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ESPN The Magazine: Next Play
ESPN The Magazine

Face it: You have to drop some serious knowledge to win three national titles and a place in the Hall of Fame. But for Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the best part of the game is discovering what he doesn't know. With his Blue Devils once again atop the preseason polls, we asked him to share his insights from the past few seasons. Even he was surprised by some of his answers.

One of the things I've learned is that there are a lot of things I didn't know. For instance, there was a moment near the end of this year's national championship game. Chris Duhon's dribbling, and as the clock ticks down, he gives the ball to Jason Williams. Why did he do that? Jason didn't ask for it. But because they're good friends, Chris knew that one of Jason's dreams was to have the ball in his hands and throw it up after winning. Think about it: Here's this kid, 18 years old, in front of 46,000 people, and he remembers that. I get chills just thinking about it.

I'm big on interacting with my players. But I listened to them more closely while working on a book about last season. Again and again I found myself saying, "Man, I didn't know that!" It makes you a better coach. And when you're doing new and interesting things -- whether it's writing a book or gardening -- you're also learning about you.

I'm all about Next Play. You've got to prove yourself again and again and again. People who are really good at anything don't rely on what they've done. They want to be judged on what they're doing. Last year doesn't matter. It's a whole new year.

When I look back on the past few years, I can see what I would have done differently. I should have had hip surgery before the '98-99 season, instead of waiting until afterward. I had pain every day. I was limping. It limited me tremendously. I like to run a quick, moving practice, but there were times when I just couldn't stand -- I had to sit. All of a sudden I'd want to show somebody something on the court, and I couldn't. I had to use a whistle; I never use a whistle. So guys didn't know my voice as well. There are numerous things I had to change that were frustrating for me. We had a great team, but I don't think I was as good as the talent on my team that year. When I look at that season, even though we were 37-2 and went to the NCAA Final, even though we had four of the top 14 in the NBA draft, I just feel my signature was not on that team.

I scheduled my surgery for six days after the Final, on Easter Sunday. I thought it would be the easiest time for it. We'd have great players coming back -- Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Chris Carrawell, William Avery, Corey Maggette -- and we had a great recruiting class coming in. As fate would have it, it was the most tumultuous time. Elton's thinking about the NBA draft. Then William is thinking about leaving. Chris Burgess transfers to Utah. Corey is thinking about leaving. Around the same time, Quin Snyder leaves to coach at Missouri. And I can't do much. I just got a new hip.

The surgery I had is called a press fit. It takes a little longer for recovery, because the bone and the prosthesis grow together. The first month is critical. If you move too much, it won't sit well. So I'm confined pretty much to my house. I couldn't fly to Georgia to meet with William's family. When Chris Burgess made his decision, I couldn't fly to L.A. I couldn't do things face-to-face. And some of these people didn't want to come see me. Or if they did, people were advising them not to come. There was a helplessness. I really felt that way in all those situations -- except Elton's.

Elton came with his mom to visit me in the hospital after the surgery. Once we had an idea he might be 1, 2 or 3 in the draft, it became apparent that he should go. No player from Duke had left early before, but my responsibility in that case was to say, "You're doing the right thing." A lot has been said and written about the other underclassmen leaving that year. There's no sense dwelling on it. But let me just say that I wasn't playing a loyalty card. I didn't tell William or Corey, "You owe it to me." I said, "You owe it to you." I wanted them to have the very best when they left Duke. For me, it was easy to see that the very best was a year away.

You have to understand two things about me: I never lie, and the foundation of everything I do is built on trust. But I was suddenly in a situation where they didn't believe what I was saying. They didn't trust me at the moment of decision. That's what hurt me the most. The advice I gave them, I still believe, was the best decision. And even though it hurt when they made the different decision, I understood. It's not like it turned out badly for them. They're fine. I talk to them a lot. William and Corey came back for a charity game this August. They were on the court with Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley and Johnny Dawkins. They're always going to be family.

A lot of people thought we were going to be vulnerable the year after we lost the underclassmen. We had six freshmen, and we were very thin. I'm heading into the year thinking, "If this team could win 20-something games and make it to the NCAA Tournament ..." We won 29 games and finished the regular season No.1. It was a remarkable year. I love that year. We lost in the Sweet 16 to Florida, and there are people who'll say that the season was disappointing. Disappointing? Hey, did they see the same movie I was at? You let other people define your success, you're in big trouble. So I told my players: "You guys were beautiful. We had a hell of a year." Because everything that happened set the stage for the jealous-free zone that was last season.

Last year was my 26th as a coach. In all those years, we've stretched before practice, then I'd always get the team in a huddle and say something motivational. I did that last year, as usual, on Day 1 and Day 2. But after I said something, I noticed that Shane Battier said something. So after practice, I say to my assistant coaches, "Tomorrow, I'm not going into the huddle." Now all three of my assistants -- Johnny Dawkins, Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins -- played for me. All three were captains. "What do you mean?" they say. "You always went into the huddle with us." And then I say, "Shane was better than me. Don't worry. I'm not having one of those I'm-over-50-and-I-can't-do-it-anymore crises. He is really good. I'm not going into the huddle."

