When I was coming out of high school, my decision of where I would play in college was critically important to me. It was, after all, the first time in my life that I got to choose the coach I was going to play for. And when I signed my letter of intent, I was not choosing a school. I was choosing a coach.
When Mike Krzyzewski began recruiting me at the start of in 1981, I was a high school junior, and I had never even heard of him. He was just about to begin his second season at Duke, and he had no record to speak of. At the end of my recruitment, I had narrowed my choice down to three coaches: Lute Olson, Jim Boeheim and Krzyzewski. Of the three, only Krzyzewski was not established and had never reached the NCAA tournament.
Today, it seems obvious that Coach K belongs on that list. Then, it was not. Other programs recruiting me recruited negatively against Duke by consistently pointing out Coach K's lack of success and accomplishment to that point. Some programs went so far as to question whether he would still be at Duke during my four years. But I was drawn to Coach K despite the fact that other more successful and established coaches were recruiting me just as hard.
I trusted him.
Something about him, the way he communicated with me, learned about what was important to me, and how he believed that we could accomplish something special together made me trust that he was the right guy for me to play for. I didn't have any empirical evidence that he would be a great coach. I just believed in him.
To this day, aside from family decisions, it remains the best, most important and most influential decision of my life. I didn't know at the time that he would be the best coach in the game, but I truly believed that he was exactly the best coach for me.
In a way, I can't believe that my coach, Mike Krzyzewski, is poised to become the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history. Yet after playing for him and coaching under him, it makes perfect sense and seems right. He has been one of the game's most consistent winners and champions and has sustained excellence over time. That doesn't just happen. And it didn't just happen for him. He is a driven competitor, and he has tremendous passion for winning.
When I played for him, my seat in the locker room was right in front of where he would address the team, whether for a scouting report or a pregame speech. Whenever Coach K would talk to us about winning or what we could accomplish together, he would get goose bumps on his arms and legs. What he said to us, we knew he believed. We knew it was true.
I don't know that Coach K is the best X's and O's coach in the game. He is good at it, but that is not why his teams win. Coach K's greatest strength is getting five to play as one and instilling a collective toughness and will into his team. He gets his players to play harder than they believed they could ever play and gets them to make sacrifices they didn't think they could ever make. He is always thinking about how to be better and how to make his players better. He has tremendous feel for the game and for players. When things are really crazy and intense late in a close game, he is incredibly calm. When the team is too calm and lacks the requisite intensity, he goes crazy.
Perhaps his greatest strength is making the complicated seem simple. While prepared down to the last detail, he does not overburden his players with too many details. He wants his players reacting instead of thinking. He is great with concepts and communicating those concepts in a way that players can internalize and embrace.
Playing for Coach K was the thrill of a lifetime, but it was certainly not easy. His expectations were high and he had no problem letting you know when you were not living up to them. When I was a sophomore, we were practicing a few days before playing No. 1 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. We were doing a one-on-one "contesting" drill, where I had to deny a pass to the wing and still not get beaten backdoor. The drill had no defense on the passer, and no weakside help. I was all alone guarding my man. I was guarding a smaller, quicker player, and I got beat two times in a row. Coach K was livid. He screamed, "Bilas, if you get beat on this one, you are not playing on Saturday!" My heart sank down into my stomach. As my man cut to the sideline, I busted my tail to stay with him, but he broke backdoor and I was about to get beat again. All I could do to stop him was to deck him. And I did.
"Good!" Coach K said, and he went down to the other end of the floor to watch the drill work down there.
In 1984, we had become a nationally ranked team, and we were trying desperately to challenge North Carolina. The Tar Heels had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith and were ranked No. 1. In the last game of the regular season, we had taken North Carolina down to the wire, and had a one-and-one to ice the game. We missed, and Carolina hit an amazing shot to take the game into overtime. We wound up losing in double-overtime.
In our locker room, we were devastated. Players were crying and we were really down. Coach K came into the locker room and told everyone to look at him. "We will play them again this season. And when we do, we are going to win. And when we win, we are going to walk right off the floor, because we expect to win." A week later, we met North Carolina in the ACC tournament, and we did indeed win. But after the game, I turned around and saw Coach K hugging Johnny Dawkins right in front of the North Carolina bench. It was a big win for us, and he knew it. We knew then that we could beat anybody, and that we could be great.
Coach K has too many wins, championships and awards to list, and too many great players to count. The players that played for Coach K all had different experiences and different journeys.
But in this regard, we all shared the exact same experience. Each one of us got Coach K's best, every single day. And his best is pretty darn good. In fact, it just may be the best ever.