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Bedtime Stories - Tales from Our Commmunity

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Elijah Bailey
Elijah Bailey

Bleachers Strange Desire Zip

His former player and assistant, Steve Wojciechowski, says that during incredibly tense moments, big games when the noise came down from the bleachers like tumbling boulders, his boss would softly say a prayer to his mother. Coach K believes that his mother still watches over him, sometimes taking the form of butterflies. She loved them. His wife, Mickie Krzyzewski, planted bushes in their backyard that attract them. So around the time he announced his plans to retire from the game that had defined his life, a butterfly landed on his car. He stood and watched, and the thing refused to move. It just sat there, and so he waited too. Finally he needed to go. He leaned toward the butterfly.

bleachers strange desire zip

Their parents wanted for them a respectable American life, and Krzyzewski's military education and officer's commission got him that. His parents pushed him hard to go to West Point. Krzyzewski remembers them sitting around the dining table talking feverishly in Polish, punctuated by the occasional "Mike" and "stupid" and the like. They couldn't believe their son would turn down a free education at a school that produced officers and even presidents. Finally he got the message and accepted the appointment. Moe says that a lot of his friend Mike's success in life flows from a desire to honor them. But that's just part of it. Mike inherited his father's ambition and paired that with his own need to shape those ambitions into a new, better life. From the beginning, Krzyzewski burned inside and still doesn't totally understand the origins of that fire. An alien, he calls himself. His friends all followed their parents' path and built those respectable lives while erasing any thoughts of personal fulfillment or passion ("It's a sore point with me," says Eddie Stanislawski, one of the Columbos, "I told my kids to follow their bliss.") but Krzyzewski decided to listen to the person inside him who wanted to coach. His ambition made him let go of a brass ring to reach for a gold one. Moe remembers exactly where he was standing when Mike told him he was going to quit the Army. After lunch, at a hot dog place where Coach K loves the Italian beef, he drives me to the spot.

His parents spoke Polish to each other but demanded the boys never learn it. They didn't want them to carry the baggage of an accent. Krzyzewski grew up with a strange last name that his own father didn't use. Moe has been thinking about this a lot lately because going through his own father's things he found some old letters in which his dad had used the last name Miller. Moe felt sad, emotional, wondering what else his father kept inside, what pain and longing. The same is true for Coach K. Some of the family kept Krzyzewski, while others went by Kross. One of his uncles was militant about the original Polish spelling and would gruffly quiz his nieces and nephews whenever they walked through the door. Coach K clearly remembers being young, 5 or 6, and nervously trying to get everything straight with his mother as they walked up the steps to visit Uncle Joe.

After all these years, he feels like his dad had reached out to let him know he'd done good. That he'd seen what his son had done with their strange last name and was proud. At the end of his career, the universe was speaking to him, or maybe he was just at peace enough to finally and truly listen. Either way, he felt grateful.

Out in Vegas, Mike and Mickie saw their friend Elaine Wynn, the casino baron. They've known her since Duke beat her beloved UNLV in 1991 and she loved how respectful he was after the game, refusing to buy into the narrative that this was a battle of good versus bad. She's been a great friend and a regular visitor to Cameron. Elaine loves how basketball for the Krzyzewskis is a family sport. She tells stories about going to games in Durham and seeing the three daughters lugging babies and diaper bags and bottles into the tight confines of the arena's old wooden bleachers and wondered why in the world anyone would go to all this trouble to watch their dad and granddad work. Of course she gets it. "When you have a man that is so invested in a passion," she says, "you either get on the train or you're completely off the train and you won't have a lot."

THE GAME AFTER Bob Hoffman died, Mike Krzyzewski took out one of his rosaries and said a prayer, dedicating that night's contest to his friend. He does that every game he coaches. It's his moment to be alone before the coming storm. On the road he'll sit in his hotel room and at home, he steps into a private room in Cameron, just off the big space where he does his postgame news conferences. Once he gets settled, he'll reach into his right pocket, where he keeps the rosary given to him by Father Rog, blessed by Pope John Paul II, and finds peace and perspective. In his other pocket he carries another rosary, the one that belonged to his mother. This season he dedicated several games to his mother and father and brother. Against Virginia, he dedicated it to Mickie's family, because she grew up near Charlottesville. On his desk in his spartan downstairs office by the locker room, he keeps photographs of young kids he met over the years in hospitals who died, and a prayer card from one of his first players at Army. He carries these people with him, inside him. They are him. He is always communicating across planes of existence. This spiritual life, this desire to walk with spirits, is one of his greatest gifts and, when swirled together with his Polish tribal roots and his West Point education, lies at the heart of his success. He is, most of all, a collection of everyone he's ever met. Every time you see him on television he's got a rosary in each pocket, twin portals, a way of communicating with the people who walked this road with him but didn't make it to the end. Who are being carried by him to the end.

The situation is more nuanced than the headlines. Krzyzewski calls the claim "a cheap shot," and the belief around Coach K is that the source quoted in the book overstated the coach's desire for control once he's gone. Amaker and Duke declined to comment on this subject. An anonymous person told O'Connor that Krzyzewski could be "Don Corleone" when he felt it necessary, and a source close to both Coach K and Amaker described O'Connor's reporting to me as accurate. What's clear from this private dispute being made public is that the succession plan left some damaged feelings. On the day the story became public, Krzyzewski worried that he'd hurt a member of the tribe. "He 100 percent has that guilt," Debbie K says. "'Did I do something that caused any harm that would bother Tommy? I love Tommy. He's one of my boys. I don't ever want anything to hurt my guys.'"

Two nights later, with Cameron as loud and intimidating as ever, he walked slowly onto the court and allowed himself to take in the feeling, to let himself plug into the energy. He felt lucky and grateful. The bleachers behind his bench were filled with Moe and a huge group from the old neighborhood. A few hours before, Krzyzewski had reached into his right pocket, pulled out his rosary and dedicated the coming action to all the dead Columbos and to Father Rog. He said their names. They were with him.


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