Kobe Bryant Reveals Tar Heel Leanings

Photo courtesy of ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES – Sorry, Dookies. It looks like NBA legend Kobe Bryant is a Tar Heel after all.

It was widely believed that, had Bryant chosen to play college ball instead of leaping from high school straight into the NBA, that he would have made the trip down to Durham rather than Chapel Hill.

But in a pleasant surprise, Bryant said in a conversation with talk show host Jimmy Kimmel that he would have been donning Carolina Blue in his college years.

Although he says he has a close relationship with Duke Coach and US basketball head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, he admits that he was leaning towards playing for recently-named Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dean Smith.

In fact, Bryant says he cherishes the recruitment letter he received from Carolina’s priceless gem, Smith, all those years ago, and he has it tucked away as a special memento.


King Of Coaches

The “K” in Mike Krzyzewski‘s nickname could also stand for “King.”
The Duke basketball coach has climbed to the top of his own personal and professional mountain as the highest-paid employee at his university and, metaphorically, overseeing his empire on the top floor of the six-story tower that sits next to Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Coach K at the Olympics
  • Most wins of any major college men’s coach.
  • Four NCAA championships and numerous other ACC titles.
  • Two Gold Medals as coach of the USA Basketball Dream Team.

Entering his 33rd season as coach of the Blue Devils, there are now calls for a higher calling for Coach King. Former Duke Coach Bucky Waters says he has accomplished all he needs to on the bench and should go to Washington to provide the kind of leadership he has demonstrated throughout most of his career.
If not Washington, then certainly to the NCAA, which does not have separate “commissioners” for football and basketball. If it did, Krzyzewski would be the perfect candidate to lead his sport – help rewrite the rules book, negotiate the age limits imposed by the NBA and generally bring order to a billion-dollar sport that has been rocked by recruiting chaos and off-court scandals.
It may look easy for Coach K these days, with private Duke, USA Basketball and his own corporation funding an entourage of assistants and staff members to meet every need of Krzyzewski and his extended family. Whatever shade of blue your blood runs and whatever you think of the man, he has overcome tough times to lead what appears to be a charmed life.
He began at Duke in 1980 as a no-name third banana to Dean Smith and the flamboyant Jim Valvano at N.C. State. Both men won national championships before Krzyzewski fashioned a winning season with the players he recruited. A group of prominent alumni calling itself the “Concerned Iron Dukes” lobbied for his dismissal, convinced he was the wrong choice to recapture Duke’s glory days of the 1960s.
He was not chased out of town by Carolina’s preeminence, like so many other coaches at Duke and State. In fact, Krzyzewski used his training as a West Point cadet and his service overseas to hunker down behind what he referred to as enemy lines. When his oldest daughter called from middle school to come get her because of teasing from other students and teachers, Coach K did go to the school – to bring her a Duke shirt and made her put it on. He went on to raise a family that’s every bit as tough as its leader.
Gutsy athletic Director Tom Butters, who hired Krzyzewski off a Bobby Knight recommendation, awarded a new contract to the head coach when the Iron Dukes wanted his head. Right on cue, Duke began winning and went on a dominating run of reaching seven Final Fours in a nine year span between 1986 and ’94, including back-to-back national championships in 1991 and ‘92.
The man who began at Duke earning $48,000 and buying cheap suits off the rack while living in a modest home in northern Durham was seemingly set for life, electing to stay at Duke after turning down the first of many NBA offers. But that life was to begin again over the next few years.
It started with a debilitating lower back injury, from which he came back too quickly after surgery, and missed most of the 1995 season when his Duke program crashed and burned deep in the ACC standings. He returned in 1996, but by then Dean Smith had regained his place as the king of coaches, taking four teams to the Final Four in the 1990s and winning his second national championship in 1993. Even after Smith retired in October of 1997, Duke had yet to regain its full measure of prominence.
Much of that was Krzyzewski still coaching in pain. You could see it on his face, as he grimaced through games, standing up, sitting down, squatting in front of his players and, occasionally, barking at a referee. After taking an undefeated 1999 ACC team back to the Final Four, Coach K was apparently so numbed by pain-killing medication on the bench that he could not keep his players from letting the game slip away to UConn.
The back eventually healed but not before two hip replacements corrected his gait that was affecting other parts of his now 50-year-old body. Fighting back to good health, he led Duke to a third national championship in 2001 and nearly won a fourth before that lead slipped away – again to UConn – in the 2004 semifinals. Krzyzewski and Duke watched Roy Williams and Carolina win two NCAA titles before Coach K got his fourth with an overachieving team that capitalized on a great draw and beat Cinderella Butler on the last play of the 2010 Dance.
By then, Krzyzewski was already an international figure, having taken over as America’s coach in 2006 and won our first Gold Medal since 2000 by convincing a bunch of NBA millionaires to play as a team in Beijing in 2008. USA Basketball had been in shambles, thanks to so many ladles in the soup when former UNC star and iconic coach Larry Brown had to replace nine players just before the 2004 Games in Athens and settled for the Bronze medal amid much embarrassment.
Asked by USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo to stay on through the 2012 Olympics in London, Krzyzewski did so and maneuvered a talented but undersized NBA all-star team through improving international competition to win yet another Gold.
Now, at 65, he’s back at Duke trying to build one more national champion that would move him into second place behind only the legendary John Wooden (10) of UCLA. The Blue Devils may not be good enough before Coach K retires or moves on to Washington or to lead NCAA basketball, but overcoming a tough start and a physical breakdown has made what seems like a charmed life more of a sustained, successful and satisfying journey for the new King of Coaches.


