The official blew the whistle and handed the ball to Grant Hill, who slapped it behind the baseline while taking two slide steps to his right. There were 2.1 seconds left in overtime of a Duke-Kentucky game that would award the winner a trip to the 1992 Final Four, and for those of us lucky enough to be sitting courtside in the old Philadelphia Spectrum, this appeared to be a snapshot of how coach Mike Krzyzewski's Duke program would always look.
The son of a Yale-educated father who was a Super Bowl champ and a Wellesley-educated mother who was a scientist and former classmate of Hillary Clinton's, Hill was an NBA-ready sophomore destined to stay at Duke for four years and graduate as a double major in history and political science. His receiver standing near the opposite foul line, Christian Laettner, was a senior All-American who remained in school despite already advancing to three consecutive Final Fours and winning the previous year's national title.
The trailing point guard who had the best seat in the house for Laettner's turnaround jumper, Bobby Hurley, was a junior who would return for his final college season despite winning the second straight national title to come. The Duke player who provided the signature reaction to the signature shot in college basketball history, the bewildered, face-contorting Thomas Hill, was a junior all set to follow the four-year lead of fellow starter Brian Davis.
Krzyzewski had just assured his Blue Devils in the final huddle that they would win the game in those 2.1 forever seconds, that they would top the remarkable shot Sean Woods had just banked in over Laettner to give Kentucky a 103-102 lead. He was never more right. Across many years of trying and failing to find a more thrilling basketball game to cover, college or pro, two conflicting endgame scenes stayed with me: the haunting image of a collapsed Woods burying his head in his arms near my seat, and the stunning image of the Duke coach defiantly spiking his towel and clipboard to the floor.
"That was a moment," Krzyzewski said by phone the other day. "And everyone who was part of it won."
No witness thought Duke would ever duplicate a moment as unique as that one. But after the Blue Devils two-peated in the '92 final at the expense of a Michigan team built around the Fab Five, it seemed clear Krzyzewski would spend his entire Hall of Fame career signing high-powered recruits committed to growing together and earning degrees before turning to pro basketball or other worthwhile pursuits.
In other words, nobody fathomed that one day Krzyzewski would lord over the kind of dizzying NBA assembly line that would make Kentucky coach John Calipari proud.
But here stands the 68-year-old Krzyzewski, living out the final act of his basketball life as a fellow master of Calipari's one-and-done universe. Before defending champ Duke faces Kentucky on Tuesday night in Chicago at the Champions Classic, Krzyzewski could meet Calipari at midcourt and ask him if he needs any help defending his recruiting philosophy. While he's at it, Krzyzewski could show Calipari his fifth championship ring and tell him all about how his three one-and-doners needed only four months to connect in Laettner-Hurley-Hill form and win it all in a season that was supposed to end with Kentucky as the sport's first 40-0 team.
The Wildcats finished 38-1, of course, after losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four, swinging open the door for Krzyzewski to take a 5-1 lead on Calipari in titles and to persuade the top two high school players in the Class of 2016, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, to make Durham their rest stop on the road to the NBA.
Krzyzewski will never match the 10 titles John Wooden won at UCLA in much different times, but he has won more titles than North Carolina's Dean Smith and Roy Williams combined, and he did surpass his mentor, Bob Knight, in every conceivable way, along with beating Rick Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian in the most memorable games they ever coached.
Before he retires, Krzyzewski has one last titan of the game to conquer. He isn't content just out-coaching the 56-year-old Calipari; he's trying to out-recruit him, too -- trying to outhustle the ultimate hustler. If today's recruiting race could be held at Churchill Downs or Pimlico or Belmont Park, Duke and Kentucky would be Secretariat and American Pharoah, and the rest of college basketball's contenders would be a fading tangle of barn horses choking on their dust.
We all know how Kentucky pulled away from the field. Calipari has long established himself as the Mariano Rivera of Division I pitchmen -- the best closer of all time -- and his choice to market his program as nothing but an NBA development camp has resonated with prospects who would have turned pro out of high school had the NBA not implemented its age requirement of 19 a decade ago.
