Congratulations to the Blue Devils for beating North Carolina. Although we had more points on the scoreboard by the final buzzer, we lost what really matters: sportsmanship.
March 8, in addition to being another chapter in the greatest rivalry in collegiate sports, was also Senior Night. It’s the last home game of the season and, for the seniors, the last time to play in Cameron. It’s a night to celebrate four years of hard work. There was a ceremony before the game honoring seniors Josh Hairston, Tyler Thornton, Andre Dawkins and Todd Zafirovski for their commitment to the program. It’s a given that seniors play on senior night, even if only for a short amount of time. Three of four did play (in fact, started), but Todd did not, despite the Blue Devils being up by 10 with 36 seconds remaining. In doing this, Coach K acted unkindly and set a bad example for Duke students.
With 36 seconds left in the game, some in the student section started chanting “We want Todd” between Rasheed Sulaimon’s free throw attempts. At this point, it was obvious that Duke was assured victory. It’s not the first time there have been calls by the fans to play the walk-on senior when the game is no longer close. Krzyzewski, similar to previous times in the season, did not respond to the chant.
It seems, based off of its success rate, that Coach K doesn’t like the chant. Even if he doesn’t like the chant, and even if the chant is somewhat disrespectful to the guys on the court, it still has a good intention and is fundamentally out of Todd’s control. It would be unfair to punish him by not letting him play when the game is all but wrapped up.
I don’t want to speak for Todd, that’s not my place. However, he’s been practicing with the team for five years (he’s now a graduate student)—an incredible time commitment—and the result of all that hard work? Krzyzewski couldn’t give him the satisfaction of being put in at the end of the Duke-UNC game. The crowd would have gone crazy at him being put in the game, and Coach K robbed him of that moment for no identifiable reason other than it still being technically possible for a miraculous UNC comeback. (Again, it was 89-77 with 36 seconds to go, UNC was not going to come back at that point.)
This attitude is not specific to Duke basketball and Coach Krzyzewski. It stems from a larger problem for Division I men’s basketball and football.
Duke basketball is a college program, and the goal of moneymaking college athletics (football and men’s basketball) is up for debate. If, as some think, college basketball is about winning and making money for the school, then you take every possible step you can to win—even if it’s extremely unlikely putting a senior in at the end of a game could have an effect on the outcome.
I think most wouldn’t take that point of view for college basketball. College basketball isn’t the NBA. It’s a learning experience and about more than purely winning. Player education, in academics and basketball development, and sportsmanship should take precedent over victories. Coach K has 983 wins. That’s a hell of a lot. He’s a product of the environment around him: At Duke, there is an intense pressure to win. It was the Carolina game after all. Students slept out for months and expected to see a win. We got a win, and it felt amazing, but it could have been better.
Instead of setting a powerful example of sportsmanship and respect to the student body by playing all the seniors, Coach K prioritized winning by the largest possible margin. I’m not saying Duke has to sacrifice winning to play Todd. Even if the game was close at the end, the problem could have been avoided by putting him in earlier in the game.
I love Duke basketball, and I want us to win every game, but that’s not all that matters. I’m worried about Duke basketball becoming like so many other Division I men’s basketball and football programs—focused on revenues and disregarding individual athletes. That’s what makes Duke and Coach K so special: We win AND we care about our players. March 8 was a deviation from the standard Krzyzewski has developed over 38 years of coaching. It may seem like not playing a senior on Senior Night for 30 seconds or a minute isn’t a big deal, but it also wouldn’t have been a big deal to just put him in and reward years of hard work on his home court. Do that, and we might not win by as many points, but we win with honor. And that’s something to burn a bench over.
Spenser Easterbrook is a Trinity freshman.