Although I graduated from Duke 16 years ago, one of the questions I am most frequently asked to this day is: What’s it like to play for Coach K? Just in time for Final Four weekend, here is the latest installment in my series on great coaching (check out Part 1 and Part 2), where I detail what it was like to play for the best coach in the game, and the impact my relationship with Coach K has had on my career and my life. And don’t miss my return to the Final Four on Sunday night, as I take part in the Chef’s Classic on CBS, airing at 5 pm Eastern!
By the time I got to college and played for Coach K (the Duke University Blue Devils’ renowned – and revered — Coach Mike Krzyzewski), the coaching bar in my world had been set very high. Coach K had a lot to live up to. (I think that was a new experience for him!) And boy, did he ever. If there was one coach who was up to that task, it was Coach K.
What distinguished Coach K from all the other coaches who tried to recruit me to their college programs was that he didn’t promise me a place in the starting lineup, and he didn’t dangle before me the potential spoils of victory. Instead, he promised me only one thing: that every day I would have the opportunity to earn playing time. Even before I had committed to Duke, that was his way of challenging me intellectually: “Are you mentally tough enough to accept that challenge?”
And earning playing time was not going to be easy. Coach K fostered an unbelievably competitive environment. Our practices were much tougher than our games. I was the Naismith national player of the year that year, but we also had the number two player and the number four player in the country in my recruiting class at Duke. Moreover, our team included several McDonalds All Americans, as well as lots of guys who were all-state and had realistic dreams of playing professionally. Coach K said to us, “I’m not going to decide who plays and who doesn’t; YOU are going to decide. You will determine, with your preparation and your focus and how you play, the opportunities you get in practice and in games. The question is, do you make our team better?”
So that was the criterion: not who had the best shot, not who scored the most points, but who made the TEAM better. I heard this message and I was determined: I was NEVER going to be the guy who didn’t get to play. I was just never going to be that guy.
Interestingly, our individual roles were never defined for us. It was up to the players themselves to define those roles. And everyone sort of fell in line. It wasn’t easy. It was very high pressure. But we had championship aspirations. And when you have championship aspirations, you don’t worry about labels, you worry about doing your job well.
Basketball at Duke was a little different from most college programs – it was based on unselfishness. If you were selfish, that would be revealed in film sessions and the subsequent benchings. We watched a ton of film every day. That was how we got the feedback we needed to see where we had room for improvement. The “eye in the sky” never lies. So, in watching those films, we got direct feedback about our own level of effort and mental focus. If you wanted to play, you had to be able to “think the game” — that is, be mentally present throughout every practice and game. You had to be able to think the game not just sometimes but through every second of every possession.
What makes Coach K better than any other coach in the entire world, in any sport, is his ability to understand every member of his team and what makes each of them tick. It’s his ability to unite and inspire the whole group, by connecting with and inspiring each of us in his own special way. That’s an unbelievable skill. I have no doubt that if Coach K weren’t the world’s greatest basketball coach, he’d be running a Fortune 500 company, or he’d be a Senator, or a great general, or pretty much anything he wanted to be. He just has an uncanny ability to reach the people in his circle. In terms of the Coaching Up Model, he’s a genius at building authentic connections.
One of the ways he built those connections with each of us was through honest communication. He had a rule: “We communicate with eye contact. When you have something to say, you look me in the eye and say it.” That made it real.
For my part, I’ve never responded well to anyone yelling at me or challenging my manhood, my toughness. I know I’m tough. I know I have heart. So, if you challenge me that way, I would say, you know what? You’re an idiot. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Coach K realized this about me. The way he got me to go to another level as a player was to challenge me intellectually. He would challenge my mental capacity to handle the load that it takes to be a top player.
And that drove me crazy. So I was out to prove to him that I was the smartest, most diligent, most focused, and just mentally toughest player he had ever coached. That’s what I tried to do every single day.
And he challenged me, he pushed my buttons – in a way that I knew was about love. It was absolutely about love. Though it wasn’t always easy.
The story he still tells every time I’m around is this: when I was a junior, I was the team captain. Usually, after the team stretching commenced, the coach would address us all with the key messages of the day: OK guys, we need to get together, we need to really work our man-to-man defense, we need to focus on finishing, we haven’t really been sharp the last few days, whatever the key message of the day was. But for me, as the team captain, and being the mother hen that I was, Duke basketball was MY program. And so one day I took the initiative to jump in and address the team myself. I said, “OK guys, this is what we need to do today, this is how we get better.” And I went down the line and spelled out how we would get better. Coach K was pretty impressed, and said, “What Shane said was better than anything I could have said.”
So that became my task, every single day: I addressed the team. He let me have ultimate control over my team. I didn’t recognize at the time how unusual this arrangement was; for me, leading this team was just what I was supposed to do. But I came to recognize that it takes a really special coach to understand that sometimes it’s best to let go. Sometimes, you can achieve the best outcome for your team by allowing your players to take ownership, while you yourself coach less, at least verbally. And the storybook ending we had my senior year was like a movie: winning the last game of the season, having a Final Four run, and then winning the national championship.
The relationship Coach K and I have, it’s hard to put into words. It’s much deeper than I can explain. There’s trust; there’s love. I thought I was an extension of him, and I’m sure he thought I was an extension of him, too.
My greatest attributes as a player were my ability to focus and my ability to think the game. That was my job. I would just know, innately, where I needed to be on the court and where my teammates needed to be.
Of course, I wasn’t infallible; everybody makes mistakes. But I was lucky, I was pretty autonomous. I didn’t need Coach K to tell me when I messed up. I knew when I messed up. Whenever I messed up, I would raise my hand and say “My bad; it’s not going to happen again.” And I’d never make that same mistake again. So he didn’t generally need to point out my mistakes, because he knew I was aware of them and would correct them.
But every player is different, and he coached each of us according to what we needed. There were some players who needed -– let’s say –- a vigilant constant reminder of their responsibilities, also known as a kick in the pants; I wasn’t one of them.
The deal was, you’d best do what you were supposed to do, or you were going to hear from Coach K. But, again, however he corrected a player, it was never personal. It was about the health and vitality of the team. That focus was always paramount, and everybody knew it. That’s what makes coachability: the understanding that the health and vitality of the team depend on everybody playing his role. That understanding is the ultimate environment to improve in, both as a player and as a team. Because if you’re focused on anything else — if you’re not focused on the team — you’re not doing your job.