring to himself as "The Black Mamba of Beach Bocce," sneaking it into casual conversation as much as possible with his wife and daughters and, especially, with his sons-in-law.

Sure, this is a nickname that was self-awarded.

"But I think I earned it," Krzyzewski said. "And it's nice that it stuck."

Ironically, this persistent braggadocio violates a chief principle Krzyzewski has used to become one of the all-time greatest coaches in sport the idea that celebrating past glory can be distracting and that excessive cockiness can lead to complacency.

"Basketball-wise, I don't like to live in the past," Krzyzewski said. "But family-wise, when you do something that's decent, you do want to bring it up. Over and over and over again."

BELOW THE SURFACE

For the rest of this college basketball season, Mike Krzyzewski will be cemented on center stage as the legendary coach of the nation's No. 1 team. On Wednesday night, with a 83-48 victory over Bradley, Krzyzewski won his 877th career game and slid past Adolph Rupp into third place on college basketball's all-time coaching victories list.

Only two icons stand in front of him now: Dean Smith, his chief rival for 17 seasons in the ACC, and Bob Knight, his college coach and longtime mentor.

By the end of this month, Krzyzewski has a chance to surpass Smith. And before season's end, it's reasonable to think Knight will be in his rearview mirror as well.

All the while, the Duke coach will spend his days and nights leading a wildly talented team that has a very realistic chance to chase down the school's fifth national championship.

With so many prestigious achievements within reach, Krzyzewski won't escape the downpour of attention that's in the forecast.

Duke fans will spend the winter lauding his brilliance as a teacher and strategist, as a motivator and leader. Detractors, meanwhile, will skewer Krzyzewski as smug and self-centered.

All these reactions will be triggered by the role he assumes when he's under the burning spotlight in college basketball's competitive theater.

Krzyzewski's daughters, however, wish outsiders could see more of who their father really is, could recognize that he is first and foremost a family man.

Sixty-three years old. Loyal husband for the past 41 years. Father of three, grandfather of seven.

They wish outsiders could understand, through all of Krzyzewski's fame and fortune, he still has this constant urge to just be a regular guy.

How he desires more free time to garden; to play with his yellow lab, Blue; to catch up on the shows on his DVR "Criminal Minds" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Krzyzewski's daughters wish people had the chance to hear him just once as he launches into a Larry David-like rant when his family carries its personal conversations onto elevators at unnecessary volume.

"Without question, my dad is very intense on the surface," said Jamie Spatola, the youngest of Krzyzewski's three girls. "You see him yelling at a ref or in a huddle with his team in an intense moment and he's red in the face and angry. And that is the exterior. That is who he is. It's an accurate portrayal. But that surface is very thin. And if people made any effort to get to know him beyond what they saw on TV, if they had a 2-minute conversation with him, they'd see that humorous side of him, his fun-loving side."

UP IN THE AIR

Forget the beach.

Everyone keeps coming back to the plane. That's what so many involved with the Duke basketball program will never forget. That's what Krzyzewski's daughters and assistant coaches, his players and support staff will remember forever.

As the 2009-10 Duke Blue Devils set off for their final weekend together on a remarkable and in many ways unexpected trip to the Final Four, the team charter was packed.

One by one, Blue Devil players boarded, their headphones on and an intense focus in their stares. They had business to finish.

Then there were the Duke managers, scrambling to load the luggage.

Equipment bags. Laptops.

Strollers? Car seats? Port-a-cribs?

Duke assistant coach Nate James had his wife and 8-month-old son with him. Fellow assistant Chris Collins had his wife and two kids along. Steve Wojciechowski flew with his wife and two sons, too.

All seven of Krzyzewski's grandchildren were aboard.

This was not a vacation. But it was, without question, a family trip.

"If you didn't know any better, you'd have looked at that plane and figured we were headed for Disney World, not the Final Four," Blue Devils assistant strength coach Chris Carrawell said. "And that's exactly what Coach K wanted."

Krzyzewski figured out this working formula early in his career.

As passionate as he is in his job, as fascinated as he has become with learning about leadership, as obsessed as he can sometimes be with building and developing his teams, he has always remembered to put family first.

