DURHAM — When Mike Krzyzewski enters the media room at Cameron Indoor Stadium, he’s often joined by a small group of people in the back of the room.
They’re ushered in just as Coach K arrives, when all eyes are on the front of the room to hear the Hall of Fame coach break down what just happened on the floor. And they’re whisked out as the questions wind down so they can be brought around to meet with Krzyzewski near his office.
They’re children from various Make-A-Wish branches around the state, whose one wish was to see a game at Cameron and get to spend time with Coach K.
And it will likely upset him to no end that you now know this.
While Krzyzewski is active in a variety of charity efforts, including Coaches vs. Cancer, the V Foundation, Duke Hospital and the Emily Krzyzewski Center, which serves the youth of Durham, he wanted his work with seriously ill children to be kept quiet.
There are several reasons for this. Given the limits on Cameron’s capacity and Krzyzewski’s time, it’s likely already tough to grant all the wishes that he receives, and any additional publicity would make it even harder to manage.
There’s also the backlash from social media commenters that seems to accompany anything Krzyzewski does — from visiting Paul George in the hospital following a serious injury suffered by the NBA star during a Team USA event to announcing his retirement a year in advance.
And there’s a final reason that he shuns attention for his work with kids.
“That’s not why he does it,” said a Duke official when asked about it years ago. The same official warned that it would be tough to get information from the programs or families. “No one is going to talk to you,” came the warning. And they didn’t — still haven’t.
Whether we know about it or not, Mike Krzyzewski has done far more for Duke, the state and college basketball, far more than his wins and titles, which, on their own merit, are impressive enough.
It’s been a simple approach that Krzyzewski has followed: Do what needs to be done, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
It’s what he did in his first head coaching job at Army in the late 1970s. Just before breaking the college basketball career wins record back in 2012, Krzyzewski reflected on his early days at West Point, when he and his family spent a weekend painting the bleachers in the basketball arena with another shade of gray paint. Why?
“There wasn’t anybody else to do it,” he explained.
He was doing what needed to be done at Duke when he complained about a “double standard” in favor of Dean Smith in the early days of his clashes with the Tar Heels, and when he offered his resignation to AD Tom Butters when back problems forced him from the sideline in 1995.
“When I did that, I knew I couldn’t lead my team, and I just think that comes from the military,” Krzyzewski said. “If you’re not, there should be a different leader.”
Now Coach K is doing it again, announcing that the upcoming season will be his last with Duke and giving his hand-picked replacement, Jon Scheyer, a year as coach-in-waiting to ensure a smooth transition.
Krzyzewski said it was “extremely important” to have the plan for a successor mapped out before he announced his retirement, especially with recruiting beginning for the summer.
He said he would not take an active role in recruiting players he wouldn’t be around to coach, saying he wants “complete transparency and clarity” on the recruiting trail.
Coach K looked back on his time at West Point to explain the importance of having Scheyer in place a year ahead of time.
“In the service, you are constantly looking at succession,” he said. “Wherever you go, you’re taking over for somebody in command, and that person helps you. It’s called continuity of excellence.”
Krzyzewski did the same thing with Team USA, working with his successor, Gregg Popovich — who he pointed out is “an Air Force guy” — to maintain continuity with the national team.
“If you do not have somebody who can take command, you’re in trouble,” he said. “And we do (at Duke). I don’t want everything to end when I stop coaching. I want it to continue.”
Krzyzewski’s efforts to do what needs to be done over 46 years of coaching, 41 at Duke, will ensure that the work he’s done will continue … whether he lets us know about it or not.