In what was supposed to be a celebration of Krzyzewski’s 42 years of coaching at Duke, his final home game ended in a 94-81 loss Saturday to rival North Carolina.
So before the postgame celebration could officially begin, Krzyzewski walked to a microphone at midcourt and offered an impromptu message to the crowd, some of whom had paid upward of $10,000 on Vivid Seats to attend the farewell at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon,” Krzyzewski said.
The crowd roared, and he asked for quiet.
“Today was unacceptable,” he said, “but the season has been very acceptable. And the season isn’t over, all right?”
Indeed, this wasn’t the final chapter of Krzyzewski’s tenure at Duke. The Blue Devils won the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 2006 — a fact Krzyzewski noted as he pointed to the myriad banners hanging from the roof at Cameron — and the crowd routinely chanted its hopes for a sixth national title.
But for all the magic Krzyzewski has conjured in this building over the years, the final trick was a disappearing act by the Blue Devils’ defense. Duke led by as much as nine, but throughout a rollicking second half, the unit wore down, looking listless during a stretch run that saw North Carolina score on 11 of its final 13 possessions.
Four Tar Heels finished with 20 points or more.
The ending hardly matched the raucous opening to the festivities.
Nearly 100 former players, including Duke legends Grant Hill, Jason Williams, Shane Battier, and Christian Laettner, lined the court to welcome Krzyzewski to the floor for the final time.
Cameron might as well have rolled out an official red carpet for the affair.
Fans roared as comedian Jerry Seinfeld and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, sitting next to each other, waved on the video board. Sitcom stars Ken Jeong and Retta sat courtside along the baseline. Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, former Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki and NFL Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens were in attendance, too.
But it was less the celebrities that stole the moment than the crowd — a packed house more than an hour before tipoff, roaring with energy — and the extended Duke family that stole the show for Krzyzewski.
The former players formed a tunnel leading from one corner of the baseline to midcourt, and as Krzyzewski was announced, the crowd erupted. The 75-year-old, who coached his first game here in November 1980, made his way through the phalanx of former players, tapping each on the chest, bumping fists, or sharing a hug. Many held cellphones aloft, recording the moment for posterity.
After Krzyzewski made his way to the end of the line, the group gathered at midcourt for a photo of the family reunion.
However, once the game tipped off, it was business as usual for Krzyzewski. Perched in his normal seat near the end of the bench, he watched stoically with arms crossed as UNC jumped out to an early lead, barked at officials routinely, then appeared to accept the inevitable as the Tar Heels drained free throws in the final minutes to seal the win.
When it was over, the full Duke team returned to the court, taking seats in the chairs where UNC players sat moments before, and Krzyzewski emerged again from the locker room, hand in hand with his wife, Mickie. He huddled with his grandchildren, then walked to the mic to apologize.
There was no room for apologies Saturday. The crowd accepted none of it. Despite the score, this remained a celebration, as Duke dignitaries reeled off a host of honors before Krzyzewski again took the mic.
“It’s hard for me to believe this is over,” he said. “So I’m just going to say the regular season’s over.”
Krzyzewski was far more interested in talking about the future than the past, whether it was due to the outcome or simply his unwillingness to say goodbye.
Above the Duke bench, those 96 former players watched — most wearing white T-shirts with a blue “K” emblazoned on the front — and Krzyzewski addressed them directly as he ended his speech.
“We didn’t play well [today],” Krzyzewski said. “And there were times when you didn’t either.”
That was Krzyzewski’s big applause line, and the arena roared with laughter, the tension following the loss evaporating. But Krzyzewski wasn’t done.
“We need to fight for you, fight for the brotherhood, and fight with all our might through the remainder of this season,” he said. “Then I’ll be ready to get the hell out of here.”