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Former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was more than a basketball coach for former players

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It was the end of an era for college basketball when Mike Krzyzewski, who all of us basketball fans know as Coach K, retired this season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: And Coach K's career - well, the final chapter will be written at the Final Four - incomparable, incredible.

SUMMERS: The former Duke men's basketball head coach is the winningest in the history of the sport. Over nearly 50 years, he brought home five national championships, and he led the U.S. men's basketball team to three Olympic gold medals. Five players from that final Duke team were drafted into the NBA last week, and he has coached hundreds of players to similar career highs, including NPR's own Jay Williams, who is a former NBA player. And Jay caught up with Coach K for his podcast, The Limits, about his legacy and life post-retirement. Jay joins us now to tell us more. Jay, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JAY WILLIAMS, BYLINE: And, Juana, I'd like to say congratulations on your new show.

SUMMERS: Oh, thanks so much. I am excited to talk to you because I am a big college hoops fan. And you were on one of the teams that Coach K led to win the college national championships. I have to know, what was it like to be coached by him? You were one of his star players.

WILLIAMS: Well, here's a beautiful thing. We obviously have a pseudo-father-son relationship. But literally, Juana, my first day on campus, Coach K had us practice an exercise in which we all had to close our eyes, and we all had to tell each other what our dream was. And for some reason, that day, my dream was winning a national championship and throwing the ball up into the air as time dwindled off the clock. Fast-forward a couple of years later. My teammate Chris Duhon, as we're about to win the national championship game, passes me the ball and gives me the thumbs-up sign, reminding me as my teammate to complete my dream. And he gets you to buy into something so much bigger than what you ever thought you could even achieve. That team aspect is something that he is truly brilliant at.

SUMMERS: So this is a relationship built on basketball but that goes so much further than that. I know that after a year in the NBA, you had an accident that ended your professional career. Tell me how Coach K and that relationship helped you through that.

WILLIAMS: At the lowest moment of my life, my coach at that time, Juana, handed me a rosary that his mother had given him in a moment where I was crying, really being honest with him about, I had thrown it all away. And he said, stop - you give this back to me when you play again. And that moment was one that still moves me to this day. It gives me goosebumps.

SUMMERS: You know, today we are seeing and hearing a much more open conversation about the intersection of mental health and the pressures of being an athlete on some of the world's biggest courts and field. When it comes to coaches, you don't often hear them in this conversation, but I know that's part of what you and Coach K talked about.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Coach talked specifically about going through something in the early '90s when his career as a coach was really taking off, and he told me about a moment he realized he truly needed help, and it came from his wife, Mickie. And here's what she told him.

MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: If you don't get help today, when you come back from practice, I won't be here. And I did get help. And I had no feeling. I mean, I could feel if you touched me. What I'm saying is, I could not feel anything.

WILLIAMS: You know, he had talked about being so numb that he had hit a wall mentally. And I really think that therapy made him into the man that I call my second father today.

SUMMERS: Now, Coach K said last week that he does not plan on attending Duke games this upcoming season. Does that surprise you at all? It doesn't sound like it does.

WILLIAMS: Not really, Juana. But what did surprise me is how much he's actually enjoying retirement. He has a new puppy named Coach that he's truly excited about. And he told me a story about attending one of his granddaughter's graduations.

KRZYZEWSKI: That was happy. Something happened that I can't remember when this has happened. I was only thinking of the graduation and my grandkids.

SUMMERS: Wow - sounds like a lot of lessons there that we could all take something away from. The latest episode of The Limits with Coach K dropped on Tuesday. Be sure to check it out wherever you get your podcasts. Jay Williams, thank you so much for talking with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Juana. Have a great day.

SUMMERS: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Jay Williams