Win No. 17, not No. 1,000, had Krzyzewski’s full attention

NEW YORK CITY – Coach K won his 17th game on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

Why such a fuss?

OK, you know why there was a fuss. Because four decades ago, on Nov. 28, 1975, Mike Krzyzewski, an unknown 28-year-old first-year head coach for Army, won his first college basketball game, a 56-29 thrashing of Lehigh on the West Point campus.

And on Sunday in Manhattan, a bit more than an hour’s drive from the United States Military Academy, the legendary Coach K – now 67 and in his 40th year as a college coach – became the first Division I coach to reach his 1,000th career victory.

But in the days leading up to his first shot at the milestone, Coach K emphasized how important this game was – to himself, to his players, to this season, to this program.

Because the Blue Devils needed – needed – to get this win.

Not Win No. 1,000.

Win No. 17.

“He kept saying to us, ‘I’m going to get 1,000 wins regardless. We just want to get win 17,’ ” senior guard Quinn Cook said after scoring 17 points in Duke’s back-and-forth 77-68 win over St. John’s. “He kept us focused, not really on 1,000 but on 17.”

There’s an old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” That is the hidden greatness of Coach K’s extraordinary career. You don’t set out to become the greatest college coach of all time. You don’t set out to become the first Division I coach to win 1,000 games. You don’t decompress after Win No. 1 back in November 1975 by thinking about the possibility of much bigger steps: a job at Duke, then 11 Final Fours, four national titles, two Olympic gold medals as the head coach of Team USA, a plaque in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and, finally, that 1,000th win.

No, you get to where Coach K is by, in the moments after Win No. 1, thinking about Win No. 2. And only after Win No. 2 do you think of Win No. 3. Tommy Amaker, the Harvard head coach and one of the Duke players who helped take Coach K to his first national title game back in 1986, recently told me he’s never met someone who can be so immersed in the moment. Every game has a life of its own, and beyond that, every situation in every game has a life of its own.

The life of its own Sunday? It was a game that had three lives, really: one in which Duke seemed to be running away with it, one in which St. John’s appeared to have solved Duke’s porous perimeter defense and slashed to the hoop and a 10-point lead and one in which Duke bounced back by outrebounding, outshooting and outhustling the competition.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever been a part of a game like that,” Coach K said of his 1,000th win.

Just before tipoff, Coach K took his place on the sideline, seated between two former players who are now on his coaching staff, Jeff Capel and Jon Scheyer. Soon, that typically intense Coach K scowl appeared. Duke jumped out to a 21-10 lead in the first half, but then the momentum shifted. Duke seemed to lay off the gas pedal, and two of St. John’s most aggressive players, guard Rysheed Jordan and power forward Sir’Dominic Pointer, attacked.

Coach K wasn’t pleased. He wasn’t pleased with his team’s perimeter defense, which has been Duke’s Achilles heel this season. He lit into his team at halftime after St. John’s pulled ahead.

In the second half, Krzyzewski got down on one knee courtside. He was focused on the moment, willing his team to give more effort. It didn’t work. With 8:32 left, Duke was down 10. The planned coronation of the first Division I head coach to 1,000 wins seemed like it would be put on hold. In a huddle, Coach K told his team it was going to lose by 30.

That changed things. A three-point play by Cook. Then a three-point play by Tyus Jones on the next possession. Then a three-point play by Okafor on the next.

“That run, it’s hard to explain and describe the feeling,” Jones, who scored a game-high 22 points, said afterward. “The emotion and passion was through the roof that second half.

That 15-1 run over the next 4:38 put Duke firmly in control, and soon the magic of the moment set in. Coach K would get win No. 1,000 at the world’s most famous arena, the same place where he broke his mentor Bobby Knight’s all-time wins record just a few years back.

“When there was a minute left, I remember seeing Matt (Jones) come over and say, ‘Yeah, Coach!’ ” freshman center Jahlil Okafor said afterward. “And (Coach K) just said, ‘Not yet, not yet.’ ”

It was only after Duke had secured win No. 17 that Coach K could sit back and absorb the amazing absurdity of winning 1,000 college basketball games over 40 years. When the seconds counted down on the victory, Capel gave Coach K a bear hug from behind. That morphed into a giant hug with all the assistant coaches, and then, as dozens of cameras rushed over to engulf him, Coach K gave junior big man Marshall Plumlee a playful shove in the chest.

Outside the Duke locker room, Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, was waiting. “Congratulations!” he said. “That’s a great win!”

Inside the cramped locker room, players popped on black Nike “1K” hats and T-shirts that read, “1,000 wins and counting.”

Coach K walked into the press room clutching a Diet Coke and a crumpled stat sheet. His wife, Mickie, and two of his three daughters stood to his right. He started speaking of the meaning of this milestone. His wife and daughters dabbed tears from their eyes.

“There will be others who’ll win more,” Coach K said, simply. “But it’s kind of neat to be the first one to 1000.”

COACH 1K

The man is a few weeks from turning 68. But at an age where most of his teammates from his playing days at Army are long since retired, Coach K is still going at it. His hair is still jet black. He’s still full of energy. It’s hard to think of a college basketball world without Coach K, but – perhaps because seven of his nine grandchildren were looking on, perhaps because of all this talk about the achievement of No. 1,000 – Coach K started to talk about longer on down the road, well past Win No. 18 for this team, well past Win No. 1,001 for him.

“There’s an end in sight,” he said. “I’ll be 68 next month. It’ll end sooner than later. But hopefully not real soon.”

There was a sense of relief, too, a feeling that this giant achievement that’s been hanging over his team’s head all season would finally go away. Before he left the press room with his family, he paused and came back to the microphones. Coach K had a request.

“Now, no more stories about my past or whatever,” Coach K addressed the media. “I’m tired.”

He paused, then smiled.

“One last story,” he said. “Debbie, raise your hand. She’s my oldest daughter. It was 2005, when I was into the Laker thing. It was right at the beginning of July, so there wasn’t much going on in sports. All the sudden, this Laker thing took on this – it was crazy. You’re on all the time. We’re bunkered in the house, trying to make decisions, and we’re getting some food. The TV comes on, and I’m on. And Debbie said, ‘Dad! You’re on again!’ That’s the way I feel now. So that’s it. Enough is enough. Otherwise you start throwing up.”

Sounds good, Coach K. You go do what you’re best at. Go focus on Win No. 18. Because as you’ve taught us all, that’s the only way to get to No. 1,001.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.