NEW YORK — With a quick point, a subdued wave and a pause for his wife to exit the stands and join him, Mike Krzyzewski stepped off the court, through the narrow passage through the stands and into the bowels of Madison Square Garden, turning his back for the last time to an arena floor that has meant more to him than almost any other.
There was very little overt celebration of Duke’s win over Kentucky, the first of this final season and the 1,171st of Krzyzewski’s career, nor any sentimentality in his departure. The floor went unkissed, the crowd at large unacknowledged, the moment unadorned.
That final MSG exit had more resonance than the odd halftime ceremony during the opening game Tuesday, when an ESPN executive presented Krzyzewski with a framed Champions Classic poster and the two seemed to wrestle over who would carry it off the court.
Krzyzewski waved to the crowd then but there was more than a little awkwardness to it, the honoring of a coach amid a game between two other teams whose fans aren’t particularly fond of him, the crowd still absent most of the Duke fans yet to arrive.
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But there was never any doubt on what this meant, not only to this latest iteration of Duke but this final iteration of Krzyzewski’s many visits to the Garden as a player and coach.
“We wanted to get this win, especially for coach in his first game,” Paolo Banchero, Duke’s star freshman said. “It was a big game for us. Coming in felt like we had a chance to make a statement with this game.”
That’s a bit of a twist on “first” but in this already prolonged season of farewells, one where the word “last” has been proscribed from the Duke vocabulary, this evening was one unquestioned and indisputable finality. Krzyzewski may watch Duke play again someday at Madison Square Garden — it’s the only place he has indicated he might — but he will never again stalk this sideline.
He played here a handful of times at Army, then coached four games here with Army and more than 10 times that with Duke, but the next time he comes to Madison Square Garden he’ll need a ticket, like any other schlub. Duke will be back in New York, in March, but in a different building in a different borough.
Krzyzewski exits this particular stage with a 79-71 win, and in keeping with the latter years of his time at Duke, he has a freshman to thank for it, just not the one anyone expected. With Banchero missing a big chunk of the second half to cramps, Trevor Keels took over for the Blue Devils.
When Kentucky made a push heading into the final five minutes, Keels hit a jumper in the lane, Mark Williams had a big block and Banchero scored in the paint to restore the Duke lead to a comfortable margin. It showed the ability to fend off impending crisis Duke so lacked a season ago — and delivering a big win for the ACC on what turned out to be a dismal opening evening.
The curious poster from ESPN was the first of what figures to be many momentos in this season of farewells but the real gift Tuesday was this visit, beginning his final season with a pilgrimage back to the only arena that means anything close to what Cameron means to him over the course of his career.
“It felt so good, with the Garden crowd, playing against an outstanding team,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re tough. And we’re tough. That was a big-time game.”
It’s a relationship between man and building that predates his time at Duke and taps the true roots of his basketball career, which brought him to the ACC from the regional sect of basketball that for many years served as its northeastern counterweight.
As far as Duke is concerned, Madison Square Garden has an importance of its own, beyond whatever it may mean to Krzyzewski. For a large swath of the fan and alumni base, it’s a far more convenient venue than Cameron itself, and Duke has always kept MSG as a Manhattan pied-a-terre.
Krzyzewski has coached more Duke games at MSG than anywhere but Cameron and the Greensboro Coliseum, and fate and coincidence collided to deliver two of his biggest milestones on this floor: He passed Bobby Knight in 2011 with a win over Michigan State in the inaugural instance of his event, sharing a hug with his former coach in the aftermath, and he reached 1,000 wins with a win over St. John’s three seasons later.
But the Garden held deep meaning for Krzyzewski long before he even arrived at Duke, before he’d won his first game there, because he came of basketball age at Army, as a player and coach, in an era when the Big East had yet to stratify basketball in the northeast into haves and have-nots, and that entire basketball universe revolved around Madison Square Garden. It was that way for an entire generation of New York-area coaches — Coach K and Jimmy V and Louie and Dr. Tom and P.J. and on and on — who would become known by a single name.
Jim Valvano and Krzyzewski moved south a week apart in 1980, trading the big city for the ACC, but the depth of feeling for the Garden still resonates for Krzyzewski today, all these years later. He played five games there as a cadet and went 1-3 as a coach at Army before leaving for a new opportunity at Duke.
Forty-one years later, the final act of that tenure started in this place that in some ways represents where it all began, a place that has always been special to Krzyzewski and will remain special to Duke after he’s gone, even if it won’t be the same.