But how in the world did Mike Krzyzewski get so heavily invested in this game? Why did he decide that out-Calipari-ing Calipari was the way to finish a career at Duke, a place where academic mission statements aren't supposed to be punchlines at cocktail parties? And what, if anything, happened to his emphasis on team building and his interest in the long-term development of the human being, not just the short-term development of the stretch 4?
"As far as the kid we go after," Krzyzewski said, "we look at three things: Is he talented enough to help us win a championship? [That doesn't mean he has to be a pro right away.] Is he academically prepared to do a good job here? And third -- and they all have the same importance -- what kind of character does he have? Does he have great character?
"If Johnny Dawkins was here today, he might be one- or two-and-done. Put Grant Hill and Laettner and those guys in this era, they could be one-and-done. So we haven't changed as far as who we look for. We just have to look for them more frequently."
Krzyzewski wants it known that he is perfectly fine with this reality: that he has no problem constantly turning over his team and chasing after the prom kings who will return him to the Final Four. But there was a time he felt at least a bit betrayed by the Duke stars who left him early for the more lucrative full rides offered in the NBA.
In 1999, Krzyzewski was dramatically impacted by early departures for the first time. He was supportive of sophomore Elton Brand, who would be the No. 1 overall pick of the Chicago Bulls, and not so supportive of freshman Corey Maggette and sophomore William Avery. Especially Avery. Krzyzewski reportedly berated the point guard and took his case to Avery's mother before releasing a statement that said, in part, "I'm not in favor of William's decision at this time." The coach said he had done extensive research and concluded Avery should not enter the draft, but he acknowledged the player's right to his own choices and wished him the best.
Maggette was picked 13th overall by Seattle and managed a highly productive 14-year career in the NBA. Avery was picked 14th overall by Minnesota and lasted only three years in the league, validating his coach's scouting report (if not his anger).
But that was then, and this is most certainly now. Krzyzewski won it all in April with freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, and then merrily escorted them into the first round of the draft in June without a word of protest, never mind an official statement of dissent.
Though Krzyzewski did win his fourth national title in 2010 with a traditional Duke team featuring juniors and seniors, many observers cite his appointment as Olympic coach in 2005 -- just as the NBA established its age requirement -- as the seminal moment shaping his current approach. Calipari is known to be less than thrilled with Krzyzewski's elevated status inside USA Basketball -- and with how that elevated place impacts impressionable teenagers looking for the surest path to the draft lottery. In other news, Calipari knows how to counter with the best of 'em. He started his own NBA combine for Kentucky players and, coincidentally enough, ended up coaching the Dominican national team while a young Dominican-American prospect named Karl-Anthony Towns was on it.
The same Towns who signed with Kentucky -- and who said the most difficult part of his decision "was saying no to Coach K at Duke." The same Towns who was selected No. 1 overall by Minnesota in last year's draft, extending Calipari's staggering run of top overall picks to four in eight years, along with Anthony Davis in 2012, John Wall in 2010 and Derrick Rose (of Memphis) in 2008.
Calipari has long denied his interest in coaching the Dominican team had anything to do with Towns, but hey, everyone in college basketball does what they can to secure a competitive edge, including Coach K. He has created his own international dynasty to pair with his Duke dynasty, winning gold medals with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade and, naturally, using that Nike-sponsored platform (Duke and USA Basketball are both clients) and the rapport he established with the NBA superstars to better bond with the phenoms in the USA Basketball system. Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker. Okafor and Winslow and Jones. And on and on and on.
Krzyzewski has announced that the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro will be his last (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will replace him), yet he remains sensitive to the notion that his position gives him an unfair advantage, an advantage of access over his ACC and March Madness foes.
"I would think an accomplishment advantage is more of what it is," he said. "If I didn't [win], it wouldn't be an advantage to be the USA coach. If Kobe Bryant said, 'I didn't get along with Coach K,' would that be an advantage? When people win and people do something really good, other people see it. But you didn't get a free pass just because you're the U.S. coach."
