No matter how successful you become, there is always a time you remember someone who believed in you and saved you during a period of adversity.
Success doesn’t always mean reaching the very top of what you do.
It can be a stepping stone, or anything that represents something you wanted to achieve.
Often we forget about that special person who bailed you out by giving you a second chance, or even a first chance.
I’ve been reading a book, just released by Ian O’Connor, a sportswriter with the New York Post, on the life and career of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Krzyzewski, or Coach K, as he is called (fortunately for us), is retiring, at age 75, at the end of this season after, perhaps, the greatest college coaching career in history.
The early days
He has won more games (1,149) than any coach, won fives national championships, second only to the 10 captured by the great John Wooden at UCLA, has taken his teams to 12 Final Fours, won 15 ACC tournament titles, and 13 ACC regular season crowns.
He led the USA to three Olympic Gold Medals, is a 3-time NCAA Coach of the Year, and, of course, a Hall-of-Famer.
One of the 5 titles
Krzyzewski was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, the same year I was honored in similar fashion by entering the Curt Gowdy broadcasting wing at the Hall in Springfield, MA.
We are friends, and he calls us “classmates”, and to an extent we are, but there is a clear difference to what we achieved to reach that plateau.
Still, I regard mine personally, as a true once-in-a-lifetime honor.
In his final appearance at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke’s home court, Coach K was hailed by the fans, and over 20 former players, most of them All-Americans and successful NBA performers.
Final game at Cameron
It was an emotional finale, save for the fact that the Blue Devils lost to their intense rivals North Carolina.
In sports, as in life, not everything has a poetic finish.
But it is not the finish to the season.
The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and the NCAA tournament awaits.
So the final chapter of Mike Krzyzewski’s storied basketball life has not been written.
It may be surprising to many, but there was a time Coach K needed that special someone to save him.
He was hired by Duke in 1980, and after a 17-13 first year, with a losing record in the ACC, most supporters of the Blue Devils were hardly on the K-bandwagon.
Things got worse.
In his second and third seasons, Duke finished 10-17, and 11-17 respectively, winning only 7 games and losing 21 in one of the marquee conferences in the country.
Dean Smith was a 20-year fixture at North Carolina, winning the national title in 1982, with a 32-2 record.
A year later, the late Jim Valvano surprised the basketball world, cutting down the nets after another conference rival, N.C. State beat Houston for the national championship.
Duke was a close to being a bottom feeder.
Fans and alumni called for Coach K to be fired.
They were not subtle about it.
He was in the third year of a five-year contract, and he could not have been more unpopular, even with some of the players who resented his intense coaching style.
He had learned much of it from his coach at Army, Bob Knight.
Then, the moment of truth.
Krzyzewski was summoned to the office of the man who hired him, Athletic Director Tom Butters.
Sensing he would be fired, Coach K asked to be informed of his dismissal sooner than later, so he could find new jobs for his assistant coaches.
Instead of following the cries of the unhappy throng, Butters , instead, tore up K’s contract and asked the coach to sign a new five-year agreement.
Mike was brought to tears.
Tom Butters had immense faith in Krzyzewski, and was strong enough to weather the storm from the outside and stick to his beliefs.
Butters himself, had been a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates for three seasons without notoriety.
He might have known something about having confidence in supporting someone who was struggling.
Maybe he experienced something similar somewhere in his baseball career.
This is where we say, “….and the rest is history”.
Coach K with Tom Butters
Armed with a new lease on life, Coach K guided Duke to a 24-10 mark the next season.
Two years after that, the Blue Devils garnered their first of five national championships, finishing with a sparkling 37-3 record.
I believe many of us can look back at a pivotal moment when one person supported us at a critical time.
I know I can.
In 1974, I received a call from Gene Kirby, the assistant General Manager of the Boston Red Sox.
Dizzy and Gene Kirby
He told me I was a candidate for the play-by-play assignment for their new television package which would begin the next season, 1975.
Kirby had been one of the prominent play-by-play announcers for the Mutual Broadcasting System’s Major League “Game of the Day” broadcasts during the late 1940’s and 1950’s.
He worked with the colorful former Cardinal pitcher Dizzy Dean, and Gene later became the producer of the national “Game of the Week” broadcasts featuring Dean and former Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese.
Kirby asked me if I had ever announced baseball?
I admitted that I hadn’t.
He then asked me to take a tape recorder to a game in New York, where I lived, do a broadcast, and send him the tape.
I did and when he called a week later, he asked me to take notes as he proceeded to meticulously analyze my performance.
It wasn’t very good. He flat out said he could not recommend me for the job and spent an hour telling me why.
Much of it centered around the proper pacing of a game.
When to describe a pitch. How to go about framing various plays. Gene Kirby was a stickler. He was unwavering in his specific method of broadcasting baseball.
He believed in the fundamentals.
Where is that not the way to go?
Instead of dismissing me as a contender to work play-by-play for one of the legendary teams in the game, he advised me to go out and tape another game.
Shaken, a bit, I followed his orders.
The second effort proved to be not much of an upgrade from the first.
Again, he spent an hour going over the details.
I wrote down everything he said, and there was plenty.
Even, after the third go-around, Kirby was not satisfied.
Now, I was concerned that I might not come close to the chance of a lifetime.
I was having doubts now.
But Gene Kirby kept believing in me, and took the time to work with me and mold me into an announcer he could recommend.
Finally, in September of 1974, I delivered a tape of a broadcast that brought his approval.
I was to become the television voice of the Boston Red Sox on WSBK-TV, Channel 38, for their 100-game schedule.
My partner would be Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the colorful, former slugger for the A’s, Indians, and Red Sox.
Just about one year later, I was in the booth for the 1975 World Series, working as the Red Sox representative on NBC’s coverage with Curt Gowdy, Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek.
And it was in Game 6, that I called Carlton Fisk’s dramatic 12th inning home run that extended the World Series to 7 games.
That moment has been played back countless times, and remained number one in my career.
I often think back to the many chances Gene Kirby gave me, and wonder how my professional life might have been different from what followed?
And I wonder if Mike Krzyzewski thinks back to that meeting with Tom Butters and contemplates what might have been, had Butters fired him and not given him an extension?
I’m sure there are many readers who have a similar story.
I invite those who do, to let me know via:
Perhaps we can touch on your experience of knowing that one person who wouldn’t give up on you.