Mike Krzyzewski called Shane Battier. This was in the summer of 1999. Krzyzewski was approaching the midpoint of his peerless career at Duke, and Battier, too, was halfway through his own stellar tenure at the school. But the situation at the time was one of unease. The Blue Devils had just had one of their best seasons ever and yet had ended it by losing a national championship game they were favored to win. Krzyzewski, meanwhile, had just had hip replacement surgery. And Battier was one of just a few experienced players set to return after three teammates had opted to leave early to play professionally. Battier was in Chicago for an internship at a public relations firm. Now on the other end of the line was the voice of Krzyzewski.

Was he ready, the coach asked the player, to be the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year? Was he ready to lead their team to another league championship?

Battier was taken aback by the blunt prompt. He paused. He laughed a little. He stammered the start of an answer.

Click. Krzyzewski hung up.

The next day around the same time Battier got the same kind of call.

Was Battier ready, Krzyzewski asked, to be a first-team All-American? Was he ready to lead their team back to the Final Four?

Battier again began to waver with his answer.


The day after that Krzyzewski called back a third time. Was Battier ready, Krzyzewski wanted to hear, to be the National Player of the Year? Was he ready to get back to the national championship game? Was he ready to win it?

This time Battier responded without hesitation.

“Coach,” he said. “Absolutely. Yes. I’m your man. You can count on me.”

Shane Battier '01 and Coach Mike Krzyzewski

A Coach for Life: Along with many former players, Shane Battier '01 returned to Cameron Indoor Stadium to celebrate Krzyzewski's 1,000th win at Duke on Nov. 11, 2017.

“Shane,” Battier remembers Coach K saying, “for where we want to be, we will not get there unless you lead us. And if you don’t believe you can lead us, then we’ll never get there.”

“The greatest gift a coach can give a player, a teacher can give a student, and a parent can give to their child is the opportunity to imagine great things,” Krzyzewski once wrote. Battier said in a recent interview with Duke Magazine that’s what he got from Krzyzewski in those three calls, that singular gift. “It was a really important lesson,” he said, “about believing in yourself and visualizing the success that you want to have.”

Michael William Krzyzewski of Duke University is one of the best coaches ever. Not of basketball. Not of college basketball. Of any sport at any level. At 75 years old, heading into his last NCAA tournament in the last of his 42 seasons at Duke, his status is assured because of the record he’s compiled: five national championships, six gold medals as the head coach of the national team, 12 Final Fours, 14 ACC regular-season titles, 15 ACC tournament titles, and well more than a thousand wins and still counting. Nobody else who does what he does, has been as good as he’s been, as much as he’s been, for as long as he’s been. Nobody.

But what Krzyzewski was teaching his teams all these years, say some of his very best players, wasn’t actually and ultimately basketball. Embedded in the motion offense tutorials and the man-to-man defense drills and the grueling preseason practices and the fiery halftime speeches were not merely the finer points of jump shots or bounce passes but the pillars of the lives they’ve lived ever since. A balance between structure and discipline and freedom and fun. Of individual accomplishment and collective accountability. Certain standards of excellence Krzyzewski demanded of them so that they then could demand them of themselves. The overarching mantra of next play, next play, next play.

“The psychology of success is what he was teaching us,” said Grant Hill, “and basketball just so happened to be the vehicle.”

“His secret recipe,” said Christian Laettner.

“The perfect recipe.”

In the case of Shane Battier, the season after the summer in which he got the three calls from Krzyzewski, he was first-team all-conference. And the season after that, as a senior, he was and did what Coach K had gotten him to see that he could be and could do. He was the National Player of the Year. And he led their team to the national championship

“Ever seen his autograph?” Battier asked.

“It’s impeccable,” he said.

“His signature isn’t, like, a big M and then a line with a dot over it, or something like that,” said Debbie Krzyzewski Savarino, his oldest daughter and an assistant director of athletics at Duke. “You can see every single letter. And it’s the same. It’s always, it never, it does not ever look any different … the z and the y and the z …”

“His signature,” said Battier, “is almost a metaphor for everything that he is involved with and his belief in standards.”

Standards. It’s a word that comes up a lot in conversations with the people who played for Coach K. “A level of excellence,” as Krzyzewski has put it, “that we consider our norm.”

Every season was different. Every team was different. Every player was different. What never, ever changed, though, was the extent of his expectation. He was and remains, after all, the son of Polish immigrants on the North Side of Chicago, a father who was an elevator operator and a mother who scrubbed floors. He was and remains, after all, the younger brother of a firefighter who retired as a captain after 37 years in which he missed not a single shift. He was and remains, after all, a graduate of stringent Catholic schools followed by the United States Military Academy at West Point. “I don’t believe in rules,” Krzyzewski sometimes said. “I believe in standards.”

And those standards were as unchanging as the way and the care with which he signed his name. Toughness and trust. Honesty and love. The letters on the front of the jersey, the D and the U and the K and the E, mean more than the letters of any one player’s name on the back. Be the best version of yourself by being part of something bigger than yourself. He so badly wanted to win. He so badly wanted to not lose. But it was never about that. It was never just about the wins or the losses. It was about the work—the work, the “intensive, intelligent, and repetitive work,” as he once described, that made the teams worthy of the wins. Little things are big things. Every play’s a big play. Every game’s a big game.