He implores his assistants to do the same.

Success, Krzyzewski believes, is all about balance. And the balance in his world comes from the time he spends with family, time made more valuable thanks to his ability decades ago to integrate his wife and kids into the experience.

"It was important to have us buy in and be a part of it," Lindy said. "Because it was either going to be that Duke basketball was the thing that took Dad away from us. Or it was going to be our thing, something we were all a part of and could share in."

BASKETBALL FAMILIES

Before chartered plane trips became the norm, Lindy recalls tagging along on the team bus, playing the role of little sister as the Blue Devils, without cell phones or handheld video games, set up mazes and mock haunted houses on the bus to keep themselves entertained.

Now Lindy is the elder to Duke's players, the team counselor and performance development coordinator, using her psychology background to monitor the squad's mental state.

Krzyzewski's oldest daughter, Debbie, is the assistant director of Duke's Legacy Fund, with her office on the same floor as her dad's at the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center.

Jamie, meanwhile, while not employed by Duke, has co-authored two books with her dad. And her husband, Chris Spatola, is the Blue Devils' director of basketball operations.

"You've heard of mom-and-pop grocery stores?" Lindy said. "This is a mom-and-pop basketball program."

From the start of his time in Durham, way back in 1980, Krzyzewski never put boundaries up.

So long as they used good judgment, Coach K's wife and daughters were allowed to be included in whatever they wanted, welcome at practices and team meals and allowed to watch tape with him.

These are all privileges his grandkids are now also granted.

Said Jamie: "With that, then you have basketball families. You don't have families who resent basketball because their dad or husband is always gone."

Krzyzewski knows this model might not work for everyone. But it works for him. And that's all that matters.

Perhaps it was only fitting that a man who grew up with one brother, attended an all-boys high school in Chicago, went on to West Point and makes his living in a gym coaching young men, was given three daughters as his children. Maybe over all these years that has given him greater equilibrium.

"If you don't stay balanced, you're going to be alone," he said. "Then whenever you achieve something big and you want to jump for joy, there will be no one there. When you have success, you need to turn and have someone there to share it with."

ALL HEART

Try to believe this claim.

Mike Krzyzewski, that recognizable villain who gets most of his TV time every winter as a fire-breathing, ref-blasting tyrant, is a softy at heart.

His family has too many examples for anyone to dispute it.

On Valentine's Day, for instance, Krzyzewski still always sends his daughters flowers to tell them how much he loves them.

On each of his daughter's birthdays he sends his wife, Mickie, flowers to thank her for raising three of his best friends.

In the moments before every Duke game, he'll locate his family in the stands of whatever arena they're in and give his grandkids a subtle wave with one finger his "kiddo finger."

And those evenings this spring when he turned into "The Black Mamba of Beach Bocce?" They were preceded by afternoons in which he went hunting for seashells with his grandchildren and later staged exhibitions to separate the best shells from the ones that didn't make the cut.

"I think that that's something he learned as an adult. That you should soak up that moment," Debbie said. "How often do you get to walk hand-in-hand with your granddaughter on the beach looking for sea shells? Maybe a handful of times in your life. I think he's sort of this way in everything he does. He fully immerses himself in the moment. And he has an amazing ability to hyper-focus. So if we're at the beach for two weeks, for two weeks he's all beach. And that's bocce ball and seashells and family dinners and good wine."

In retrospect, last year's NCAA tournament carried so many remarkable moments for Krzyzewski and his Blue Devils. A 70-57 defeat of Purdue in the Sweet 16 spoke to the Blue Devils' grit and ability to zero in on the task at hand.

Nolan Smith's 29 points in Duke's South Regional Championship victory over Baylor told an inspiring tale of perseverance, a once frustrated guard who had seriously considered transferring suddenly emerging as a Blue Devil hero.

Winning the national title, of course, after an epic battle with Butler provided the ultimate thrill for a Duke team that proved the value of always staying in the moment.

But throughout that ride, Krzyzewski made certain his intense preparation and immersion in his team's mission was balanced by moments of down time with his family.

