July 26, 2004
DURHAM One prominent Duke basketball figure turned down a huge NBA windfall and was practically sainted for it. Another was the recipient of one, although the manner in which he achieved it was called into question.
In a span of a couple of weeks in July, the Blue Devils uncharacteristically became the talk of the NBA because of coach Mike Krzyzewski and former player Carlos Boozer.
Krzyzewski, just in case the constant coverage of the story over the Fourth of July weekend didn't sear it into your brain, contemplated a $40 million offer to become the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers before ultimately deciding to stay at Duke.
That Krzyzewski stayed loyal to the school he has been with for the past 24 years was a victory for Duke. Indeed, the ACC and all of college basketball is better for Krzyzewski's continued presence.
In an era when the best players are cutting their college careers shorter and shorter when they actually go to college at all the coaches are the faces of the programs they lead, the figures that give their sport an identity. Nobody coaching today embodies this characteristic better than Krzyzewski. He and Duke are connected in a way that made it almost inconceivable that he would consider leaving.
But don't kid yourself. Krzyzewski considered the Lakers' offer. The tense weekend he spent mulling the decision with his family was not for show, and it was certainly not, as some conspiracy theorists have speculated, carefully orchestrated in an attempt to get more leverage with the university or because he was dissatisfied with the state of college basketball.
"I would never let something that's kicking me in the butt kick me out," Krzyzewski said. "There really wasn't a negative that prompted this. I had a great positive in what I'm doing, and all of a sudden this other positive came in. Let's take a look at it, but never losing track of the equity that we've developed in this (Duke) situation."
Indeed, Krzyzewski had good reasons for listening to Los Angeles general manager Mitch Kupchak. For one thing, it was the Lakers, the NBA's signature franchise. For another, Krzyzewski has a genuine curiosity about his own limits that would have been piqued by the challenge of running the Lakers. Finally, and least importantly, the franchise was offering to make Krzyzewski one of the richest coaches in the history of sports.
Of course, there is no doubt that the coach's flirtation with another desirable job benefited him and his dearest causes in many ways. The anti-Duke crowd desperately tried to paint Krzyzewski as a selfish manipulator, correctly pointing out that UNC coach Roy Williams quietly declined to pursue the Lakers job weeks before Coach K very publicly considered it. But that leap of logic simply wasn't supported by the known facts of the case, or by anyone who was close to the relevant parties or the events as they unfolded.
Nevertheless, how did Coach K benefit? Let us count the ways.
The new Duke president, Richard Brodhead, received hundreds of blunt reminders of Coach K's importance to the university community during his first official week on the job. (Interestingly, Krzyzewski's last serious flirtation with the NBA came soon after the arrival of the outgoing president, Nan Keohane, who arrived in Durham speaking of the "proper place" of athletics at an elite university. She quickly dropped those references and became a strong ally of the coach.) Meanwhile, Krzyzewski became a poster boy for choosing intangibles over tangibles, which is one of the lines of reasoning he's used in the past when discussing why elite players should consider staying in college despite the lure of big bucks in the NBA.
Duke athletic director Joe Alleva, a good friend of Coach K, admitted that during the Lakers saga he communicated with Krzyzewski superagent David Falk and "modified a few things" in the coach's contract. The situation also likely served as a reminder that Coach K would love to see an improved timetable for the creation of a new on-campus practice facility and perhaps other projects that are important to him. It didn't hurt, either, that future Duke teams probably will remember that they are playing for the man who said no to $40 million to coach them, as if the Devils needed more motivational fire.
In the end, the elastic that would not allow Krzyzewski to push beyond the Durham city limits was mainly his child-like love of the situation at Duke, where he reigns supreme. The growing trend of players leaving early or not coming to college at all both of which hit the Blue Devils hard this year would have been more intriguing than displeasing to Krzyzewski. Nobody has shown more adaptability and innovation than the Duke coach, and don't think he was scared he would lose his edge over the rest of college basketball.
For that reason, the rest of the ACC should be glad Krzyzewski stayed. Expansion is diluting the conference with regard to competition and scheduling, and to lose the figurehead of the league's signature program at this critical juncture would have been a big blow. Luckily for everyone involved, Krzyzewski remembered where he belongs.
"I've benefited greatly from being a part of something bigger than me," Krzyzewski said. "I feel like I've brought some honor to (the U.S. Military Academy, Duke and college basketball). However, they've done more for me than I could ever do for them."
Perhaps, but even if that's true, it isn't a whole lot more.
Boozer Deserved Public Backlash
Boozer's divorce from the Cleveland Cavaliers did not earn him the same praise as his coach. In fact, Boozer is Public Enemy No. 1 in the NBA now, after he might or might not have gone back on his word to team management.
As a second-round draft pick two years ago, Boozer was signed for cheap by Cleveland and was set to make less than $700,000 in his third year, despite averaging more than 15 points and 11 rebounds in the first season of the LeBron Era.
The way Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund tells it, the team agreed not to exercise the option on Boozer's contract, thus making him a restricted free agent. But Gund and general manager Jim Paxson said they had a tacit agreement with Boozer anything explicit would have been a violation of league rules that the player would then sign with Cleveland for six years and roughly $40 million.
When the time came, however, Boozer accepted a much more lucrative offer of $68 million over six years with the Utah Jazz. Their hands tied by the salary cap, the Cavaliers could only watch helplessly as one of their supposed building blocks walked away.
The outcry was almost immediate and slanted decisively in management's favor. Boozer was painted as an example of that is wrong with today's professional athlete. His agent, Rob Pelinka, took such a beating that his bosses at SFX Sports required him to drop Boozer as a client.
Clearly, Boozer's reputation was harmed by the episode, and deservedly so. It didn't help that he and his wife had gone public with statements implying that they intended to stay in Cleveland. At best, Boozer was manipulative in a manner that took advantage of a well-intentioned business partner. At worst, he lied.
But time has a way of softening the edges, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that Boozer could work his way back into favor with the general perception of the public. Those who covered Boozer during his days at Duke remember a relatively quiet, thoughtful and sincere person. Whatever forces worked together to turn this into an ugly chapter in his career hopefully can be reined in.
One person who probably will never forgive Boozer is Paxson, who may lose his job over the affair. It's hard to imagine that Paxson would have been so daft as to let Boozer go without some kind of wink and nod, which lends more credence to management's version of the story. NBA teams simply aren't in the business of passing up huge, written-in-stone bargains in favor of equally large, unpredictable risks.
However, even if Boozer went back on some kind of nebulous non-handshake deal, he did have the legal right to do so. Some in Boozer's camp painted Gund as a savvy businessman who tried to lock up an Olympian at far less than market value. Such an accomplishment might be celebrated at Coach K's summer business symposium, but you can be sure Krzyzewski would not have approved of his former charge being taken for a $28 million ride just because of his good nature.