Call him Mike Krzyzewski. Call him Coach K. Either way, you address the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history with a measure of reverence.
It’s impossible to have a conversation about college basketball without thinking about Coach K and his remarkable program at Duke University. Like John Wooden and Dean Smith, he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball.
The Naismith Hall of Famer has led his Blue Devils to two of their five national championships in Minneapolis, and his highly ranked squad has a very good chance of being part of this year’s Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium.
During Coach K’s tenure, the university has produced eight national players of the year, 12 national coach of the year honors, 25 NBA lottery picks, 61 NBA draft selections (including 38 first rounders) and countless other records. His bona fides also include six gold medals won by the USA Basketball Men’s National Team under his coaching.
As Artful Living Editor-in-Chief Kate Nelson and I walked through campus toward Cameron Indoor on our way to interview Coach K, we stopped by Krzyzewskiville. While it appears to be a tent city, K-Ville, as it’s known on campus, is actually a complex development where students camp out for months to gain access to the biggest game of the season: North Carolina at Duke. K-Ville has strict rules surrounding safety and the university’s commitment to academics. The fact that it’s named for the current coach underscores how large Krzyzewski looms in Durham, North Carolina.
In the conversation that follows, I didn’t bring up the multitude of accolades. Instead, Coach K and I discussed his views on players going pro after just one college season, where he stands on college athletes getting paid, how a couple of Minnesotans have thrived in his program and the influence of his late mother, Emily. And I learned how this Chicago kid from a working-class family has accomplished so much through commitment, hard work, love and an uncanny ability to connect with his players.
Up in Minnesota, we have a Timberwolves player by the name of Tyus Jones, and he was one of those one-and-done players — a year in college and gone. How has your viewpoint on that evolved?
We really haven’t changed the type of kid who we recruit. Everyone says we’ve gone into one-and-done, but it’s the world that’s changed. Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Christian Laettner — all those kids would have been one-and-done. Tyus is that guy. Brandon Ingram is that guy.
But now, if we’ve done a good job preparing them, after one year they’re ready. What’s tough is that you can’t have that same level of relationship that four years will create. But with Tyus, I had a great relationship with him for that one year, and we’ve continued that relationship. I have that with Kyrie Irving and these kids. They’re still part of our family, but they only lived in the house for one year.
When you say you still recruit that kind of guy, who is that?
There are three incredible elements, and they’re all of equal importance. One is talent: He has to have a high level of talent — championship DNA. Next is academics: He has to be a good student, because we have a global school here. And third is character: He has to be a good guy. What kind of family does he come from? How was he in his high-school setting? Was he a good teammate? Who were his friends? Since the mid-eighties when I recruited Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson, I’ve just tried to recruit them over and over again. And it’s worked for us.
It’s the beginning of a great relationship that hopefully will last a lifetime. We don’t want it to be just while they’re here. If I start a relationship with you, I’ve committed to you even before you’re committed to me. If a youngster can understand the magnitude of that and what it can lead to, it can create high-level stuff in every area.
Tyus and Tre Jones — two brothers, two Minnesotans. What impact have they had on your program?
The Jones brothers have been spectacular. Both of them are off the charts in all three areas. Maybe the most, though, is in character. When Tyus and Tre are in a group, that group is elevated, whether on or off the court, because they will only accept the best.
And I think it comes from their family. Debbie has been an amazing mom for her sons and one of the greatest parents to work with because she trusts the teacher. I have a great relationship with her, and I have absolutely loved coaching her sons. But also, the community in Apple Valley — coach Zach Goring, the teachers, the students — it’s one of those spots, man, that produces good. Every time I visit, I feel good.
These two guys are unbelievable representatives, and I’ve loved them. Literally. I don’t have sons; I have daughters and grandsons. And if I could pick two guys to be sons, Tyus and Tre are two I would pick. Because I enjoy being with them all the time.
The relationship I have now with Tre is a treasured one. Tyus had the magic carpet ride [to the NBA], and he did the right thing. We’ll see what happens with Tre. But having that level of relationship has made me want to coach more.
It’s the type of relationship I had with Amaker and Battier and Bobby Hurley and JJ Redick. In this short period of time, Tre and I have developed this deep relationship, and a big part of it is that I’ve known him since he was in seventh grade. When we recruited Tyus, I got to know Tre really well. Actually, Tre was the Duke fan. So I think he helped us get Tyus. And thank goodness he stayed a Duke fan.
Where do you come down on this age-old debate about if college athletes should be compensated or receive endorsements? I’ve heard passionate arguments on both sides.
