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'God's intervention': Coach K and the Emily K Center

The Center currently serves over 2,000 local students annually.
The Center currently serves over 2,000 local students annually.

Mike Krzyzewski—the face of Duke for over four decades and winningest college basketball coach of all time—has been instrumental in helping craft leaders on the court, but what may possibly be his longest-lasting contribution stretches far beyond the history of the banners in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke men’s basketball’s famed head coach and his lifelong experience with service and leadership helped guide him toward establishing one of Durham’s greatest treasures—the Emily K Center. Named for his mother, the daughter of Polish immigrants, who urged him to attend West Point as a first-generation college student, the Center sprouted from an idea to a platform for making children’s educational dreams come true.

“Sixteen years now, thousands of kids, just a great, great thing,” Krzyzewski told The Chronicle. “Really God's intervention there.”

It was by no means an instantaneous process, but the concept was close to Krzyzewski’s heart in more ways than one.

‘We would make it work’

Father David McBriar, the Franciscan pastor at the Immaculate Conception Church, pioneered the push for a community center in Durham’s Burch Avenue neighborhood. It was after a Sunday mass in 1996 when McBriar approached Krzyzewski with the idea for the first time. 

Krzyzewski recalls McBriar suggesting that “we need a community center for that area,” to which he responded, “Well, I'll try to help.”

The idea did not take off initially as Krzyzewski was concerned over a lack of funding and plans had to be reconsidered. But then, McBriar came back to his parishioner with the idea that it be named for his late mother Emily, who had died at age 84 that September and pointed Krzyzewski to college and a life of service. 

“It was the second time he hit me that ​​really had depth,” Krzyzewski said. 

"'I hear you always talk about your mother,'" Krzyzewski recalled McBriar saying to him. “And that was the hook. And [McBriar] knew that I would do that and we would make it work.” 

At that point, Krzyzewski was set to be the founder and executive chair of what would become the Emily K Center.

It still took nearly 10 years before the Center opened its doors to the first students, but “if some folks had simply tried to start the Emily K Center without his backing, it would have taken a lot longer to get things moving,” said Sara Askey, the Center’s Director of Communications and External Affairs. “He was really instrumental in helping us make some early connections that provided some great resources to help the Center get going.”

‘Their second home’

At the time of the 2006 opening of the Center next to the church at the corner of South Buchanan and West Chapel Hill Boulevards, only 38 students were enrolled in programming. 

“It was a lot of intentional growth, thinking about what will come next, so as our students in elementary and middle school started to get older, it became logical to start the high school program. As our high school students started to graduate from high school, it became logical to start a college program,” Askey said.

The timeline matches up—the Scholars to College high school program began in 2008 and the Scholars on Campus college program launched four years later. While it did ultimately take some time to get to where it is now, the Center’s development over time has shown a continued effort to follow through on the commitment to helping support Durham’s children from elementary school to college. 

Now, the Emily K Center has over 100 volunteers annually that support the growth of over 2,000 Durham County students.

“The happiness of a youngster and his family coming into the center for instruction—for help,” Krzyzewski said of what stands out to him the most. “It's kind of like they call it their second home. It's a place where not only people care about them and want to teach them, it's a place where people believe in them. And they believe in the outcome of what will happen while they're there.

“In other words, you walk in, you're going to be successful, you're going to go to college, we're going to follow your progress. And it's going to work. It's such a great thing. And it happens over and over again.”

When the Center hosted a men’s basketball press conference ahead of a team practice, Askey recalled that Krzyzewski made sure to stop by and speak with each table of students as if he had no better place to be than there with the children. His expressed joy about the Center has been beyond clear.

‘Carrying on the work’

Krzyzewski’s upcoming retirement does not mean the coach has to take a step back from the Emily K Center. In fact, recent years have proven the exact opposite. As he aged and retirement loomed in the nearer future, fundraising campaigns for the Center have only picked up. As the population served by the Center continued to grow, Krzyzewski advocated for the development of the physical building and the community.

Importantly for Krzyzewski, he knows the mission of the Center is one intrinsically shared by his family. While his first two daughters, Debbie and Lindy, hold positions with Duke Athletics and the men’s basketball team, respectively, his youngest daughter Jamie Spatola serves as the vice chair at the Emily K Center and works closely with executive director Adam Eigenrauch.  

“Who knew decades ago when Emily Krzyzewski was babysitting for Jamie Krzyzewski, when she visited us as a toddler, that Jamie Krzyzewski would be carrying on the work of grandma Krzyzewski,” Mike Krzyzewski said.

In 2016, the Center launched an open-access program called Gameplan: College, which has been able to reach around 1,500 students each year for college and career planning. The Center also recently completed an $18.89 million campaign to fund a 7,500-square-foot addition with new classrooms, community spaces and offices. Still rebounding from holding programming and other events online due to COVID-19, the Center is not shying away from being bold as it looks to the future. 

“We're excited to continue to enhance our programs and make sure that we're serving as many students as we can as well as we can,” Askey said.

Notably, Duke men’s basketball announced Feb. 24 that NFT platform OneOf would be partnering with the program for a digital collection from March 3-5, with all proceeds going to the Center. 

“[Krzyzewski] will still continue to be involved and we hope that he will have the capacity to be perhaps even more involved moving forward,” Askey said of how his retirement from coaching will change his role.

Future students at the Center can likely look forward to hearing him speak while they don their college sweatshirts standing alongside him on the Center’s gym floor. That very floor—the same one on which his 2001 national championship team clinched the trophy in Minneapolis—holds special meaning, too. Broadcaster Jim Nantz said that Krzyzewski’s third trophy made him “the proud father of three in more ways than one,” but the Hall of Fame coach holds more than just his children and his trophies close to his heart.

When Krzyzewski walks off the court as head coach for the final time this spring, he may be finished calling out plays, but he will still have a community looking up to him as the exemplar of what it is possible to achieve through reaching their fullest academic potential.

Editor's note: This article is part of The Chronicle's Coach K Commemorative edition. Please click here for more content. 

Micah Hurewitz | Sports Managing Editor

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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