Special Issues » College Basketball

This rough magic: Why Coach K is Prospero



Mike Krzyzewski is Prospero. That's what I decided a few days after the Duke men's basketball head coach was celebrated by a full and famous house at Cameron Indoor Stadium last week, following his 904th career win, an 82-69 triumph over Davidson. Krzyzewski had won his 903rd three days earlier up in New York City, passing his mentor, Bobby Knight (who was doing color commentary for ESPN), for the most wins in NCAA Division I Men's Basketball history.

The on-court ceremony after the Davidson game gave the locals a belated feting of their hero, and Krzyzewski humbly received their adoration and returned it—he said the celebration was "sweeter" at Cameron than it had been in New York.

After valedictories by Duke President Richard Brodhead, Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford and Duke Athletic Director Kevin White, Krzyzewski gave a gracious, heartfelt, funny and polished (but seemingly improvised) eight-minute speech. Addressing the student section, Krzyzewski hoped that "you find a place where you just believe magic can happen."

Then he raised his arms up toward the many championship banners hanging from the rafters. "And you know what?" he added. "Magic has happened."

Krzyzewski omitted the obvious: He himself is the magician.

Krzyzewski's character isn't easy to know. He's comfortable in the spotlight and good at the grandstanding part of his job—not in a dissembling way, but as the necessary projection of his leadership to the rafters—and although he declared his love for his family as well as those who have supported him along the way (as indeed Prospero does), that doesn't make him unique among powerful leaders. Anyone in Krzyzewski's position would express the same sentiment.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the entire scenario is set in motion by the protagonist himself. Prospero, long exiled to Bermuda with his daughter by his brother Antonio, who has usurped the Dukedom of Milan, whips up a storm and wrecks Antonio's ship on the island. He's got magical powers, his "books" and a fairy spirit, Ariel, who is compelled by indebtedness to do Prospero's bidding. Throughout the play, we watch Ariel execute Prospero's schemes, which summon destruction, anguish and bondage in the ultimate service of setting all to right.

Among the curious things about Prospero as a dramatic hero is that he has no real obstacles or antagonists. As his name suggests, he thrives from beginning to end. Because he possesses magic, it's easy for him to ward off any threat, overcome any trouble and fulfill his every desire. The pleasure of The Tempest is not really dramatic: It inheres in watching Prospero's magic machinery operate, manufacturing the just outcome—whereupon he frees Ariel, as he promised to do, and "drowns" his magic book, asking for the audience's applause to set him, finally, free.

What drives Prospero to this great magic show? It's to avenge an old wrong—to get his Dukedom back—and to find a suitable mate for his motherless daughter. At the celebration following the Davidson game, it was apparent that Krzyzewski had accomplished the latter goal: There were his three Mirandas, beaming and surrounded by their own young children.

As for the former, there is no direct analogue. Krzyzewski doesn't seem to have lost anything that was rightly his. He left his first head-coaching job, at Army, voluntarily to come to Duke. Krzyzewski said in his speech last week that "you do not get [to 903 wins] without paying a price"—he repeated the assertion, to drive it home—and seemed to indicate that the price had to do with having had losing records in two of his first three seasons at Duke. He lavishly thanked Tom Butters, the erstwhile athletic director who hired him, for standing by him early on.

Really, though, Butters was just giving Krzyzewski time to recruit his own players, and in short order Coach K had his team in the 1986 National Championship game. Since then, he's won four titles, earned millions of dollars, become the "pinnacle of our profession," as Kansas coach Bill Self put it, brought riches and reputation to Duke University and sent many, many Ariels—that is, his players, who have executed his magical Xs and Os—on to prosperous lives of their own.

So what is the vengeance that drives Michael William Krzyzewski, year after year, day after day, to win, win, win basketball games at Duke? It becomes necessary to try to think like he does, to get behind the eyes of a ruthless competitor and to see each single victory and championship not as a new jewel with which to stud his already priceless crown but as that which has been unjustly taken from him; as though every game has already been usurped before the opening tip, and Krzyzewski must fabricate a terrifying tempest—think of the infamous frenzy of the Cameron Crazies, not to mention the demoralizing of the opponent—in order to regain what is rightfully his. The game-by-game fulfillment of that single-minded, ego-driven need nourishes in turn his deep devotion to his family, his generosity to those who have served him and the mutual loyalty he shares with his inner circle.

How else to make sense of Krzyzewski? He could have gone on to the steeper challenge and global glitter of the NBA. He could have tried his hand at reviving another program, as Roy Williams did when he left Kansas for his alma mater, UNC. Instead, Krzyzewski chose, and chooses, to stay here, consolidating and compressing his power in tiny Cameron Indoor Stadium.

He may have found a strategy that eluded the bookish and lonely Prospero himself. Prospero may be an unchallenged protagonist, but the exiled duke genuinely wants to go home to Milan. That is the underlying lack, the circumstance that conditions The Tempest.

"What we've been able to try to do here," Krzyzewski said last week at Cameron, "is build a family. And we feel like this is our home." The lawn outside the building, where ticket-hopeful students pitch their tents, is called Krzyzewskiville. He came long ago to his Bermuda Triangle and set about rebuilding his Dukedom in the very place. Others now come to pay tribute at his court now flush with the royalty of his own anointing. "This brave new world," Prospero's daughter Miranda exclaims, "that has such people in it!"

Add a comment