Selling Himself: What it was like to be recruited Mike Krzyzewski before and after he became a Duke legend

Selling Himself: What it was like to be recruited Mike Krzyzewski before and after he became a Duke legend

Since Mike Krzyzewski arrived in the Research Triangle to become head basketball coach at Duke in March of 1980, just short of 42 years ago, approximately 1,008 young men have been selected to participate in the McDonald’s All-American Game. More than 8 percent of them then went on to play for Coach K.

There haven’t always been 358 NCAA Division I programs, but there have been a lot of them during Krzyzewski’s career. Even if one only wishes to restrict the pool of programs that might land one of the 25 top high school players to the “high majors”, that still is a universe of about 80 teams. So his share of the McDonald’s guys should have been a little more than a dozen.

If you want to understand how Krzyzewski, now in his final season at Duke, came to win more games than any other Division I men’s coach, to tie the record for Final Four appearances at 12, how he was able to build a program that won five NCAA championships, it begins there.

COACH K’S FINAL SEASON

Chapter 1: Ending the era

Chapter 2: Inside the greatest game of all

Chapter 3: Getting recruited by the legend

He has recruited and developed 68 NBA Draft selections, 42 first-rounders, 28 lottery picks. A lot of what goes into producing pros, though, is the coaching and experience they receive while in school. But no coach can make a pro out of someone who doesn’t have the ability. So finding and attracting talent is essential. Recruiting is a discipline in which Krzyzewski has excelled almost from the start.

Almost.

In his first full recruiting class, which would arrive in the fall of 1981, he landed four players, only three of whom remained their full careers, none of whom ever averaged double-figure scoring for the Blue Devils.

He decided then to change his approach. Duke would go all-out after a select group of players, putting all the program’s energy into convincing those few young men they belonged in Durham. If the Blue Devils struck out, it would be disastrous. There would be essentially no backup plan. They did not strike out.

The recruiting class of Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson ultimately saved Krzyzewski’s job and established Duke as the dominant college basketball program of the past four decades. And a key element of that has remained Duke’s narrow focus. It’s why you can talk to players who became All-Americans, conference players of the year and national champions and discover Duke never recruited them.

So what was it like to be recruited by the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history?

Years later, there are many memories, all of them revealing.

Jay Bilas

Center, 1982-86

1,062 career points

One Final Four

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I didn’t know at the time that he had changed his thought process in recruiting, that he was going to recruit fewer players and really concentrate on them. Because they had a wider net the year before and didn’t get anybody they wanted. So it was kind of a sink-or-swim strategy with our group.

He spent a ton of time getting to know each one of our situations.

He traveled out to watch me play in an outdoor pickup game one time. And then traveled back. So he came out and sat on the steps of this portable classroom. I grew up in Los Angeles, in a town called Rolling Hills. People know it now because Tiger Woods had his accident right at my high school. So probably 1,000 yards from where that happened, Coach K sat on these wooden steps of a portable classroom, because we had a huge high school, and space was an issue.

I played a blacktop outdoor pickup game with my high school teammates, and he sat there and watched it. Back then, he couldn’t talk to me while that was going on. And then just got back on the the plane and few back. Ain’t nobody else doing that. None of the local coaches did that. He did it.

My high school had rules about off campus. So when you were a senior, you were allowed to go off campus for lunch. And so I went to lunch with him, and we went to this little Mexican place that I used to like to go to a lot, because I could afford it.

The bill couldn’t have been much more than $10. This was 1981. And he was not the only guy I went to lunch with. He made me pay my share. Nobody else did that. That’s like, man, this dude is dialed into stuff. He’s not going to short-cut anything.

I didn’t like the recruiting process. I didn’t like being pressured. I didn’t like being sold. A lot of the recruiting came off like they were trying to sell me a used car, and I didn’t care for it. I didn’t like talking on the phone. I didn’t like any of that crap.

We had an assistant at the time named Chuck Swenson, who was and is a great guy. And so Chuck had called me. I was really close to committing. I wanted it over with. But I wanted to do it on my timeline. So Chuck calls, and that was back in the rotary phone days, and I’m on this rotary phone in my mother’s kitchen. And it was right next to her washing machine. And the machine was open and there were clothes inside that were soaking. So Chuck is really pressuring me, and the hook he was using is John Feinstein is writing an article about Coach K for a magazine called Inside Sports, so what Chuck wanted was if I committed before the article, the ending of the article is: They got Bilas. So he was really pressuring me, and I got pissed off about it. I told him no, and he kept hammering me, and so I hung up on him. The phone was a wall unit that was on a hook, so I slammed the receiver on the hook, and it popped off the hook and went in the washing machine. So my parents had to get a new phone.

I’m pissed. My mom’s pissed at me. Coach K found out about it, called my mom, and essentially apologized. And I thought, “That’s pretty cool.” He didn’t make it about me. He didn’t say anything to me about it. He apologized to my mom and said, “We don’t want to put pressure on you or him or anything. We might have been overexuberant for how much we want Jay.”