The next day, the team huddles and Shane speaks. For the next 99 practices, I never went into the huddle. When you think about it, Shane's in huddles all the time on the court. The team should know that when he speaks, he's speaking for me and all of us. Why would a team only listen to one person? If I can have other voices saying what we believe, we can get the message across better.

One thing we've tried to do since the kids left early is to be more interactive -- instead of waiting for the point where players are tempted to leave. That's probably the major change I've made. I don't recruit differently. But we talk about things sooner. It used to be, "Let 'em be freshmen. Let 'em find out who they are." Now, we talk about real important things from the start. You potentially have a shorter life with your players, so you'd better crowd more into it.

Carlos Boozer came here thinking, "I want to be at Duke, but I want to be a pro." He didn't have a single-minded sense of purpose. I felt that he had never unpacked his bags. We were becoming like an extended stay in a hotel. I'm not even sure he knew that. In a meeting with Carlos after Christmas, I said: "Right now, you're not good enough. You could be. You will be. But not now. You and I have to be on the same page. You have to see it through my eyes. Do you think I would lie to you? If you're ready to go pro by the end of the year, I'll tell you. We'll see who else is going, where you might be drafted. But you've got to get better. You've got to change some habits. You're good, but you're not that good. So unpack your bags. Be a college student."

He did that for a while. But before the end of the regular season, I told him: "You're starting not to believe again." He said, "I do believe you." And I said, "No, I don't think you do." It was an emotional thing. He actually cried. He was trying to convince me of his belief in me -- and all of a sudden it came out. "You don't have to say anything else," I said. "I didn't think you were capable of doing that. That's what I want. I don't want your jump shot. I want belief."

He played his best game the next day against Wake Forest. Then he broke his foot the following game. That's why that injury was even more devastating than people realized. Because we were on the verge -- and he knew it, too. The attitude he displayed after the injury was sensational. When I look back on that talk, I think: What greater compliment could a person give you than to be completely real with you.

I felt at the top of my game. I was in as good a shape mentally and physically as I'd been in years. It helped that we were in new facilities. In the old days, if I walked out of my office to go to the restroom, I was stopped three times. Think about all the time and energy that takes up over the course of a season. Last year, I could go from point A to point B without interruption. At the end of the year, I was still very fresh. I've never had a year where I could've coached a few more months. There's always a part of you that says, "Whew, it's time." But last year, I could've kept going. I was rolling.

Everything was very convenient for me. We live on 12 acres only five minutes from my office. In the middle of the day I might go home and walk my dogs. I have two Labs -- Cameron and Defense. There are things about getting air and sun that improve your ability to think. Everything was going well with my family. I had a grandson [Joey Savarino] and another one coming [Michael Savarino]. If I could see Joey a couple of times a week, it was a high.

Don't get me wrong about this motivational stuff. You can't say, I'm gonna buy 12 acres of land, get two dogs, walk them in the afternoon, and we're gonna win the national championship. Everyone's different. You have to find the things that put you in the right frame of mind, so that when you do go back to the job, you have a clear mind to think and the energy to express your thoughts.

We had to play at Carolina after Carlos broke his foot, and they had more strength inside than we did. So we came up with a plan. It's like when you have a hole in the wall and you put a picture over the hole. Shane had orchestrated our defense all year long; being precise was one of his strengths. But in this game he had to do something a little wacky. He had to go out and disrupt their offense, create havoc. It was out of character for him, but he liked it, and it worked well enough so they couldn't exploit us underneath. And we won.

The kids inside -- Casey Sanders, Matt Christensen and Reggie Love -- never let what they couldn't do well get in the way of what they could do well. They embraced the role of supporting actors as the season progressed and gave Oscar-level performances. Carlos coming back and then scoring 12 and pulling down 12 rebounds in the championship game? Wow. Those moments become part of who each kid is. It's a base. Now, what more can we build on?

Jason Williams' house is pretty big, but we can add more rooms. I asked Mike Dunleavy after the season, "Do you realize what you did in the second half of the championship game?" He said, "I played really well." So I said: "What you did was legendary! From now on when a kid hits two threes, he'll remember when Dunleavy hit three threes in 45 seconds and had 18 points in the last 17 minutes. Do you realize that you were the best in the biggest game at the biggest time?" He said, "I never thought of that."

Basically, that talk was the beginning of changing his role -- of getting him ready for what he has to do now for this team. That's what my job is about. Most people think, "Man, you gotta go for your fourth national championship. If you get that " Then what? If I don't get it, is it over? No, that's not what this is about. This is about going into the huddle on that first day of practice and not knowing what will happen. I hope that Jason Williams says something. I hope Mike Dunleavy says something. But right now I don't know. Every September is a new life. The season is like a lifetime, and then it's over and a new one starts. Next Play. You keep learning.

This article appears in the October 29 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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