First, people should realize how much more is done for a scholarship athlete now, really in the past three to four years. What Tre gets now is so much different than what Tyus got. Basically, when Tre came to school here, he didn’t have to bring anything. Everything was taken care of for him.
I think it would be very complicated to pay, but we need to figure out endorsements. I’d be a very big proponent of that — not necessarily something they get now, but a trust. There are people who know how to do these things, and I don’t pretend to be one of them. But I think we could figure out endorsements; I think that’s the next wave. But in terms of paying, they are already getting a lot.
You’ve spent 39 years here, almost four decades. What have been the biggest changes over the arc of your career?
You have to be adaptable to the people you have the honor to coach. In any leadership position, your values can be the same, but how do you get those values across to the group that you lead? And how do you adapt your teaching to these kids? So things have changed along the way. And it helps me change. You know, it helps me stay current. I’m 72 years old, and I feel young. And I have to feel young —
You look young.
I’m coaching kids who are more than 50 years younger than me. So a lot of it has to do with communication. How do they communicate with one another? How do they learn? What is their attention span? What music do they like? I have to be in their world, which I like. They have to be in my world, too, and that’s part of their growth. Because if you don’t adapt to each other, it’s not going to work.
I learned that at the highest level when I coached the U.S. team for 11 years. We took everybody’s best practices and adapted a culture based on those. Those guys had crossed a lot of bridges before I coached them. The guys I get here [at Duke] haven’t crossed bridges yet. That’s the cool thing about coaching younger guys — you help them cross bridges to new limits. And if you’re part of that, then you have a lifelong relationship with that youngster.
I’m not an NBA coach; I’m a college coach. So I want to win a national championship, but I also want to teach. I want to win there. And I think we’ve won both, but it starts from winning there, before you win on the podium. And my school gives me that opportunity. This is a great school. My guys are surrounded by talent, both on and off the court.
You have so much to give these kids. And really, as you get older, you realize how little time there is in life to do that. How do you get all of that into each day, into each week?
Well, your culture helps teach it. In other words, it’s not just me. All my assistants are my former players and captains. My staff is fantastic. So my guys are surrounded by people who have the same set of values, who own this. It’s not just me teaching them. It becomes a way of life.
You mentioned coaching the U.S. national team. How do you approach coaching those guys? You’ve still got to get them to play as a team, even though the bridges they’ve crossed come from different directions.
First of all, you have to show that you’re OK adapting to them. I had individual meetings with them, and I asked, What do you like? How about practice? What about this?
And when I had my first meeting with all of them together, I said, you’re not playing for the USA. We won’t be good if you’re just playing for the USA. We have to learn how to be USA Basketball. You are — I get chills thinking about it — you are USA Basketball. When you go back to your room, your uniform will be out on your bed. Take a minute, be a kid and feel what an honor it is to play for this country.
So I met individually with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd, and I told them, “When you come to our meeting, I’d like you to say something. I’m going to say two things: Look each other in the eye when you talk to one another, and always tell one another the truth. Those are two of my standards.” And then during the meeting, all four of them said something, which is unbelievable.
We came up with 15 standards. Jason Kidd said we’re not going to be late. And I said, “That’s showing respect for one another. We haven’t respected the world, and we’ve gotten our butts beat. Let’s have another standard that we never have a bad practice. Are you guys all cool with that? Now you’re responsible for practice, too, not just me.”
So in the 11 years I coached, for those five championships, we never had a guy late and we never had a bad practice. LeBron’s standard was no excuses. Kobe’s were strong defense and rebounding. Dwyane Wade’s were care for one another, have one another’s back. Just fundamental things, but no rules. Rules are someone else’s that you have to obey, but standards are yours and you own them. Those guys produced a great culture for USA Basketball, because they owned it.
What part of your central philosophy has made Duke a top program and sustained it at the top?
You passionately work at what you love, and you don’t have a rearview mirror. What you’ve done has been good — now what else are you going to do? Stay hungry. And get good people who will buy into a central theme of work and accomplishment.
My mother — God bless her — who never went to high school told me, “Tomorrow, make sure you get on the right bus.” She didn’t mean the bus that took me through the city of Chicago to high school, but the bus of life. She said, “You’re going to meet new people. Don’t let anyone on your bus who’s not a good person, and don’t get on anybody’s bus who’s not a good person. And that bus will take you places that you would not be able to travel to alone.” It was the best advice, and it’s a central theme of our program. Bring good people on the bus. Sometimes let Hurley, Laettner, Zion Williamson drive it. Associate yourself with really good people. It’s so fundamental.
