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Coach K won even before the season started. Darn.

It'll surprise no one to hear that, growing up in Chicago, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was an adolescent weisenheimer.

He was, he admitted to graduates at the Durham Rescue Mission's fall graduation ceremony recently, "a little bit of an inner city punk."

Of course, he's not unique in that regard, since being insufferable know-it-alls is almost a rite of passage for teens. (From 13 to 16, I couldn't even stand myself, and seemingly spent half my time ducking or nursing injuries from backhands for back-talking my aunt.)

On the night before his first day of high school, the future hall-of-fame coach had a predictably teenage reaction when his mother, a cleaning lady who never attended high school, tried to impart some motherly advice.

"She said 'Michael, get over here. Now tomorrow, you're going to start a different phase of your life,'" he recalled her telling him.

"I'm smart. I think I know everything," he told the 18 graduates and their families, friends and supporters inside Storr Chapel at the Durham Rescue Mission's headquarters in Durham. "I said 'Yeah, I'm starting high school.'

"She said 'I want to give you one bit of advice."

What's that, ma?

"'Make sure you get on the right bus.'

"I took that as an insult," he admitted. "I said 'I know. Damen to Armitage and Armitage to Laramie. I could even take Grand to Division and Division to Laramie."

"She said 'Michael, that's not the bus I'm talking about.' I said 'Well, what bus are you talking about?'"

"'The bus you're going to drive for the rest of your life.'"


"'When you're driving that bus," his mother told him,"only let good people on. If you get on somebody else's bus, make sure they're good people."

His remarks were punctuated with Amen's and That's right's from the graduates - and by the coach having to pause when he became emotional talking about his mother.

This was, no doubt, the same story he tells industry titans who pay big bucks to hear him and to bask in the glow of his presence so they can brag to their country club buddies about spending the day with Coach K.

"Failure," he told them, "is not your destination."

He knew that, he said, because he'd been knocked down once he arrived as a college student at West Point and had had to learn that "failure was not my destination... Failure happens to all of us, but at that moment we have to tell ourselves 'That's not where this road is headed.'

"You're gonna fail, but that's not going to be your destination," he said. "You've put yourselves on the Durham Rescue Mission's team, put yourselves with good people. Look at you. Do you feel proud?"

Yeah! they chorused.

"You should feel damned proud."

"Excuse me," he said, asking forgiveness before admitting "I've got worse words than that."

(If you've sat within 10 miles of Duke's bench when they're playing UNC, you've heard 'em, too.)

The graduates, all of whom are battling - and probably will battle for the rest of their lives - alcohol and drug addictions, are on a first-name basis with failure, have obviously let the wrong people onto their buses. Their modest goals included getting their own place to live or getting their kids back.

Having made it through what former Duke basketball coach Bucky Waters, who introduced K, called the Rescue Mission's "boot camp" means they're on the right road.

More impressive than the life lessons Krzyzewski gave the graduates was the fact that he delivered his commencement address five days before Duke opened the 2018 season against the second-ranked team in the country.

Oh, they smoked the Kentucky Wildcats by 34 points, but a coach never knows what kind of team he has until it faces a real opponent on national TV.

That's why the Duke coach would've been forgiven by some had he blown off the Rescue Mission or simply swept into Storr Chapel in a Blue Devils sweat suit, imparted some perfunctory pearls of wisdom and immediately headed back to Cameron Indoor Stadium to work on X's and O's.

Instead, he remained for the entire 100-minute ceremony and seemed genuinely engaged, seemed to mean it when he said "Thank you, thank you, thank you" for the invitation to be a part of what, for many, is the first ride on a new bus.




Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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