On Friday night, the Duke Blue Devils, led by likely No. 1 2022 NBA draft pick Paolo Banchero, beat the up-till-then-undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs, led by likely No. 2 2022 NBA draft pick Chet Holmgren. It was — and, until March Madness will likely remain — the biggest game in college basketball this season, involving two brand-name college hoops institutions and two players NBA observers are watching closely. It was as good as the sport gets.
But ESPN’s broadcast of the game barely touched on any of that. The only story the network seemed interested in was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s impending retirement at the end of the season and how difficult it will be for the rest of humanity to continue shuffling around this planet in his absence.
Every college basketball game is a Mike Krzyzewski lovefest this season. And I remember when that would have made most people want to puke.
Krzyzewski, whose name I have been typing for 30 years and still can’t spell correctly without Googling, is unquestionably the best coach in men’s college basketball history. During his 41-year run at Duke, he has been named National Coach of the Year three times, reached 12 Final Fours, and won five national championships (possibly a sixth this year), three Olympic gold medals, and an all-time record 1,177 games, the most by far for a Division I men’s coach. The preseason announcement from Coach K (the nickname everyone uses because they can’t spell Krzyzewski either) that he would step down at the end of it instantly became the biggest story in college basketball. The whole year has been one ongoing farewell tour.
What’s strange is that during this final season, everyone is pretending they love Coach K and that they always have. As someone who has been watching college basketball his entire life, let me assure you: They do not and they have not. There have been few coaches, or really sports figures anywhere, more universally despised than Coach K. I mean, he coaches at Duke. I once joked that if there were one perfect image that would instantly fill the bodies of sports fans with bile, it would be this one:
Duke has long been the bane of many fans’ existence. It is an irresistibly annoying combination of relentlessly successful and insufferably smug. Its veterans include some of the sport’s most truly hateable personalities, from Christian Laettner to Chris Collins to Grayson Allen. And the team long ago took on the personality of its coach: smarmy on the outside and snarling and nasty on the inside. Coach K maintains a smiling, aw-shucks public personality, but he’s actually a profane, grouchy, occasionally downright cruel person who has a better PR staff than his mentor Bob Knight ever did — but otherwise is in many ways indistinguishable from him. Krzyzewski once called his players “fucking babies.” He once beckoned ten student-newspaper staffers to his office and screamed profanities at them for ten minutes because they gave his team a “B+.” He once lost his mind at the Duke student section for reasons that still no one entirely understands. He requires a fingerprint scan to enter his office. When called out on inconsistencies, he regularly lies to cover himself.
It’s possible you think these offenses are no big deal or that I’m building an unfair case against Coach K just to make him look bad. That’s fine. (Though if you want more examples of his boorish behavior, there are literally two full books’ worth. Also, his grandson is on the team this year and just got a DUI while driving with the team’s star, and no one has even been suspended yet.) The point is that people have hated Coach K his entire career. But now that it’s swan-song time, all that bitterness has suddenly vanished. Coach K is to be considered a legend leaving in his prime, an example of the sport at its best, a saint who walked among us. It’s narrative whiplash: You almost feel churlish reminding everyone what they used to think of the guy.
This dynamic is weirdly common in sports, particularly when it comes to players. Randy Moss was the most controversial player in the NFL when he was on the field; now that he has retired, he yuks it up on Fox Sports every week, sometimes alongside broadcaster Joe Buck, who once famously called him “disgusting.” Every Allen Iverson game during his career seemed to be some sort of referendum on the sport’s place in popular culture; today, he is considered an unimpeachable icon. (And, uh, I sort of feel obliged here to point out that we spent most of Kobe Bryant’s career arguing about him too.) I’m not sure there has been a more widely reviled athlete in my lifetime than Alex Rodriguez; now, not only is he a respected entrepreneur; he’s also a marquee commentator on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. (And even weirder: He’s super-bad at it!) To hear the conversation when he was playing, you’d think his retirement would be spent in forced exile. Instead, he is a larger, and more respected, part of the game now than he ever was then.
Some of this public-perception vertigo can be chalked up to justifiable reevaluation of initially flawed story lines and narratives. (Iverson is the perfect example there.) But mostly, I think the phenomenon occurs with regularity because sports are about being inflamed and wildly passionate in the moment, then moving on from that moment to a new one. Sports seem so urgent while they’re happening. But then there are just more sports, and those seem urgent too, and then we don’t remember what we were ever so fired up about before. In all honesty: Are you really still angry about the Deflategate “scandal?” Do you even remember what it was about or what the advantage the supposedly deflated footballs were supposed to confer? I would bet that Tom Brady will become the poster boy for sports revisionism: When he retires (probably in 2048), we’ll look back at his career with nostalgia-tinted glasses and gloss over how much we hissed at him in the moment. When our grandchildren ask us what it was like to watch Tom Brady play, we could be honest and respond, “Well, we all Photoshopped penises on his head and called him a fascist.” Instead, we’ll tell them he was the greatest we ever saw. We’ll probably even convince ourselves that we felt unconflicted about him all along.
This is all logical and probably even sane. The fun of sports is to lose your mind, then return back to Earth; it’s the one truly harmless place to do that. When we “hate” a sports figure, we don’t really “hate” them: We just funnel our negative sports emotions — which are much different, and much healthier, than real negative emotions — into that player, letting them represent everything and everyone we want to see lose so that our team can win.
During Coach K’s last season, everyone is pretending they have always loved and admired him. This is the opposite of the truth, but maybe it’s okay that we’re lying to ourselves. The guy has made the bile rise in our throats for four decades. It’s probably healthy to let it go. It’s probably even healthy to pretend it was never there in the first place. After all: We’re going to need our energy for the next coach to hate. If you haven’t chosen a candidate yet — I’d recommend Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, but to each their own — don’t worry: You will soon. As well you should.