Just ask Larry Brown. He was a complete disaster as Olympic coach in Athens in 2004, probably costing his friend and assistant, Popovich, a chance to get the top job the following year, when USA Basketball chief Jerry Colangelo went with Coach K instead. Krzyzewski said sarcastically that he owed his entire career to USA Basketball before offering up a reminder of his record at Duke.
"Winning five national championships," he said, "somebody knows we know what we're doing. People can say whatever they want."
They say plenty, too, about the hold Krzyzewski still has on the game and his ability after all these years to sign the likes of Brandon Ingram, Chase Jeter, Derryck Thornton and Luke Kennard (this year's celebrated freshmen) -- and the likes of Giles, Tatum, Frank Jackson and Javin DeLaurier (next year's celebrated freshmen):
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse coach and Team USA assistant: "Even Mike wouldn't say that being the Olympic coach doesn't help him, but Duke's had top recruiting classes going back 20, 25 years. The Olympic thing helps, but I don't think it makes a tremendous difference. Mike's always gotten good players because it's Duke and they win and it's a great place. And Mike's greatest asset as a coach is he always adjusts to whatever the situation is. He's the best in the business at adjusting. Watching him every day with the NBA stars in practice, Mike's also the best there's ever been at handling people and egos. He's a master motivator without being Knute Rockne-ish, and it works. Every NBA player on his Olympic and world championship teams has nothing but good things to say about him, and that's rare when you're dealing with that many great players."
Fran Fraschilla, ESPN analyst and former coach at New Mexico, St. John's and Manhattan: "I think the advantage has been earned, and I have no problem with him utilizing it to his advantage. Now I'm not recruiting against him, so I understand why the other monster-program coaches would feel a bit differently. But I remember distinctly when he took over USA Basketball that there was talk of his time commitment hurting his recruiting at Duke. What's happened both by accident and, later, by design is USA Basketball has become part of Coach K's legacy, and it now permeates down to the youth level. We have the best youth basketball program representing this country that we've ever had. Coach K has made it cool to play for USA Basketball at the youth level, and he's made it cool for Kobe and LeBron and Kevin Durant too."
Grant Hill, former Duke and NBA star, current Atlanta Hawks executive and TNT/NBA TV analyst: "Maybe there are some benefits to it, but to say this is just because he's the Olympic coach minimizes the amount of work that goes into recruiting. It's not that easy. We've missed out on guys. ... Maybe 10 years ago you weren't getting an audience with some of those great players, and now you're getting an audience with them. I don't think anyone has ever used a Don King reference with Coach K, but it's almost like Don King saying, 'I can get you the fight, but you've got to go out and win it.' I know how hard he and [assistant] Jeff Caple work in recruiting. They grind. They're relentless."
Bobby Hurley, former Duke star and NBA lottery pick and current Arizona State head coach: "Coach K has always gotten McDonald's All-Americans; it's not like this happened all of a sudden. I think he did resist the one-and-done thing when it was first happening, but I'm sure the Olympic experience and coaching the best players in the world helped change the way he looked at it. He knows now that if he can coach a dominant player even for one year, that player can be an ambassador for his program the rest of his life. I'm sure he's having discussions with guys projected to leave early to make sure they try over time to get their degrees, because I know that's very important to him. But I just think he wants to coach the best possible players that fit what he's looking for, and that includes character and desire, not just talent. In the end, why wouldn't a kid want to play for a coach with his credentials? The banners are there."
Jalen Rose, former Michigan and NBA star and current ESPN analyst: "When Kentucky players declare for the draft and there's five or six of them leaving, they have a press conference and give you that visual, and [Calipari] owns it: 'I have this many players in the league, they make this amount of money in endorsements, this amount in contracts. We're the factory. You come here, I'll put you in the league.' Coach K has to play it a little differently, because his audience doesn't expect that from him. And they don't necessarily want that from Duke. ... But in order for Duke to compete with the elite teams, you have to go after the best players. And the best players nowadays are prepared to leave after one or two years. So he created it where the optics look different, but the results are the same."
Adam Finkelstein, ESPN recruiting analyst: "People say [Krzyzewski] is beating Cal at Cal's game. He's not. He's just figured out a version of Cal's game that works better for him. The sales pitch at Kentucky is more individual based than it is at Duke, though Duke has figured out how to work the individual into the system."
