One last dance at Cameron for Coach K

Coach Mike Krzyzewski prepares for the final home game of his career

Coach Mike Krzyzewski will lead the Blue Devils for the final time at Cameron Indoor Stadium when Duke hosts rival UNC on Saturday. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

It’s time. We’ve reached the end of the road.

From the time coach Mike Krzyzewski announced that this season would be his last, he’s tried to keep the team focused on the path directly in front of it instead of what lay ahead. He went as far as to ban the words “final” and “last” from Duke’s vocabulary.

Time after time, he deflected questions about his feelings as the end neared. That happened even this week, when Coach K evoked images of shot-blocking center Mark Williams, swatting away questions about the UNC game.

“My total focus is on Pitt,” he said, speaking of the game Duke played on Tuesday night, after press time. “I don’t look at a week. I look at my next opponent. I’ve done that since I learned how to coach a few decades ago.”

“We’ve always evoked a lot of attention, maybe a little bit more now, but it’s something I’ve had the honor of dealing with for a good part of my career,” he said later. “Pitt’s the only thing on my mind right now.”

Krzyzewski finished off his shutdown of UNC talk with, “It doesn’t make any difference what happens afterwards. We want to beat Pitt and lock up the No. 1 seed (in the ACC). To me, that’s the biggest thing happening this week.”

But now, with Pitt in the books, there are no detours left. Last and final can reenter the lexicon. Krzyzewski’s time at Duke is down to one more regular season game — Saturday evening, at Cameron Indoor, against North Carolina.

It promises to be the hottest ticket in sports, with the cheapest available seats on the secondary market starting at $3,000. The average price is higher than most Super Bowls, NBA Finals and World Series tickets. A charity auction bidder before the season paid a million dollars for four seats.

In addition to being Coach K’s final game, it’s against the Tar Heels, which is always a hot ticket. Duke may have already wrapped up the regular season title by game time, while UNC is currently at No. 3 in the league. As they are wont to do, Duke students have been camping outside Cameron for more than a month, one last time pitching a tent in Krzyzewskiville before the area gets renamed Scheyerland.

Duke won by 20 in Chapel Hill last month. Before the game, in the tunnel leading to the court, Krzyzewski posed for a photo with Roy Williams, who retired after 18 years as UNC coach prior to this season. Also joining them were Hubert Davis, a former Tar Heels player and Williams assistant who replaced him on the bench, and Jon Scheyer, a former Blue Devil player and Krzyzewski assistant who will replace him when this season ends.

“It was great,” Coach K said of the photo. “I have the ultimate respect (for them). I’m friends with both Roy and Hubert. I have friendship and respect professionally for what they’ve done with the program and carrying on the tradition that’s been there since Coach (Frank) McGuire. Dean (Smith) cemented it. They’ve kept it going. It meant a lot to have that and to have Hubert and Jon in the picture because they’ll be the ones carrying it forward for a number of years ahead of them.”

It was a private moment of reflection that eventually came out on social media when the photo was posted. There was also one time this season when Coach K let his deflector shields down publicly, following his penultimate game at Cameron, a win over Florida State on Feb. 19. He had just returned to the bench after suffering a health scare against Wake Forest, and he took a moment to look down the road.

“We have Virginia coming up,” he started. “That’s all I’m thinking of. There’s plenty of time for that.”

Then he reversed course abruptly, giving one fleeting glimpse as to what he’s feeling.

“I know it will be emotional the last game here,” he said. “Some of these games have been a little bit emotional for me in one way and another. Even today with all the crowd, you want to savor that feeling because you’re only going to be able to walk out on that court one more time and have that feeling, but it makes me understand how lucky I’ve been to do it hundreds of times. Not a dozen… Like 600 times or… I don’t know how many games I’ve coached, but a lot. And how lucky I’ve been to have a moment like that to savor, but I’ve had those moments hundreds of times. It’s been a blessing to be the coach here and with this crowd and our culture. Lucky guy. I’ve been a very, very lucky guy.”