That really made me feel good, that it wasn’t on me about losing my temper. He didn’t pay for the phone. That was still on me. But it made me feel like he was really trustworthy. Because I played for a high school coach who was not, and he knew that. That was a big for me … I didn’t want to go through that again. He really addressed that head on.

Alaa Abdelnaby

Forward, 1986-1990

1137 career points

Three Final Fours

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I can tell you it was thorough. Wherever I looked, whenever I was out on the floor playing somewhere – whether it was AAU, whether it was baskeball camps in the summer, I’d look up in the stands and there was someone with a Duke basketball shirt on. Whether it was Bob Bender, whether it was Chuck Swenson, or whether it was K himself – and that left an impression on me. You’re looking for validation, you’re looking to belong, you’re looking to impress – and then you look up and see, everywhere you go, somebody from the Duke basketball program is there. That leaves a mark. That impresses you.

After a while, when I started to feel the same way toward them, it was a reassuring thing to see one of their guys up there.

I’m reminded of the pitches coaches used to give you, the spiel. He spoke to me differently than everyone else. Without getting into names of coaches – coaches would come to you and say, “Hey, I’ve got 30 minutes a game for you next year. I’ve got a spot for you if you just come. I will roll out the red carpet for you.” All the things coaches say. Except for K. He never promised me anything. He promised me an opportunity. He promised a chance to excel, and be coached. But he never said, “Come here next year, and you’ll have this.”

What that said to me is, years later, when I’m there, is he going to be promising Christian Laettner my minutes? Is he going to be promising Crawford Palmer my minutes, just to recruit him? And the answer is: No. That wasn’t the way he went about things. He was a righteous guy. Everything he said he was going to do, he did. Everything he said he couldn’t do because of NCAA rules, he wouldn’t do.

I’m reminded of a time when we were at my high school after practice, my car had broken down. So my dad was supposed to get me, because he worked nights at the time. And he didn’t come right away; he was late.

And so, I live two miles from the high school, and I’m thinking, “Just take me home, K. It’s no big deal. Dad’s not, here.” And he said to me, “I can’t. That would be an NCAA violation. What I can do is sit here with you and chat until he comes and gets you.”

I remember thinking for a sec, “What the hell? Come on, Dude. Nobody’s around. I’m not going to tell anybody. You’re not going to tell anybody.” He said, “It doesn’t matter. We would know.” I remember thinking that not a lot of other coaches are doing that or saying that or thinking that. I had coaches that would have taken advantage of that situation, other coaches, being with me more or giving me the spiel they had saved up.

To be honest with you, I was pissed. Just take me home. It takes three minutes, literally. But he wouldn’t!

He spoke to me like my dad. My father was a hard-working immigrant; I remember the first lessons he ever told me: We’re not from here. We’re not like these people. We’re different. And if you leave it up to them, they’ll pick somebody else over us. So what you have to do is force them into picking you by being the best. You can’t be close because they’ll take them. And that stuck with me. And that’s how K talked to me. He wouldn’t give me anything, but he would give me opportunities that I’d have to take. That I’d have to make the most of. That simply wasn’t the case with other college coaches.

I take a lot of pride in seeing how great he was back in 1984, when we first met. It’s easy to see how great he is now because he’s the man, and he’s been the man for a while. But back in 1984, Dean Smith’s down the road; he won in ‘82. Jim Valvano won in ‘83. And here I am meeting K in ‘84 – he’s a nobody, comparatively speaking. And the nobody part didn’t matter to me. It was the soul. It was the character. It was the man. I wanted to be around someone like that for four years. And, what you don’t know at the time, is you get to be around him for the rest of your life.

Bobby Hurley

Guard, 1990-93

1,731 career points

Three Final Fours

Two NCAA titles

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I was so much thinking about the Big East going into my visit. It was local, the 80s were a fantastic time for college basketball and the Big East with all the great teams that they had; teams that won championships. And that was right in my backyard. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go that far to school, and my mom really wanted me to go to visit Duke – the academic part of it and everything.

So I ended up going, and the visit just blew me away, just spending time with Coach at his house, seeing how he interacted with his family. He had the players over. It felt like a community, family environment. And then I just remember Billy McCaffrey was with me that weekend, and he committed, and that put more pressure on me. Everyone was so excited about Billy going, and they started working on me.

Coach K flew home with me on Sunday, and you’re the high school guy, you’re in meetings all day, they’re recruiting you all day, you’re watching guys play, you’re going to dinners and lunches, then you’re going out with the players – I was exhausted on Sunday. Coach K sat on the plane with me and kept pitching me. He just wore me out, basically.

It was my first visit. I was planning on taking multiple visits and having things to compare it to. And then he wanted to do a home visit. It didn’t end flying me back to New Jersey. He drove me to my house and he kept pitching. I finally knew.

I think I knew, deep down, I wanted to go anyway. But I definitely didn’t want to listen to any more talk about me going to Duke in my living room with my parents. So I just went in the kitchen and told my mom and dad, “I think I want to go to Duke.” So I spared myself one more recruiting meeting.