Calipari tied his own 2012 record by getting six players drafted last year, and this summer he might be celebrating a second straight No. 1 overall pick in 6-foot-10 Skal Labissiere. He just landed another potential lottery pick in Bam Adebayo, who made his announcement Tuesday morning on Mike & Mike. Calipari believes the Kentucky basketball season doesn't end in March or April but on NBA draft night in June. He says he wants to win, but never at the expense of his players and their hoop dreams and the chance to make those dreams worth a combined billion dollars in guaranteed NBA deals.
Calipari proved it last season after Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison returned to Kentucky rather than turning pro, leaving the Wildcats with 10 players and not enough minutes to go around. Calipari settled on a platoon system to try to protect his players' future NBA wages, and if that system didn't cost him a 40-0 season, his choice to play the struggling Harrisons down the stretch against Wisconsin in the national semis might have.
During a September coaches clinic, according to USA Today, Calipari said he didn't replace the Harrisons -- who would miss seven of their last eight shots -- with freshmen Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis because he was "being loyal to those other two who led us to a championship game a year ago, and they deserve to be on that court. That's why I did it. I knew who was playing well and who was struggling. You think I wasn't sitting there watching? But I owed it to [the Harrison twins] to do it."
It's not so easy running a college program as a minor-league NBA franchise. Reminded of Calipari's comments and asked if it's difficult to balance individual expectations in the one-and-done era against team-centric goals, Krzyzewski paused before saying he doesn't comment on decisions other coaches make.
"For me," he said, "every time I coach it's never difficult. You put the best players on the court regardless of experience, age, all that kind of stuff. You earn your playing time."
The only major college coach dead or alive to win more than 1,000 games, Krzyzewski has done a hell of a job figuring out who has earned their playing time. He said he now emphasizes building relationships with recruits before they arrive on campus, if only because they leave him earlier than they once did. He said his ability to adapt was sharpened by the NBA players who demanded as much, and by a West Point education that taught him how to remain true to his values while understanding that "each unit you have will be a little bit different" and in need of different instruction.
"The core principles in what he believes in are still there," Grant Hill said, "but how he coaches is totally different than when I was there. He delegates more with players. When I was there, he was more the one voice in practice and in the film room, and now he leans heavily on his assistant coaches.
"Millennials are different than Generation X, and he recognizes that. His ability to adjust is amazing."
Hill said if today's climate existed in the early 1990s, he likely never would have played with an early-exiting Laettner. He wondered if there was a downside to one-hit collegiate wonders like Okafor, Winslow and Jones. Would they be remembered decades later like Laettner, Hurley and Hill?
Krzyzewski doesn't spend any more time on that question than he spends on the question of why Pitino didn't put a man on that Hill inbounds pass at the Spectrum in 1992. Coach K is too busy trying to make winners of this next group to wish things were the way they used to be in those four-and-done days.
"Is it the same?" he said. "No, it's not the same. But it's still better than most people think."
The freshmen who jump to the NBA, Krzyzewski added, "will always be a part of our brotherhood."
Though he said he's "not sure how long I'm still going to be [coaching]," Krzyzewski has no retirement timetable in place. He did make this one promise: "I wouldn't linger."
In the end, Coach K stuck around long enough to watch a team of four freshmen, including Grayson Allen, score 60 of Duke's 68 points in the victory over Wisconsin in the final -- and to hear Bo Ryan say afterward that his Badgers "don't do rent-a-player." Krzyzewski absorbed the jab and left the arena as undisputed heavyweight champ.
On Tuesday night, Coach K gets the crack at Kentucky he didn't get last spring. Krzyzewski said it is an honor to compete against the Wildcats, and he called their program one of the all-time greats. But when asked if he found it intriguing to face Kentucky at a time when people see him winning a recruiting game played by Calipari's rules, Krzyzewski said: "We don't copy anybody. If you try to be someone else, you'll be, at best, second best."
And if Coach K wants to be remembered for a lot of things in his one-and-done days at Duke, second best isn't among them.