He cannot remember records or scores, but he can remember an ending. The devastating ones, the jubilant ones, and every one that falls somewhere in between. The final one has been an end from the beginning.
It feels like ritual. Every game begins the same way, with Duke's players taking the court, followed by the assistant coaches and finally, Mike Krzyzewski. He walks out of the locker room with a limp, looking like a man who has left something behind but has no time to find it. He is a 75-year-old king at the end of a royal procession, behind his young heir.
This walk has been made 1,437 times by Krzyzewski as Duke's head coach. For the past two weeks, he has walked out of every locker room knowing it might be his last. Every game has carried the potential to be wildly significant or just another day, and by defeating Arkansas on Saturday night, Krzyzewski's long goodbye earned itself another week. The Blue Dukes will play in the Final Four for the 13th and final time in Krzyzewski's career, either Saturday or next Monday in New Orleans. The difference between Saturday and Monday is not insignificant.
He doesn't want it to be about him, but there is no hope of that. The next week in college basketball will be about him. His players ensured that with its 78-69 win over the Razorbacks in the West Regional final, and when the questioning turned to the inevitable, he interrupted with a tone that could pierce skin.
Krzyzewski said that they had already been two champion. Let's talk about them. They have won a regular-season championship and now a regional. They did that. They did it for us. It's time to stop doing it for the old man here. We are not going to do it unless we own it. We all own this moment.
This came just a day after a reporter suggested that he had never seen Coach K display the looseness he had exhibited over the first two weeks of this tournament. This is the way it has always been: the joy is more important than the angst.
He is the oldest of the old school and the originator of a brand of goods that has gradually dwindled in popularity over the decades. At times it was very demanding. Some of it will be worth keeping and some of it won't. He grudgingly succumbed to the changes in the game, taking full advantage of an evolving system while complaining all the way.
His celebrations are not very loud. When Keels hit a last-second 3 to give Duke a 12-point halftime lead over Arkansas, Krzyzewski allowed himself two vigorous hand claps as he walked across the court. He looked like a man smacking dust from his palms, but this exuberance is just as much of a celebration as it is.
He will be remembered for his wins record and national titles, but the enduring image will be a man standing on the sideline, his face a rictus of anguish, as he screams for his team to relax.
Duke's run through this tournament has been an exercise in connecting the past to the present. In the final minutes against Texas Tech, Krzyzewski called for his team to slap the floor on defense as a tribute to the days of Quin and the sainted Wojo. It got a huge applause from the people who are into that kind of thing. It seems that calling all ghosts worked. You could say there is no evidence.
The day before Duke defeated the Red Raiders to advance to the Elite Eight, several Duke student managers scurried onto the court at Chase Center to set up the gear necessary for what could have been Coach K's final practice as Duke.
He didn't know it at the time, but after 42 years, 12 Final Fours and five national titles, he would provide.
He walked onto the court at precisely , because practice begins at precisely . He walked with a slight limp, his face at ease just minutes before in a news conference. The mouth was pinched. The appearance of a man looking for something important was created by the brow dropping.
The control is what they all miss the most. The invisible moments that dictate what will eventually be brought into the light are only seen by the privileged. This is when the game is.
His players ran through a shooting drill, shots went in from the corners and wings, and Krzyzewski stood under the basket, watching the scene play out for what might be the millionth time. The players yelled and laughed at each other, while Krzyzewski stood unmoved, and occasionally cut the levity with instruction.
The former Army officer's practice is crisp and organized, all sharp angles and functional movement, as it has been since he first hung a whistle around his neck at West Point when he was 28. Many coaches micromanage all of the controllables because they know that once the game starts it can become impossible to rein it in.
Control what you can control is usually a partial surrender, a way of explaining how you achieve peace with what is beyond your realm. Sometimes it means inventing things to control to counteract the times when control is impossible. Micromanaging the controllables is a way of counteracting what happens when the game starts and nothing can be reined in, which might explain why he keeps two sets of rosary beads in his pockets during games.
Three players spoke for the Duke team at the podium on Wednesday. What it means to him, to them, to the world at large, and what amount of motivation it provides are some of the things that came up during the conversation.
They were given the chance to answer. Coach K was not there. They looked at each other blankly, with the heavy-lidded look of teenagers in class. Two looked at one and one looked at two, their eyes begging each other to take the topic they have been done with for a long time but know isn't going away. All season we have been dealing with it, and it fell to Banchero. They wanted to win it for themselves as well, something that has been lost in the conversation.
He said that they are not only motivated by that, but by the fact that it could be their last game as a group.
Young men like these are the ones who built Krzyzewski's fortune and legacy. In front of hundreds of reporters, their coach to their right, they have sat in some version of this same formation, their coach to their right, and they have been able to form their talents to his vision.
This group has heard it more than any other.
It wears on you because everyone is taking a picture of you and they are watching you. I feel for my guys. They have had pressure put on them and we are not putting on them.
Their response shows they can deal with both their coach and themselves. Mickie Krzyzewski sat at the back of the room with her daughter, who was standing next to her, at the postgame news conference. The win gave their husband and father more time, and they nodded along to everything he said. As he finished speaking, Krzyzewski praised the growth of his young team, made the sign of the cross and said it was such a joy.
It has been his particular tell for as long as anyone can remember: He leans forward in his chair on the bench, reaches down and nervously pulls up his socks. He usually does this while doing something else, either yelling down the line for a substitute or barking out the kind of expletives that have made him America's leading professor of beginning lip-reading.
Stanley Umude gave Arkansas a 4-2 lead with a layup at two minutes into the game. The socks got a break for most of the time. Close games are not easy to play. As the clock wound down, Krzyzewski was still calling plays and making the terms of engagement. He flung his arms out in a spasm of excitement when he stood on the sideline in the final minute of the January game against Wake Forest. Moore was brought out of the game and given a hug before he could get to the bench. His 13th Final Four win was a foregone conclusion.
He admitted that this one is different, but he wouldn't go that far and nobody was brave enough to ask. How could it not be better? A national title with this team, which starts two freshman, two sophomores and a junior, would show the world he can win in any era you throw at him. It would mean something to walk off with a net around his neck as the old guy who could evolve and adapt, even if he didn't like the changes in the game. He had a rasp in his voice after the game, and it got worse when he said, "Let's go to New Orleans."
He had finished all the rituals, including walking down the handshake line to console the Arkansas players, dutifully holding up the trophy for winning the region, and finally cutting the final strand of net.
He kissed his wife and they walked hand in hand toward the tunnel. He looked tired and worn out, but also as close to happy as he is likely to get. He looked like a man who could take another week of this. You could see something else in that exhausted, drained look, a man who is going to miss out on everything after it ends.