“This is the most important game on our schedule,” he told his team before a game all the way back in 1982. It was early in the season. It was against a team the Blue Devils almost certainly would beat. Jay Bilas was a freshman, and he sat in the locker room, and he listened to his coach. “It’s the most important game on our schedule because we are playing it, and everything we do is important,” Bilas remembers hearing Coach K say.

“Our opponent did not determine our standard of performance or our level of preparation,” Bilas said. “We were striving to meet a standard of excellence, not just trying to beat this team. If we met our standard of excellence, winning would take care of itself.”

“We’re playing North Carolina, we were expected to play Duke basketball; we’re playing North Carolina A&T … it didn’t matter,” Battier said. “What mattered was: Are we playing to Duke basketball standards?”

“He was never satisfied with the idea of a win is a win. A win is certainly important. It’s better than a loss. But he oftentimes could be more agitated if we didn’t play well in a win than if we played really well in a loss,” Bilas said. “He always uses the phrase, ‘We need to be worthy of winning.’”

“Very demanding … very high expectations … very strict, and then, once he had you kind of whipped into shape, then at the last second, he’d say, ‘Go have fun,’” Laettner said

“Everything’s in steps. Everything’s a progression.”

Like the z and the y and the z

“When you put your signature on something,” he often told his players, “that’s lasting.”

Coach K bows to the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium

Steadfast Belief: Central to Krzyzewski's coaching style is a devotion to the people around him and a belief in each person to do something greater for the larger team.


Next play.

Next play, next play, next play.

“It was foundational,” Hill said.

“It’s the most simple but eloquent lesson he taught all of us,” Battier said. “You won’t ever talk to a Duke basketball player without them bringing up next play.”

It means moving on from a bad play. It means moving on from a good play. It means turning losses into wins and turning wins into more. It means not dwelling on defeats. It means not resting on successes. It means in the end consistency and persistency and above all else presence. “Essentially,” Krzyzewski once wrote, “what it means is that whatever you have just done is not nearly as important as what you are doing right now.”

In the spring of 1990, for instance, after losing in the national championship game by 30 points to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Coach K gathered his team in the locker room back in Durham. “And I thought he was going to say stuff like, ‘Great year, I’m proud of you guys, let’s have a good summer,’” Laettner said. “But he sat us down, and he showed us what everyone was saying about us, and at that moment what everyone was saying was, ‘Duke can’t do it, Duke’s not good enough, they’re not tough enough, they’re not good enough, they’re never gonna win it.’” It was the fuel Krzyzewski used for himself that he then transferred to his team. “Next year,” he said, Laettner recalled, “we’re not only getting to the Final Four—we’re gonna win that thing.”

And then they did, avenging the loss to UNLV with a win in the national semifinals, then earning Krzyzewski’s first title two nights later with a win against Kansas. And suddenly the scenario was absolutely the opposite—but the approach was totally the same. Next play. “He used it differently. He said, ‘You know, what happened last year, no one can take from us, so we’re not defending anything. We’re not defending champions. They can’t come and take what happened last year away—so let’s focus on pursuing,’” Hill said. “So let’s move on, and stay present, and stay in this sort of pursuit mode.” The result, of course, was another national championship—No. 2—back to-back.

“It’s a habit,” Battier said—winning, yes, but more than that: next play. “And if you can develop a habit of you have a great game, you have a poor game, you move on, and you’re starting fresh, and it’s time for the next opportunity, with energy, preparation, positivity, again and again and again and again and again—most people can’t do that—that is the single determinant for success.”

Battier already was a believer, but what happened toward the end of his time at Duke was for him the final, most conclusive piece of proof. In 2001, in his senior season, in his last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Battier’s Blue Devils lost to Maryland. They also lost Carlos Boozer to an injury to his foot. Boozer, a key frontcourt player, would be out for at least several weeks, and Battier, the winningest player in the history of Duke basketball playing for the winningest coach in the history of college basketball, worried whether he would win even one more game at Duke let alone another conference championship or a national championship.

The next day Coach K told him and his teammates they would win it. They would win the national championship. He asked them questions the way he had asked Battier the questions two summers before.

Did they believe in him?

Did they believe in his plans?

Did they believe in their team?




Those Blue Devils didn’t lose again. A month later they were the national champs.

“And if it wasn’t for next play, and the next play habit that had been not just talked about but built over the course of years, we don’t win that championship,” Battier said. “It had to be a habit. It had to be a habit. And thankfully it was.”


As much as or even more than he was a master strategist, Krzyzewski always was a master motivator.

“My dad is a good basketball strategist. There’s no question about that. But the thing that makes him different than anyone else is his ability to motivate and the creative work that goes into teaching motivation,” said Savarino, his daughter and an assistant director of athletics. “He’s a professor of basketball and of motivation and of leadership and of confidence.”