Thomas Hill

Guard, 1989-93

1,593 career points

Three Final Fours

Two NCAA titles

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Duke came in early part of my junior year. I started getting recruited as a freshman. Carolina actually came in as a sophomore. So I had my mind set on going – I thought I was going to North Carolina. Roy (Williams) was on me hard. I just thought that’s where I was going. And then junior year came around, I started getting some stuff from Duke.

Coach is a lot like my high school coach, so when he came in, I was hearing the same words and terms that my high school coach was speaking. I played for a great high school coach: fundamental guy, all about team. So that’s what got Coach on the radar. It felt like he was being honest about his interest in me, how my skills would fit in what he was trying to get done at that point.

At that point, while we were winning, we hadn’t won the championship yet. It wasn’t a national championship program.

Roy was recruiting, and when he left to go to Kansas, I took a visit. And I was like: Man, they’ve already hung a banner. When I went to Duke the following weekend, it was: Man, there are no banners here. I want to be a part of the group that hangs the first banner. That really got me there.

On my visit, toward the end of the visit, Coach took me into a little coaches locker room. It was him and I, one-on-one, and he looked me in the face and just talked about how I could have an impact on the program. When Coach brings you in like that, it’s like: OK. It’s a little different.

He said, “It’s between you and Mitchell Butler; I’m pretty much going to go with whoever commits first.” Once he said that, I committed.

He didn’t have to make many promises. The only thing that stood out to me in the home visit, he looked me and my mother in the eye and talked about being fair. He didn’t talk about, “You’re going to start from day one,” which some other schools were. “You’re going to have to earn everything,” which I loved.

I felt, “Hey, if I’m going to get a fair opportunity, I know I’m going to play at Duke, and I know we’re going to be good.” It was super simple for me. He didn’t have to make promises. I didn’t have the grassroots guy trying hustle some kind of deal and all that. All that stuff was not in my process. I wasn’t a complicated recruit.

Jeff Capel

Guard, 1993-1997

1,601 career points

One Final Four

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I had narrowed my list to four. I did that before my junior year. The four were: Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Virginia. And even though I had narrowed to four, it was probably always two, which were Duke and Carolina.

I developed a really, really close and special relationship to Tommy Amaker. And I felt a special connection to Coach. I grew up a North Carolina fan. I would tell my parents when I was younger, “Hey, when I get older, I’m going to Carolina. I’m going to play for Coach Smith.” And Carolina was the first ACC school to offer me.

But then after my 10th grade year, I went up – me, my dad, my high school coach and my younger brother – for an unofficial visit to Duke. We were up there and spent like half a day, and the last hour or so we were in Coach’s office, just talking to him.

And when were driving home, it was about an hour and 15 minutes, for about the first 10 or 15 minutes, I was pretty quiet. And when I was around my family I was never really quiet. And, my dad said, “Hey, what’s up with you?” And I just said, “I think that’s the guy I want to play for.”

And probably the reason was that Coach reminded me of my dad. They both had a military background. They both were brutally honest. You never had to guess where they were coming from, or what they felt. He was someone I felt like I could really trust.

I didn’t care what Cameron was like. I didn’t care what dorm I was living in. I didn’t care anything about the facilities. All I cared about was the relationship with the coach and the coaches, and man, was I going to have a chance to play. That was it.

I felt like, and they communicated this throughout the visit, they weren’t a program, and Coach wasn’t a coach, you had to “pay your dues.” It was pretty clear it was going to be whoever deserves it, whoever earns it. And I trusted that.

Greg Paulus

Guard, 2005-2009

1,193 career points

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I had an opportunity to look at some football and basketball schools, and my first love was basketball. Having a chance to develop a relationship with Coach, to have that connection and have that belief in each other – with him, the trust was there right away. The connection and effort that he takes in his communication and approach — it reinforced that I want to play basketball, and I want to play where Coach K is.

I had a chance to meet him in person when I went down for an unofficial visit, went down for a practice. I had a chance to say hello to him afterward. He introduces himself: Hi, this is Coach K. He’s the reason I’m there, I’m excited to meet him, and you know all of the history of what he’s done with the different players, with the teams, with Duke. And it’s not just for one, two, a couple years. It’s for decades.

His ability to relate to you – I can remember him coming to football practices, to home visits, to basketball games – just that connection that we had a chance to build, the passion that he gives to those around him, is something that you feel right away.

You’re certainly aware of his accomplishments. You watch Duke on television. You dream of, “Hey, I want to play at Duke. I want to play in that type of environment. I want to have a chance to be a part of the best.’ And that’s what Coach K has done for Duke. There’s national championships, and the All-Americans and the draft picks – you learn the story of Duke basketball while you’re getting recruited. You learn the vision he has for you, and he does an amazing job of communicating that and allowing you to see what you can be. That type of belief coming from somebody in his position is difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it, and you feel it when you’re around it.

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