FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Mike Krzyzewski gave his Duke team a taste of his Army past.
The former West Point cadet, player and coach had the Blue Devils at Fort Bragg on Monday for a day of physical training and an open practice in front of a few hundred soldiers.
“I just want our guys to be around the best team in the world, and the best team in the world is our military,” Krzyzewski said. “So, for a day, we’re going to have that honor.”
For Krzyzewski, the visit to this sprawling Army post in central North Carolina reconnected him to his past.
Before he became “Coach K,” he was Bob Knight’s point guard at West Point in the 1960s and rose to the rank of captain before resigning in 1974 and getting his record-setting college coaching career off the ground. Before he arrived at Duke in 1980, he coached the Black Knights for five years.
Krzyzewski said his doctors wouldn’t let him tackle the obstacle course – which the players called the toughest part of the day – because the 65-year-old has had both hips replaced. But he added that his experiences in the Army were “good for me at one time in my life, and it’s paid good dividends for me, and I wanted them to be exposed to it.”
Getting on the court and practicing wound up being the easiest thing the players did. With the university on fall break until Wednesday, the team had an opening in the schedule to make the trip. They arrived Sunday and spent the night in barracks.
Then came a 5:45 a.m. wake-up call and a march to physical training. They tackled an obstacle course before arriving at the physical fitness center where they practiced. Virtually every player showed up at the gym caked in dirt from the obstacle course.
“We were down in the trenches, working hard, running, exerting our energy and we really had to have a bond, and that’s the same bond we have in practice,” freshman Amile Jefferson said. “If a guy’s not making his push-ups, can’t make it, is getting tired, we had to pick him up and it really brought us together as a team.”
Said forward Ryan Kelly: “It was harder than I thought, and I have the blisters to show for it, but it’s something I’ll never forget.”
The practice itself was, by most standards, rather vanilla. The Blue Devils don’t usually open their practices back in Durham, and they weren’t about to give away too many secrets with a national television audience watching this one.
Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon joined Quinn Cook, Alex Murphy and returning big men Mason Plumlee and Kelly with the first team. Redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee, who has a stress fracture in his left foot, was on crutches with the foot in a boot. Guard Seth Curry participated in drills but was held out of the scrimmage situations with a lower leg injury that the coaches are keeping an eye on, team spokesman Matt Plizga said.
But the priorities for this workout weren’t strategy or sorting out the rotation. The goal was to build team unity and put on a show for the troops who filled four sections of bleachers in the gym. As the soldiers began to file in, the Blue Devils stopped stretching and gave them a standing ovation.
“We wanted this trip to help shape us into the team we’re going to become, and obviously, practice is just getting started,” Kelly said. “But this can be something that we look back on and say it really helped shape who we are.”