Coach K proves he is a man of substance, not of style

  • By Larry Henry
  • Wednesday, July 7, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

It wasn’t about the money. It was about something much larger than that.

It was about the heart.

That’s what it came down to when Mike Krzyzewski decided to turn down an opportunity to coach the Los Angeles Lakers and remain at Duke University.

“Duke has always taken up my whole heart,” Krzyzewski said. “Your heart has to be in whatever you lead.”

And so, Krzyzewski turned his back on a $40 million five-year contract to coach in the NBA.

He chose Tobacco Road over Rodeo Drive. Substance over superficiality. Students over stars.

Money can’t buy you love. Nor can it buy you happiness.

It can buy you toys. It can provide you with security.

But what’s a fat bank account if you’re miserable? And sooner or later – probably sooner – Mike Krzyzewski would have been miserable as coach of the Lakers. Kobe Bryant could still come back. Gary Payton is already back. Who needs that kind of misery?

Certainly not Krzyzewski.

It’s a rare individual who’ll walk away from that kind of scratch.

It says something about the man known as Coach K.

It says he values teaching college kids over babysitting NBA millionaires. It says he doesn’t need a bigger spotlight to feel fulfilled. It says he feels he is part of the Duke family, and you don’t turn your back on family. It says he is true to his word, that when he signed new players this year, they came with the understanding he would be the coach. It says he deeply cares for his players, the students who cram Cameron Indoor Stadium to cheer the Blue Devils, and the entire Duke nation. It says he loves the college game over the pro game, as any coach in his right mind would.

It says, most importantly, he believes what his heart tells him. And his heart was telling him to leave the money on the table and to stick with what makes him happy.

And I say, Duke, you’re so lucky to have a man the caliber of Mike Krzyzewski as your coach. A teacher. A leader. A winner.

A man of substance, not style.

A man who, if he ever quits coaching, ought to run for president.

Him I could vote for.

As it is, I’ll quietly pull for him to win another national championship – it would be his fourth at Duke – next winter. After his momentous decision this week, after rejecting the most glamorous job in the NBA, and one of the most attractive positions in all of sport, he might just have picked up several million new fans.

Who doesn’t like to see the high and mighty snubbed? Who wouldn’t like to see someone turn down George Steinbrenner’s millions to manage the Yankees?

You can’t blame the Lakers for asking. As general manager Mitch Kupchak said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t know.”

Would Krzyzewski have won in the NBA? Not just won, but captured championships? Could he have handled the egos? The off-court distractions that surely would have surfaced?

“I thought if there was a guy who could make it in the NBA, it was Coach K,” said Washington Husky coach Lorenzo Romar. “I think he’s a master psychologist, just like John Wooden. I think he really understands managing people. I think he understands when to back off and when to come on strong.”

You could have a doctorate in psychology and go nuts coaching an NBA team.

You have the players wanting more shots. The players demanding more time. The players seeking more money. The players craving more love. The players hanging with the wrong crowd.

You have the sulking players. The angry players. The lazy players. The dumb players. The agenda players. The defiant players.

A college player misses practice, you suspend him for a game. An NBA player misses practice, you fine him. And he shrugs it off.

An NBA coach can have peace and harmony if he has the right collection of players, and some strong, authoritative enforcers. Karl Malone and John Stockton made Jerry Sloan’s job much easier as coach of the Utah Jazz.

Of course, a coach doesn’t always get to pick and choose whom he wants on his team.

“You’re at the mercy of your roster,” Romar said. “I don’t think I could do it (coach in the NBA) if I didn’t have some kind of say-so on who was coming in. You need to have guys who police themselves.”

He played on just such a team when he was with the Milwaukee Bucks in the mid-80s. “We had nine or 10 guys who conducted themselves as pros,” he said. “Sidney Moncrief, Junior Bridgeman, Bob Lanier, Marques Johnson, Nate Archibald, Kevin Grevey, Harvey Catchings….”

Romar, who had come over from Golden State, learned quickly that this was a team, not a group of individuals.

“When I first joined the team, I thought I needed more practice so I was shooting at the other end at halftime one night,” he recalled. “Sidney Moncrief, who was our captain, came down and said, ‘I don’t know what you guys did at Golden State, but we shoot as a team.’”

Romar quickly scurried to the other end of the court to be with his team.

In today’s NBA, the lone shooter might have told his captain to take a hike and gone on about his business.

Now Mike Krzyzewski won’t have to worry about that kind of defiance because he did what his heart told him to do.

Incidentally, Romar thoroughly understands Krzyzewski’s decision.

“I think what’s important is peace of mind,” he said. “I know people would laugh at this but $40 million does not give you peace of mind. Many would say, ‘I would like the opportunity to find out.’ Well, it’s been proven that there are people who are quite wealthy who are miserable.”

Just for the record, Lorenzo Romar has no interest in the NBA.

Something about the heart.

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