King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Coach K. to the Lakers? Duke basketball potentate Mike Krzyzewski might not take the offer, but he ought to.


Salon Staff
July 2, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

If I'm Coach K., I've already taken the Lakers job.

As you might have noticed, I'm not Coach K. I don't know enough about Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski's inner life or family dynamics to have an opinion about whether he'll take the Lakers' offer and become their new coach. And I don't know if the offer will be generous enough to lure him across the country, though I suspect if there's a stumbling block that won't be it.

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But looking just at the basketball side of things, he's gotta go. NCAA basketball, and particularly ACC basketball, is headed downhill on a rail. The NBA has its ups and downs, but it's not going anywhere in Krzyzewski's working life.

There are plenty of reasons not to go, of course. Coach K., 57, has a lifetime contract at Duke, where he's a demigod, and he's long sniffed at the egocentric, player-dominated culture of the NBA, clearly favoring the camaraderie and spirit, not to mention the power vested in the head coach, of the college game.

And then there's that list of successful college coaches who have moved up to the pros and failed. You've probably just about memorized that list after having seen it so often this spring while Larry Brown was trying to become the first coach who won an NCAA championship to win one in the NBA. It usually starts with Jerry Tarkanian and includes at least Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Lon Kruger, Leonard Hamilton, Tim Floyd and P.J. Carlesimo, shrinking or growing according to the list-maker's definition of collegiate success and professional failure.

This is not to mention the list of all-time-great college coaches who never deigned to coach a pro team, which starts with John Wooden, Dean Smith and Bob Knight. (And ought to include Hamilton, who after all only coached the Washington Generals, I mean Wizards, but never mind.)

Krzyzewski sounded pretty frustrated Wednesday when he whined to reporters about losing players to the NBA. Luol Deng left this year after one season at Duke, and Shaun Livingston, who signed a letter of intent to Duke, never even made it to campus, hiring an agent and entering the NBA draft after his stock rose in postseason high school all-star games. Duke was one of the last big schools that was able to consistently keep top players around for four years, but no more.

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"We're losing our brand," Krzyzewski moaned, by which he meant college basketball is no longer able to attract the top schoolboy players.

I'm sure his choice of the business buzzword "brand" pleased that other Brand, Myles, president of the NCAA, which would have you believe that college football and basketball are not a business but a part of the educational mission. That's like your local drug dealer saying he runs a children's charity because he buys sneakers for kids in the neighborhood but that's the NCAA's story and it's sticking to it.

And that's the root of college basketball's problems. It acts like a business in every way except that it refuses to pay the workers and maintains the fiction that it's an extracurricular activity, not a multibillion-dollar industry. The latter, of course, is nothing more than a justification for the former. We've been over all this, of course, and many of you remember it from the midterm.

The inequity in the system makes it a no-brainer for any rational player with the ability to do so to skip college ball and go to the pros. Why risk injury, and your own chance at riches, while lining others' pockets? For the education? Please. That's available any time for those few elite players interested in it, and millionaires don't need scholarships.

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The talent drain is changing college basketball. For most fans, it doesn't matter much. They root for the uniform. They're loyal to the alma mater or the local squad and it doesn't make much difference if the level of play is a small step below the pros or three big steps. In fact, the siphoning off of elite players probably improves parity, since no longer having NBA-bound guys for more than a year or two brings the top programs back to the pack. That's actually an overall good, as far as it goes.

But for a guy like Krzyzewski, it means he's the king of a shriveling empire. The Blue Devils will still play for 35 packed houses a year, but day in and day out, Coach K. is increasingly working with a B team.

Not only that but the ACC, where basketball has long ruled the roost, is transforming itself into a football conference, chasing the riches of a conference title game and the Bowl Championship Series. On Thursday, the day the Coach K. rumor broke -- coincidence? -- Virginia Tech and Miami officially joined the conference. Boston College is set to come aboard next year. Those schools play basketball, but they aren't really in the basketball business.

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I'm sorry, I meant to say they aren't basketball schools.

The Lakers are most assuredly in the basketball business, and at least for the moment, they're hardly a B team. They still have Shaquille O'Neal, and even if his trade demand is more than just noise and the Lakers grant it, they'll at least get younger and deeper as a result. They still have Kobe Bryant, a free agent but reportedly the guy who pushed for Coach K. in the first place.

They'll have Gary Payton back, for what that's worth, and even Karl Malone, who turned the Lakers from mediocrities to title contenders whenever he was in the lineup and healthy this year, hasn't pulled the trigger on his retirement yet.

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Obviously the Lakers are a soap opera, and there are headaches by the score for an NBA coach of even the most harmonious team, starting with the power arrangement that puts players above coaches and coaches at the whim of an owner who may or may not be a reasonable and rational person.

On the other hand, I think Coach K. is smart enough to gain the respect and handle the temperament of most NBA stars and owners. And NBA coaches don't have to recruit, don't have to worry about the NCAA's byzantine rules or whether players are passing their classes or at least cheating their way through them in plausibly deniable ways, don't have to worry about whether the talented new player they've just signed will get a better offer and just not show up.

Who wouldn't want to trade an old set of headaches for a shiny new set? And with nothing left to prove in college basketball, why wouldn't Krzyzewski want to challenge himself anew? It's not as though, basketball-wise, he's a typical control-freak, call every play college coach. His teams play up-tempo ball and man-to-man defense. That's been known to work in the NBA.

Duke athletic director Joe Alleva told both Krzyzewski and reporters that he hopes Coach K. stays at Duke. "He's an educator," Alleva said.

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Then it makes sense he'd want to be around college-age kids with a lot of basketball talent. Last time I looked, those kids were in the NBA.

Previous column: N.L. All-Star ballot

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