Visiting with his oldest grandsons Joey and Michael after a big win.

Holding his youngest grandson John David while relaxing away from the madness.

On the day before the national championship game, Easter Sunday, Krzyzewski arranged for an egg hunt in his suite at the Hilton but made certain to deliver a fatherly lecture when Lindy stuffed her 10-month-old son Remington into a puffy white Tom Arma bunny suit.

"Remember the rule," Krzyzewski instructed. "The rule is, with any of my grandsons, you can do that till they're 1. But then you can't put all those costumes on them like elk's horns, elephant noses and things like that. After they're 1, they can't do that."

OF WEEPER AND WINNING

Still, for all the talk of Krzyzewski as a caring dad and attentive grandfather, his family doesn't want him to be mistaken as perfect. He's far from it.

Krzyzewski's daughters will readily point out his flaws.

They'll tell you about his bad habit of interrupting.

They'll talk at length about his irritability when he's busy and his intolerance for those who don't appreciate his passion and try to match it.

And they'll tell you that as much as Krzyzewski talks to his teams about moving past mistakes and having a "next play" mentality, he often struggles to heed his own advice, consumed by many of his failures.

His sons-in-law, meanwhile, will tell you he is always gunning to outshine them, still wanting to be, in his daughters' eyes, the best man in their lives.

And they'll also acknowledge his urge to have the final say on the most trivial of matters.

Like that weeping willow out near the driveway of Jamie and Chris' house? Krzyzewski doesn't think it fits. Not in such a prominent location. It's not a strong tree, he contends. So he's constantly threatening to sneak over in the middle of the night to remove it.

Not with a chainsaw, mind you.

"You don't need a chainsaw for the Weeper," Krzyzewski said. "The Weeper's a pull, not a chop. But it has to go."

Chris rolls his eyes.

"I'm actually indifferent to it," he said. "But I will die before that tree gets removed from my house. I will not remove it because he wants it removed."

And then there's "Battle of the Sexes," the trivia board game that pits the men versus the women and almost always ends with a family squabble.

That "Black Mamba" killer instinct Krzyzewski has on the beach bocce court? In "Battle of the Sexes," it's somehow nullified by a strange lack of confidence. And that insecurity, his daughters say, turns Coach K and his sons-in-law into bossy, overbearing cheaters who constantly appeal their own wrong answers and deliver new self-serving verdicts.

"But now if we're not 100 percent accurate with our answers," Debbie said, "you have no idea. It's 'Wrong! Wrong! Completely wrong!' It's always like that. As I'm sitting here discussing it, I'm starting to realize that maybe our family games don't have sportsmanship in them at all."

Krzyzewski won't disagree. Even at home, playing board games with the people he loves most, his disdain for losing can't be shut off.

When it comes to "Battle of the Sexes," he's in full agreement with his sons-in-law. Without question, they contend, the game is rigged toward the women.

"All games are rigged toward women," Krzyzewski said. "That's why the women like to play them. Overall, at least in my family, women are smarter in those games. For one, they have a greater passion to play. Guys don't have that same passion. You have to have had a drink or be at the beach. Your defenses have to be weakened to even consent to playing a game like that."

And as for his daughters claims that they've beaten the men 80 percent of the time they've played?

"My recollection of things is that we have won more than we've lost. Part of it is how you determine a winner. There is argument about that. They determine a winner a little bit differently than we do. It's a nebulous thing. And a guy wants it to be as nebulous as possible because that then gives him a greater window for opportunity to determine a winner. Don't get me wrong. There is an actual way of determining a winner. But guys will try not to use the actual way of winning because we will not win very often by the actual way."

Instead, for Krzyzewski and his sons-in-law, oftentimes the last question they answer correctly is somehow weighted 10 times greater than any other question in the game.

"By answering that last question right, you have negated a big body of their work," Krzyzewski said. "So really, it's all about how you look at the game."

He shakes his head and grins.

And there it is: another variation of that look.

Second place: Luke Winn, si.com
Third place: Curtis Eichelberger, Bloomberg News
Fourth place: Brendan F. Quinn, Basketball Times
Fifth place: John Akers, Basketball Times