LaLa Land Opus

LOS ANGELES — Despite 3,000 miles between us and seemingly 3 million people swarming this city, there were signs of home everywhere.  

Mitch Kupchak, the former UNC star (1976 ACC Player of the Year) and current general manager of the LA Lakers, is under fire for doing nothing about a franchise in turmoil and is rumored to be quitting or retiring after this season.

But what can he do?

The team that won back-to-back NBA championships in 2009 and 2010 under Phil Jackson has a new coach (LeBron’s old coach in Cleveland, Mike Brown) and is being run by owner Jerry Buss’ two sons and one daughter, and all together, they have attained the dreadful dysfunctional label.  

Kobe is unhappy, and it goes far beyond his impending mega multi-million dollar divorce.  Before the strike-shortened season began, he thought he had a new point guard, ex-Wake Forest star Chris Paul, who played his first four seasons in New Orleans.  But NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed the trade for reasons still not fully explained. Apparently, the Lakers would have been too good with perennial NBA All-Star Paul at the point.  

So what happened?  Paul winds up being traded to LA’s stepchild franchise, the Clippers, who play in the same Staples Center before a common-man crowd, compared to the show-time stars and starlets who arrive late and leave early to be seen at Laker games.  

I watched the Clippers beat the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night behind 36 points from Paul and 27 from high-flying center Blake Griffin.  

(If you want to play the Kevin Bacon game, Griffin was the Oklahoma All-American who lost his last college game in the 2009 Elite Eight to the Tar Heels, who went on to win the NCAA Championship. That Oklahoma team was coached by Jeff Capel, the former Dukie, whose brother Jason played for UNC and now coaches Appalachian State.  Jeff has since been fired at Oklahoma and is now back on the Duke Bench as one of the 7 or so suits who flank Mike Krzyzewski.)

The Nuggets are coached by Carolina favorite George Karl, who, at 60, has just finished his second gruesome battle with neck and throat cancer. He is looking comparatively svelte, coaching a no-name but talented team that runs, runs and runs (and lately loses) most of its games. UNC’s Ty Lawson, Karl’s bullet point guard, missed the Clippers loss with a sprained ankle.  

“We’re playing well, but the losing is killing me,” Karl said before the Clippers game. Relatively speaking; when you’ve beaten the Big C twice, the W’s aren’t quite as important in the grand scheme.  

Karl will be remembered by old-time Tar Heels as the pepperpot point guard who led Dean Smith’s star-studded 1972 team to the Final Four right here before losing to Florida State, which had yet to join the ACC.  

The Clippers and Lakers are separated by one game in their NBA division and waging a “city series” not unlike close-proximity college or high-school rivals. They have become the biggest games in town, both teams selling out the Staples Center nearly every time they play.  

Meanwhile, college basketball here has been moved to the back page or below the fold.  

UCLA, which once dominated the collegiate game and Southern California sports, has struggled with a lineup that has Tar Heel defectors David and Travis Wear and Larry Drew II.  The Bruins, who had a great run of Final Four appearances a few years ago, are in jeopardy of not making the NCAA tournament this season.

Ironically, their best chance is to win the Pac-12 tournament in early March that will be played in the Staples Center on one of the rare weekends when Kupchak, Kobe, the Lakers; Paul, Griffin, and the Clippers, will all be out of town.   

(Editor’s Note: This column was dictated to Hollywood stuntman Alex Chansky, the author’s nephew, because the author broke his computer and does not know how to use one of these high-falutin’ Macs!)