Coach K got his players, from Bilas and Mark Alarie and David Henderson and Johnny Dawkins in the early to mid-‘80s to Trevor Keels and AJ Griffin and Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams and Wendell Moore now nearly 40 years later, to play not only hard and smart but to play together.

He used over and over the image of a fist. “Five guys playing as one, like a fist instead of five outstretched fingers,” he often explained, “are stronger than any of us could ever be individually.”

“To get people to play together, it’s like building a community, a team that believes that if I make the extra pass, I don’t get the assist, but we get a shot, and if I do something to help create an opportunity for the team, that’s a team play—that’s our play,” said Reggie Love, a member of that third national championship team in 2001 and later a captain as a senior and after Duke, a special assistant and personal aide to President Barack Obama from 2007 to 2011. “It’s not just AJ hit the three. No, no, no—Mark got the rebound, and he kicked it out to Paolo, who made the extra pass. That three is everyone’s play. And getting people to believe that three is everyone’s play is the key. Getting people to play that way all season at a high level is the key.”

Krzyzewski hugs daughters Lindy Frasher and Debbie Savarino after his final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium

A Dad First: Krzyzewski hugs daughters Lindy Frasher (left) and Debbie Savarino (right) after his final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5, 2022.

Krzyzewski preached we and us and our instead of me and I and my.

Tales of his motivational tactics are legion. Sometimes when he didn’t think a team had earned the right to wear its Duke-labeled gear, he stripped players of their practice jerseys and made them don plain pinnies. He sometimes in pep talks plunged his West Point saber into a pot of dirt in the middle of the locker room floor. He sometimes demonstrated the level of desire he was seeking by diving on basketballs in locker rooms even when he himself was physically ailing. Sometimes, too, though, he was at his most effective with less theatrical methods.

“Maybe four years ago he didn’t feel like our team early in the season had bought into the program being theirs,” Savarino said. “So, he took a piece of paper and balled it up, and he left it on the floor of the locker room, and he told the managers and the assistant coaches to not pick it up. Just leave it. Leave it there.”

The team arrived for practice and dressed for practice and had practice. The team then went back to the locker room and started getting ready to leave.

Krzyzewski asked them if they had seen the crumpled-up piece of paper on the floor.

Yes, they said. They had.

“Why,” he asked, “didn’t any of you pick it up and throw it away?”

“Well,” some of them said, “it wasn’t my paper.”

“Exactly,” said Coach K. “This is our floor. And we should want to take care of it.”

His 2010 team had won Krzyzewski’s fourth national championship. The 2015 team had won his fifth. This team, Savarino said, didn’t go on to win another—but those Blue Devils who were taught the lesson of the piece of paper on the locker room floor did win the ACC championship. And they did win more than 30 games. The broader, more lasting message registered.

“They got it,” Savarino said. “They understood it.”


Looking back, his former players realize Coach K was their coach not just for four years but forever, not just in basketball but in life.

“I believe in you.”

“Those four words,” Krzyzewski once wrote. “When you look someone in the eyes and tell them, ‘I believe in you,’ you are letting them know, ‘You are not going to take this journey alone.’”

Christian Laettner talked about 1998. It was six years after he graduated, and he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon, and he had the surgery done at Duke. And Krzyzewski made sure he wasn’t alone. “He just said, ‘You’re fine, you’re going to get through this, you’re going to be OK, I know you can do it—I believe in you,’” Laettner said. “And that’s all you need to hear.”

Grant Hill talked about his recurring troubles a few years after that. And Krzyzewski made sure he wasn’t alone. “He was coming by and telling me, ‘You’re going to get through this, you’re going to play,’” Hill said. “He was there for Christian, and he was certainly, definitely, there for me.”

Reggie Love talked about his first presidential campaign with Barack Obama. Little plays are big plays if they’re team plays, Love knew, knew from Duke, knew from Coach K, and he reminded himself of this as he took the care to do the grunt work well. “Like getting breakfast for the candidate in the middle of Keene, New Hampshire, in 30-degree weather,” Love said—not so different, he thought, from setting the right screen or making the extra pass to try to help the team win.

“The lessons Coach K taught me, sometimes against my will, shaped the way I live my daily life,” Jay Bilas wrote in 2013 in his book titled Toughness. The first game Bilas ever worked for ESPN as a basketball analyst was UNC Greensboro against Charleston Southern, and he recalled what Krzyzewski had said in the locker room all the way back when he was a freshman. This is most important game on our schedule. He prepared for it as if it were a championship game.

Krzyzewski exits Cameron Indoor Stadium following his final game, against the University of North Carolina, on March 5, 2022.

His House: Krzyzewski exits Cameron Indoor Stadium following his final game, against the University of North Carolina, on March 5, 2022.

“The lessons that I took away from Coach K, of next play, of teamwork and standards,” Battier, now a 43-year-old husband and father, told Duke Magazine, “they were applicable to everything.” Playing in the NBA. Coaching his son’s eighth-grade team. Making corporate keynotes to crowds in the thousands. Making speeches to 25 people. Leading his philanthropic efforts through his Take Charge Foundation. Leading his youth basketball clinics.

“Everything,” he said.

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