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No joke, Coach K deserves congrats

I get the impression that Carroll County can be a pretty conservative place. So, I'm not going to touch Tom Brady's balls in this column. But, maybe I'll play to that conservativism as it relates to certain folks' stances on immigration by telling an old-fashioned, politically incorrect joke.

How many Polacks does it take to win 1,000 basketball games?

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Just one — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

What follows may lose me a few of my Tar Heel friends; and will surely infuriate the Terrapins among you.

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But, Coach K deserves congratulations. And, despite what die-hard fans may think, you can acknowledge an accomplishment, and congratulate someone who is well-deserving on the same, without taking away from, or having your own allegiances questioned.

I bleed Carolina Blue. But, winning 1,000 games and doing so the right way, particularly in today's climate, deserves a tip of the cap, a standing ovation, a call from the president, and whatever other accolades and forms of acknowledgment may come Coach K's way. (It should be noted, however, that Coach K has openly acknowledged that he modeled his Duke program and some of his core coaching philosophies after that, and on those, of his most heated rival 11 miles down North Carolina's route 15-501, UNC's Dean Smith.)

Coach K's Blue Devils won him his 1,000th game Sunday, doing so in grand fashion, in the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden.

Like Coach Smith, who saw a life-sized doll of him burned in effigy on UNC's campus early in his career as the head coach of the Heels, Coach K was also almost fired in his first seasons at Duke. Had Twitter and fire-our-coach-styled virtual message boards existed in those days, history, the basketball record books, and the lives of countless young men who had the privilege of playing for both men, may have been robbed of two of the greatest the game has ever seen. (For the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, I believe Coach Smith to be the greatest of all time.)

Last week, ESPN's Dana O'Neil published a great piece on Coach K. On the eve of his milestone achievement, O'Neil's piece pulled back the curtain, and offered a look at the man that most know as Coach K.

I grew up loving my Bushi's (what we called my Polish grandmother) perogies; often eating them by the dozen. Though not often, my dad would make sure to instruct or to correct me on the proper pronunciation of our last name. At 36 with no kids, my dad's family name may die-off with my brother and I. (Though, so my folks don't get depressed over that last one, I should say that there's still time for grandsons/grandkids).

Being a basketball lifer, and a Tar Heel, and having friends who are Blue Devils, I've heard plenty of stories about Coach K's personality and his motivating tactics over the years.

There's the one about the time his wife heard him laying into someone on the phone so hard, and with such a colorful and creative use of the F-word that, after 20 minutes, she decided she had to see who he was yelling at with such ferocity. As the story goes, Coach K's wife walked in to find him yelling at himself in the mirror.

Most forget that Coach K's college coach, and one of his greatest coaching mentors, was another legendary coach, probably best known for his temper and unique motivational techniques, long-time Indiana head coach Bobby Knight. Coach K doesn't wear that same intensity on his face on the sideline — he's not a stomper — but, he is equally as intense, and demands the most of and the best from his players.

There's the story about the first time he took to histrionics to motivate his team in a pregame speech. He turned off all the lights in the locker room, lit a candle; walking around the locker room, holding the candle between his face and that of each player, telling each to, "look me in the eyes and tell me that we're going to win; (long pause for dramatic effect) I said, look me in the eyes and tell me that we're going to win!," then walking out, leaving the team in the dark. As the story goes, the team didn't quite run out of the locker room with a candle-lit fire to win the game. Instead, and as the story goes, the team erupted into laughter, falling on the floor at their new coach's cheesiness.

There's also my first memory of Coach K, as a kid at the "video" station of Johnny Dawkins' basketball camp at Western Maryland College. There was Coach K, the late-'80s version of him, on a VHS tape, on a low-def TV, explaining how he taught the principle of team defense at Duke; Coach K holding up his hand, all five fingers extended wide, rhetorically asking, "what happens if I hit you in the face like this?" moving his hand in a punching motion (not a slapping one) with his fingers extended straight. "I'd break my fingers."

Then, Coach K made a fist and asked, "What happens if I hit you like this?" "I'd break your face. … and that's how we teach team defense here at Duke University."

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But, back to perogies, which, if you're still reading, may have otherwise seemed like a very unnecessary aside. In her piece, O'Neil pointed out how proud Coach K's childhood friends from his mostly-Polish neighborhood in Chicago are of him today — because he kept his name, the whole, long, Polish thing. Proudly remaining Coach Mike Krzyzewski all the way to 1,000 wins. Their pride is, in part, borne from the fact that Coach K's dad didn't even go by his full last name. Coach K's dad, Bill Krzyzewski, as O'Neil retells it, "went by Bill Kross, hoping to avoid the sting of discrimination that may come with being the son of a Polish immigrant.

So, from a Tar Heel to a Blue Devil — and, from one Pole to another — congratulations, Coach Krzyzewski.

(And, for those of you who've never had perogies, you're missing out.)

Matt Laczkowski is a former University of North Carolina basketball player and Westminster native who writes a Monday sports column for the Times. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or sports@carrollcountytimes.com.

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