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NEW YORK – Down in Durham, far from the courthouse tower in Manhattan where college basketball’s soul is being stripped bare, the most powerful coach in the game decided to weigh in.
And by weigh in, Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t weigh much at all, preferring to tell everyone not to trust their lying eyes concerning the testimony and evidence about just how corrupt to the core his sport is.
“I think it’s minute,” Coach K said of the tales of payouts, influence peddling and bags of cash testified about in the federal fraud trial of two sneaker executives and one would-be agent. “It’s a blip. It’s not what’s happening.”
A blip? It’s not what’s happening?
This is ridiculous and absurd and, well, most of all disappointing because this is exactly what’s happening.
Krzyzewski, as college hoops’ winningest and most famous coach, either knows it or should make sure he knows it. His grip of the game is significant, five NCAA titles bolstered by the three Olympic gold medals. His influence spans the sport, from LeBron James Sr. to the LeBron James Jr.
And yet we get this?
Sorry, but this is no blip. This is reality. Maybe, somehow, someway, Krzyzewski lives in such a cocoon that he doesn’t have to deal with any of the bottom-line characters that this trial has delivered – the eager-to-be-paid father in Brian Bowen Sr., the ambitious middle-man and would-be agent in Christian Dawkins and the unapologetic bag man in T.J. Gassnola.
Maybe, somehow, someway Krzyzewski’s status is so great those guys never get to his level … no one would dare to ask him or approach him. Hey, good for him. But his peers live in a different world. Rick Pitino and Bill Self have had their name dragged across this trial – and they’re national champions and Hall of Famers too.
If Krzyzewski doesn’t know better then he should have come to New York over the past few weeks and listened first-hand about how this is not a blip, how the professed amateurism of the sport that’s made him fabulously rich and fabulously famous is a sham.
That he’s playing the Iraqi Information Minister bit that seems to have become popular with the upper echelons of college athletics is beneath him. Krzyzewski is better than this, smarter than this, more rooted in reality than this. He’s West Point for crying out loud, not someone prone to Roy Williams’ Mayberry-babe-in-the-woods routine or Mark Emmert’s head-in-the-sand act.
Look, no one recruits better than Krzyzewski. No one. And that’s for myriad reasons – he’s Coach K, Duke is an incredible school, his track record of producing NBA players, Cameron Indoor, the ACC, ESPN and so on. That said, if he doesn’t think Duke’s affiliation with Nike plays a part, he’s absolutely lost his mind.
Last year Duke was led by Marvin Bagley III, who played AAU ball not for an established team, but one created just for him, coached and operated by his father, and sponsored by Nike. It was good business for Nike, it got its logo plastered on the player. It also allowed the shoe company to pay the Bagleys whatever it wanted through the NCAA-legal channels of an AAU team. Adidas has done the same with other players.
Good for them. Nike, for sure. And the Bagleys as well. When it came time to choose a college for their one year before entering the NBA draft (Bagley was the No. 2 pick in June), maybe they chose Duke because of Duke. Maybe they chose Duke because of Coach K. Or maybe a family from Arizona chose Duke, at least just a little bit, for the swoosh. Or maybe a lot of bit.
That’s what’s on trial here.
This isn’t a gotcha moment for Coach K. It’s a shake of the head that he’s an important part of the sport that clearly wants to just ignore the truth being told in court and keep whistling by the graveyard.
No one has the bully pulpit of Krzyzewski, who with a snap of the fingers could summon television cameras not just from ESPN, but “60 Minutes.” If he spoke on this, with his sport presumably in crisis, everyone would listen.
Maybe he could point out that times have changed and so should NCAA rules. Duke’s most heralded incoming freshman is Zion Williamson of South Carolina. Williamson isn’t just good, he’s immensely popular. He has 1.7 million Instagram followers. A mixtape of his senior year highlights is approaching 2 million views on YouTube.
Peter Miller, owner of the Boston-based JABEZ Marketing Group, which works with professional athletes, including NFL stars Dak Prescott and Patrick Peterson, says that such a following can command $50,000 to $100,000 for a single product endorsement.
“He has a high level of influence,” Miller said.
There was, indeed, a time when such popularity for a high school recruit was unimaginable. The only people who knew the top recruits in America subscribed to the Bob Gibbons newsletter.
That was then. This is Zion.
Through their own hard work and talent, these kids have built brands that can impact the purchasing decisions of other kids. Companies are eager to tap into that. To pretend otherwise is naive. To expect the NCAA’s concept of amateurism to rule the day is to expect the wheels of capitalism to grind to a stop. Sorry, not going to happen. This is still the United States of America.
Yet Krzyzewski isn’t pointing that out. He’s isn’t standing up for the players and their families. Heck, he’s not even giving a full-throated, if ill-advised, defense of amateurism. At least that would be something. Instead he’s telling everyone the truth isn’t the truth.
Krzyzewski didn’t come listen to court though. Neither did his athletic director or conference commissioner or NCAA president or anyone else with any say about how college sports works. If he wanted, he could have not only pulled up some bench inside the Moynihan Federal Courthouse, but summoned everyone in power to come with him and educate themselves on what’s really going on. Mark Emmert. John Swofford. Jim Delany. Whomever.
“We haven’t followed it that much,” Coach K said of the trial.
Of course not.
Mike Krzyzewski, the great Mike Krzyzewski, who is way too smart for this, who is way too strong for this, is just going with the status quo and claiming that a federal trial and under-oath testimony and FBI wiretaps are just nothing, nothing at all.
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