It really is. And to think of it from a woman of her generation, who didn’t go to high school.
No high school. She was a cleaning lady. She was the best. Unbelievably wise. And I learned the work ethic of being precise from her. When I was at West Point, she said, “Mike, you think you’re something, you’re at West Point. I have my graduate degree. I’m a domestic engineer, and I specialize in chasing dirt. And you know what? I win all the time.”
She lived until ’96. After we had won a couple championships, she asked, “Mike, how did this happen?” And I said, “Because of you.”
One quick story. This is an amazing story. So we’re playing for the national championship in Denver in 1990. We shouldn’t have been there; we overachieved. And Las Vegas (UNLV) just killed us. It was the largest loss in any championship game in the NCAA.
I go back to our suite, and I’m sitting in front of the fireplace. My mom comes in and sees that I’m down. And she says, “Mike.” And I say, “What, Ma?” And she says, “Don’t worry. You’ll do better next year.” And I say, “Ma, we played for a national championship and lost.”
But a year later, we won the national championship. We beat UNLV in the semis, then we beat Kansas. So after the game, I’m sitting in the suite, and she comes in and says, “Mike.” And I say, “Ma.” And she says, “I told you you would do better.” That’s amazing, right? I’m telling you, it’s a true story. I’m not embellishing it. How about that?
Incredible. Listen to your mother — this is the moral of the story. Finally, how much do you think about legacy? And what do you want it to be?
I don’t think about legacy. Because when you start thinking about legacy, you stop living. I’d rather just live and let legacy take care of itself. If I start coaching for legacy, it’s a disservice to the kids who I coach. They need me to be on their bus, even though I might drive it. I need to be in their moment. If we end up getting a chance to win this whole thing, these kids should not be playing for my sixth championship. They should be playing for their first. And staying in that moment is so much more exciting.
I really don’t even like that word — legacy. It just means you’re done. If you do it right, legacy will take care of itself. I was just at the service for President Bush, who was a great friend, celebrating his legacy. Holy mackerel — talk about legacy. There’ll be a time for that. For now, just keep achieving and just keep reinventing yourself.
Minnesota natives Tyus and Tre Jones bleed blue.
There are nine sets of brothers currently playing for NBA teams. Next season, that fraternity is almost certain to include another pair, a duo hailing from a basketball-obsessed family in Apple Valley, a southern Twin Cities suburb.
The Jones brothers — Tyus, the 22-year-old point guard for his hometown Minnesota Timberwolves, and Tre, the 19-year-old freshman point guard for the Duke Blue Devils and a likely first-round pick in June’s NBA draft — have lived and breathed basketball since they came out of the womb.
Their mother, Debbie, played point guard in high school and won a North Dakota state championship. Their father, Rob, played Division III basketball. An aunt and an uncle both played Division I ball, as did a cousin.
“Basketball was literally all we did,” recalls Tyus. “Family conversations revolved around basketball.” NBA and college games were always on television. Their mother drove them all across the state to watch games. It’s no wonder that when any NBA scout or coach discusses the Jones brothers that the first thing out of their mouth is invariably about the duo’s preternatural basketball IQ.
When Tyus decided to attend Duke, perhaps the person who was most excited was his younger brother. Tre was the huge Blue Devils fan, with posters hung all over his childhood bedroom. When Tre got to campus last year, a huge amount of pressure already weighed on his shoulders: His older brother won a national championship during his one-and-done freshman season back in 2015, and Tre himself is part of one of the most acclaimed recruiting classes in college basketball history, headlined by Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, who are expected to be the top two picks in the upcoming NBA draft.
Duke games this season aren’t just basketball games; they’re cultural events in a way that college games rarely are. Much of that is because of Williamson, who has the body of a defensive end but the 40-plus-inch vertical leap of an elite NBA athlete — plus the Instagram following of a Kardashian at 2.6 million and counting. But even more than Williamson, the key to Duke winning a title will be the point guard from the Twin Cities, just like back in 2015.
If this Duke team makes it to April’s Final Four, Tre will be playing at U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, just a mile east of where Tyus plays his home games for the Minnesota Timberwolves. And the Timberwolves will be on a three-game homestand at that time. So if Tre’s team makes it, Tyus will undoubtedly be in the stands, cheering on the hometown kid trying to do something great at Duke University before heading to the pros. Just like his older brother did. –Reid Forgrave