Image courtesy Jrcla2 / Wikimedia
Image courtesy Jrcla2 / Wikimedia
About eight years ago, in the gap between spring semester of my sophomore year at Duke and the start of a summer session, I sat down in front of my parents’ computer and wrote this plaintive letter to Mike Krzyzewski. I wrote it hastily, added the subject line: “Please Still Be My Coach” and sent it to the address listed for Krzyzewski in Duke’s online directory. As I recall, that address was simultaneously implausible and totally reasonable: CoachK@duke.edu.
Informed observers seemed to think there was a real chance that Krzyzewski would leave Duke for the Los Angeles Lakers during the summer of 2004. He didn’t, of course. The Lakers hired Rudy Tomjanovich, who didn’t work out. Coach K’s NBA temptation isn’t an integral part of his basketball legacy at this point; if it ever was, it has been pretty thoroughly wiped away by his success with the U.S. national team. Krzyzewski was reportedly the first choice of Kobe Bryant and, as is always the case in these college-to-pro scenarios, there were rumblings that Coach K wanted to prove himself at the highest level of the game. Also, of course, there was a giant pile of money involved.
At the time, Duke fans were frantic that Krzyzewski might desert them. I’m sure Blue Devil devotees across the country were engaging in tiny, silly acts like mine to show how badly they wanted him to stay. Choosing to make my pitch via email was the path of least resistance, but I did put some work into tuning my entreaty for its desired audience of one. I borrowed heavily from Krzyzewski’s writing (his fourth co-authored book will ship on February 28) and speeches for my email: there was a reference to “five fingers make a fist,” one of his prefered motivational mantras, and I ended the letter calling the coach “an old Polish guy in the dark,” a phrase he had used in a motivational talk for fans earlier in the year. I knew the letter was over the top at the time, but I didn’t write anything I didn’t believe. I had been devoted to Duke and Krzyzewski since I was in elementary school, so describing how and why wasn’t a difficult exercise.
Coach K announced he was staying at Duke during a press conference on July 5. That morning, I was in summer classes at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC, 180 miles from Durham. My phone buzzed, the caller ID flashing “private.” I ignored it. Once class was over, I listened to the message. It was Mickie Krzyzewski, Mike’s wife. She was incredibly sweet:
You don’t know me, we’ve never met, but my name is Mickie Krzyzewski, I’m Coach K’s wife. I read your email to him, and he read it too, and I wanted to let you know on his behalf that he is still your coach and we are staying here at Duke. There’s going to be a press conference over at Cameron at five in the media room, and if you’re available at five, I would love to say something to you. I don’t want you to go out of your way to do that, but I wanted to let you know, and I’d love to say hello to you. Thank you for your email, it meant a lot—and he’s your coach.
I was a four-hour drive from Durham and had more class that afternoon, so I didn’t attend the press conference. But in it, the coach mentioned me by name. By the next day I was doing radio hits and talking to an AP writer, gushing about my coach to anyone who would ask. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, after I read my own clippings, that I started to notice phrases that didn’t quite sit right. One newspaper account quoted me saying I was “on the verge of tears” when I picked up the voicemail—I remembered stating this in the interview but just as clearly remembered that I hadn’t actually been on the verge of tears. I was describing honest feelings about Krzyzewski that had driven me to write to him, but I hadn’t been about to go to pieces over a voicemail listened to during a break in Marine Invertebrate Zoology.
My answers to media questions, post press-conference-shoutout, reinforced my new public identity as an intensely emotionally invested fan. My email fit remarkably cleanly—even more so than I expected when I cribbed from his motivational phrasebook— into the larger, meticulously well-maintained Coach K narrative, which stretched back two decades or more. Commentators and columnist love to expand Krzyzewski’s expertise far beyond the basketball court, and Krzyzewski himself often references how his work is about far more than a game. One of this most repeated, and reviled, quotes is “I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.” When I described myself as a non-basketball-playing undergraduate who still considered Krzyzewski his coach, I provided support for the claim that the coach was, in fact, a leader of people, not just of players.
My mascot role got bigger once SportsCenter arrived on the scene. After being covered briefly by the network as a sidelight to Krzyzewski’s decision, someone in Bristol decided that I was worth a human interest piece on ESPN’s flagship show. A producer corresponded with me via email and arranged for me to drive to campus and film for an afternoon. What followed were the strangest few hours of my life.
