INDIANAPOLIS — His name is Caden and he is 20 months old, and he was wearing a Duke jersey that swallowed him. On the back was No. 5, and that meant something. One day he will treasure the picture from the night his grandfather picked up him and held him at center court of Lucas Oil Stadium. The man with five national championships.
Grandpa Mike Krzyzewski, who had even more grandkids to hug (nine) than he has titles. And how must that feel?
“The best,’’ he said. “It’s always been a family thing, and now we’ve got a bigger family.”
This is what a national championship is supposed to look like.
As One Shining Moment played on the huge screens, the new national champions stood together on the podium. Senior Quinn Cook, the heart and soul of Duke, stood next to Krzyzewski, tears running down his cheeks.
“Surreal,” Cook called it. “He’s been like a father to me over these last four years. To have his arm around me and hugging me while we’re watching One Shining Moment was probably the best feeling of my life.
“I’m just blessed Coach thought I was good enough to come to Duke.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The wonder in the eyes of Grayson Allen, the lesser known of the four Blue Devil freshmen, who arrived at the arena Monday night averaging nine minutes and four points a game. He left it a Duke folk legend, scoring 16 points, including eight in a row in the second half to revive Duke team down nine points to Wisconsin. His boost helped send them to a 68-63 victory.
He grew up a Duke fan, fantasizing a title and then saves the championship game, just when everything was about to cave in. A fairy tale. A flat-out fairy tale.
“It doesn’t feel real right now, to be honest,” he said. “I dreamed about it ever since I think about eighth grade. I saw them win in 2010, that national championship against Butler. I’ve dreamed about being in this moment since then. Never thought it would actually come true.”
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Said Krzyzewski, “We won it because of that kid. We’re not here without Grayson Allen.”
It was the splendor of four extraordinary freshmen, who scored 60 of Duke’s 68 points and all 37 after halftime. It was the March — and April — genius of Krzyzewski. It was the relentlessness of a defense that came of age at the perfect time. It was the aura of Duke.
Most of all, one more time, the aura of Duke.
The Blue Devils are back at the top again, following the footsteps of Christian Laettner and Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, of Shane Battier and Kyle Singler. Another banner for Cameron Indoor Stadium. Another championship ring for Krzyzewski to wear to inspire a future Duke team in a future journey through spring.
The Blue Devils are the Halley’s Comet of college basketball. Off they’ll go spinning into the vast universe of the NCAA tournament, losing to Lehigh and Mercer. But they always come back to the Final Four. Sooner or later, Krzyzewski will send a new pack of them up the ladder to cut down the nets. Sooner or later, he will find the combination nobody can beat. Not when it counts, anyway.
“They’ve all been different,” Krzyzewski said of his five champions. This one was especially different. This one was especially challenged, hardened by adversity of having a player kicked off, of having to carry on with only eight players, of being so young, but also tested.
Maybe that’s why he will cherish it so.
Listen to his daughter Lindy.
“He’s been so happy. You know, usually he’s got that scowl on his face,” she said. “You didn’t see any of that. He loved these boys and they loved one another. They were on a mission.”
So he hasn’t been happy?
“Not like this year,” she said. “This year is different.”
Listen to his assistant, Jeff Capel.
“This team has been through a lot. Eight guys stuck together. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Listen to the freshman named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, Tyus Jones.
“I just wanted to be part of a special team,” he said. “I just trusted Coach K and everyone on the staff with all my heart. I believed in everything they told me.”
Or listen to Krzyzewski, who has a lot of champions to rank.
“I haven’t loved a team any more than I’ve loved this team.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Here’s how it began Monday. With the Blue Devil mascot, skating across the floor, and one word taped across his forehead.
With Krzyzewski, sitting alone on his stool with his head bowed, saying a silent prayer as his players walked toward the center circle for the opening tip.
With a bald eagle flying through the air of Lucas Oil Stadium during the national anthem.
With a bigger roar for Wisconsin than Duke, because a sea of red had poured into the building.
With the game quickly turning into an epic struggle. There were 13 lead changes in the first 18 minutes.
Duke faced foul trouble and a confident Badgers team that began to open a lead in the second half. With Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow both having to spend extended time on the bench — Okafor played only 22 minutes — Duke often had to improvise with lots of guards. There were times, Krzyzewski admitted afterward, that he wasn’t even sure who was in the game.
But somehow, his team persevered, first to rally behind Allen, then to seize the night at the end.
“How could there be a better way to win it that to play those last eight minutes with such grit and defense?” Krzyzewski said. “Our guys just fought and fought and fought. We have one of the smallest teams, I think, probably in the history of this championship on the floor. But not in heart.”
In many ways, this is an unconventional Duke champion. Isn’t Kentucky supposed to be the team to win titles with freshmen? And it was an unconventional way to clinch it Monday. Three of Duke’s four freshmen were named to the all-Final Four team. The one who wasn’t? National player of the year contender Okafor.
“All year I said about this team that each night, it’s someone different,” Jones said. “We’ve got eight guys, and we’re all phenomenal basketball players.”
And now they’re champions. Krzyzewski thanked them publicly, “for taking me on a great ride.”
Speaking of rides, he was in a golf cart on the way to his post-game press conference, when he went by five-year-old grandson John David. “Congratulations Poppy,” the boy said.
“Stop the cart,” Krzyzewski ordered. “I’ve got to give him a hug.”
So he did, something he wasn’t doing back in 1991 and ’92, when this glorious run began.
“Really neat stuff,” Krzyzewski said. So was this team. So was this night. So is this time of life for a coach who is 68 — he is now the second oldest champion behind Jim Calhoun — but with seemingly with so many more miles to go. A team like this can make a man feel young.
“We have eight guys and four of them are freshmen. For them to win 35 games and win the national title is incredible,” he said. “When it’s over — and I would have the best appreciation because I’ve been in this for 40 years — and I’m the coach of that group that did this, how good is that? They’ve been a joy. They’ve been an incredible joy. When you’re already happy and you get happier, it’s pretty damn good.”
The man with more national champions than anyone not named John Wooden smiled when he said that. But not quite as much as he did when he was holding his grandkids.