They put a call into an icon they knew could restore a shipwreck: Mike Krzyzewski.
Krzyzewski was just one of the sideline giants that then-Magic GM John Gabriel had contacted.
Rick Pitino had agreed to leave the Kentucky Wildcats for Orlando, but the Magic scuttled the deal given Pitino wanted say in the front-office. The Boston Celtics hired him to be team president and coach.
Gabriel reached out to Phil Jackson, but Jackson took a hiatus after leading the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive championships.
Chuck Daly eventually came out of retirement to take over the Magic after coaching the Detroit Pistons to two titles and the ’92 Olympic Dream Team to gold.
Along the way, Gabriel had dialed Krzyzewski. Coach K largely had steered clear of the pros to avoid the kind of mess that the Magic were trying to clean up.
It was a very brief conversation.
“I did speak to Mike,” Gabriel said earlier this week. “He said, ‘I’ll just tell you that I’m never leaving here.’ ”
Unlike other coaches, Krzyzewski kept his word.
He already had been at Duke for 17 years when the Magic called. He has been with the Blue Devils now for 36 seasons, winning five NCAA titles and becoming the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I.
Krzyzewski would turn down more NBA overtures, including a four-year, $40 million offer in 2004 from the L.A. Lakers. The Lakers had lost Jackson (and later, Shaquille O’Neal), but they still had Kobe Bryant.
Krzyzewski passed, just as he did when the Portland Trail Blazers, New Jersey Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves tried to pry him out of Durham, N.C.
The league is littered with great college coaches who flamed out in the pros. Considering his work meshing superstar egos on the past three Olympic teams, it’s pretty clear that Coach K was the best candidate to never make the NBA leap.
He’s also the smartest, realizing he already made it to hoops heaven with the Blue Devils.
Of course, coaching NBA players for 82 games every season is a lot different than coaching them for a month or so every four years as Krzyzewski has. Actually, it’s ideal. He got a taste of it, enough to satisfy any craving.
Krzyzewski never had to deal with owners, rookies, agents or Draymond Green for six months.
He never wound up having to coach Penny Hardaway, whom Daly regarded as a headache.
Krzyzewski has enjoyed the best of both basketball worlds. He has pushed the right buttons on stages that couldn’t be farther apart.
And it’s funny how one man’s success is interpreted. There’s the Coach K who’s loved in the Olympics and the Coach K who’s loathed at Duke. He goes from leading a team perceived as humble patriots on a medal stand to a team viewed as haughty preppies in the ACC.
Krzyzewski, 69, is retiring from Team USA. Owner of five NBA rings, Gregg Popovich probably never imagined having a tough act to follow, but he does as Krzyzewski’s successor.
There’s legitimate pressure for Pop in 2020, even though he has a stacked deck of stars who respect him.
Hired after the Americans settled for bronze in 2004, Krzyzewski restored the U.S. as the most powerful force in Olympic basketball. His sparkling tenure ended in Rio with a third consecutive gold medal, Team USA going 81-1 under his guidance.
“Coach K brought the pride of being an American back to the team,” Kobe Bryant told ESPN. “He made it not about us but about the U.S.”
Mike Krzyzewski is one of the most revered coaches in the NBA who never spent a day as an NBA coach. Nobody else will ever pull that off.