The ESPN crew moved quickly and knew what they wanted. Ideas were presented to me as “wouldn’t this be cool?” and I made no arguments as to their relative coolness. Yes, it would be cool to sit on the floor of Cameron, cross-legged, and read excerpts from the letter I’d written. Yes, let’s do the same thing out in front of the Duke chapel. Yes, I’ll answer that question again but this time consider whether or not July 5 may have not just been a “good day” but “the best day of my life.” When we wrapped, I was told that my segment would be on SportsCenter at some point in the next few days. The resulting piece was the maximum length you see on SportsCenter—so, something like seven minutes—and it ran through multiple airings of the show, including all day on Sunday. I was horrified. I didn’t even recognize this embarrassing version of myself—I was moist-eyed over this email that I was for some reason awkwardly reading aloud all over campus, desperate for the continued “coaching” of a man that I’d never met. I was, in short, another dorky cog in the well-worn “Duke story.” Like most college students, I was in the middle of shedding naïveté and adding skills like circumspection and appreciation for subtlety. I didn’t like the person I was in the segment. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with how silly it appeared to idolize a basketball coach I’d never met, elevating him far above the people who actually influenced my life. Also, I thought I looked really fat.
Once the segment ran, the number of strangers contacting me increased exponentially. Lifelong Duke fans I’d never met sent me emails. There was a whole category of correspondence from senior citizens who wrote me painstakingly formal emails telling me how well my devotion to the university and its basketball team would serve me in life. All manner of hate mail drifted in, too—I was physically threatened, called a lot of nasty names, and, in one turn of phrase I’ll never forget, deemed a “mindless tron.”
My coach and I didn’t actually meet until weeks later, when his staff invited me to the final banquet for Krzyzewski’s fantasy camp. A friend and I strolled into the gymnasium, which had been done up to look like a banquet hall. There was a charity auction going on and the place teemed with the camp’s participants—by the looks of them, mostly wealthy men who adored the Duke basketball program.
We interacted briefly with a staffer at the event, who gave us a table number and told us to check out the auction. Dinner would start in around an hour. Almost instantly, my anxiety level skyrocketed. A month earlier, I’d told any reporter who would listen that Mickie Krzyzewski’s voice had made me cry. Six weeks earlier, I’d written a letter that spelled out just how important I thought Duke basketball and its coach were to my life. Now, I was in the middle of all that, surrounded by the current Blue Devil team, a dozen or more alumni on break from the NBA and international play, and, somewhere in the room, the coach. My letter had, so very emotionally, asserted that I considered myself a part of this ecosystem, but once inside of it I felt like a total outsider. Watching the SportsCenter piece had pushed me to realize I was no more a part of this world than I was a member of the Buffalo Bills, my favorite football team.
The charity auction was mercifully pleasant—I gawked at some original Grant Hill artwork and the various Duke celebrities who wandered past. All of my interactions were stilted and strange, as I tried to explain to people why I was there, not realizing that Chris Collins probably didn’t give a shit. The only real moment of joy came when Elton Brand, by far the most famous non-Krzyzewski in the room, sensed my unease and treated me like the scared kid I was. He pointed at my friend’s camera and bellowed, “Hey, don’t you want a picture with Elton Brand?” As it turned out, I really did. His hands were huge.
Dinner—lobster tail, naturally—was served via buffet, and then we sat. As I approached my assigned table, I realized we were sitting with the Krzyzewski family. Everyone, including Coach K, briefly acknowledged me and tried to make small talk. I was hopeless. I couldn’t even state my major clearly. I ended up sitting through a mostly silent meal with Coach Krzyzewski and his family. I tried to interact with his in-laws a few times, but they had trouble hearing me because of the gymnasium’s acoustics. I had to repeat most everything I said three or four times. I waited for permission to do virtually anything. I didn’t ask a single question about basketball or the program with which I’d been obsessed for more than a decade.
Near the end of the meal, Coach Krzyzewski went to the podium to make a few remarks. He thanked everyone for attending the camp and supporting the program. Then, he said there was a very special guest here tonight. I don’t remember what he said, but he briefly retold the story of my email and then asked me to stand and be applauded. I did so. When he returned to the table, we finished the meal without speaking more than ten more words between us. My friend and I left as soon as was polite. We mostly talked about how cool Elton Brand had been.
I still cheer for Duke basketball, but the summer I wrote that letter was the last time I felt fundamentally tied to the team. When I returned to school that fall and was obviously not as in love with the team as my letter implied, my friends and classmates wanted to know what had happened with Coach K. It was easy to conclude that my five minutes of fame somehow pushed me away from both him and his team.
Unquestionably, the SportsCenter piece and most of the media spectacle that followed rang hollow, but not because of Krzyzewski. It rang hollow because of me. Watching and reading about myself as I played my little role in the Coach K narrative had given me a jarring outsider’s perspective on the absurdity of rabid, possessive fandom. I was already retreating from superfan status when I sat down with the Krzyzewskis for lobster tail, to an experience that was exactly like having dinner with any other 57-year-old stranger, his wife, and their in-laws. Krzyzewski wasn’t my coach. He was just a guy I didn’t know, watching me awkwardly push vegetables around my plate and, in that distance, tacitly reinforcing the obvious point: I ought to at least know the people I purport to love and admire the most.