Krest: "Knocked Back"

Sometimes sports figures show a side that's a little too human for fans writes TDD's Shawn Krest. That was certainly the case this week for head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his team.

"I'm human."

Jabari Parker said that after Duke recorded its first ACC win of the season, over Georgia Tech. The freshman superstar who started his college career with seven straight 20-point scoring games was explaining his recent slump, as he coped with the "freshman wall."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was informed of Parker's comment and said that it was "unfortunate" that an 18-year-old needed to remind all of us of his mortality.

After Duke recorded its second ACC win, in a dogfight with Virginia, the legendary coach reminded us all the same thing about himself. "Sometimes things occur that are human," he said. "We're human beings, and human beings have setbacks."

"Knocked back."

Krzyzewski has used the phrase after games at least 39 times in the last 15 years.

He uses it so often that his players, who have likely heard it even more than that, have adopted it for their own postgame comments.

Team captain Tyler Thornton said that Clemson knocked Duke back during the second half of the Blue Devils' loss there recently. Quinn Cook said it about Santa Clara's start to a game against Duke last year.

In 2010, Krzyzewski said Lithuania's defense knocked back Team USA, who started a game shooting 3 of 26.

He's said that injuries knocked back Marshall Plumlee, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins. Wake's speed knocked back the Blue Devils last January. So did Virginia's physical play two months later, and Arizona's energy in 2011, Maryland's crowd in 2007, and Wisconsin's size in 2008.

Back-to-back conference losses, Southern Illinois' toughness, Carolina's speed, Clemson's pressure, Davidson's determination, Maryland's heart. All of them caused a Krzyzewski Duke team to get knocked back during games in the last five years.

Kansas filled the lanes and knocked Duke back in 2000, but so did Toledo in 2004, Southern in 2006, Rhode Island in 2009, Cal Poly Pomona in 2011, and Drury, in an exhibition game to start this season.

Usually, it means that a team wasn't ready to match an opponent's energy. In short, they weren't prepared to play Duke basketball.

Occasionally, Krzyzewski uses it incorrectly.

After the same Virginia game where he admitted he was human, Krzyzewski said, "I got knocked back right after Christmas, and I've been knocked back for a couple of weeks."

Krzyzewski suffered a personal loss, one that he said he didn't want discussed further. That request will be honored. If anyone needs to know details, there are search engines.

"Hopefully it doesn't happen to you," Krzyzewski said. "But it happened to me, and it's a tough thing."

"I'm human." "Knocked back."

We prefer our sports heroes to be neither. We want them to give their all, all the time, because that's what we'd do if we were a little taller, a little faster, didn't suffer that injury, or had a coach who better understood our game.

Most of them regularly give more than any of us are ever asked to, and, while we all had prolonged periods during school when we were soft, lazy, or made dumb decisions, those are mortal sins on the fields and courts we love to watch.

We've all lost our temper, trusted the wrong person, made the wrong call, and occasionally phoned it in at work. But those are fireable offenses for the men that walk the sidelines. Fans demand a coach's job, often sending that request to sportswriters who, if they haven't been laid off, let go, or otherwise lost their job, at least faced the very real risk that it might happen.

Passion, desire, dedication—all very human qualities, and ones our sports figures should exhibit regularly. But sorrow, loss, frustration, and worry—those are just as human. And that's why our sports figures shouldn't have to be human.

Because then they might get knocked back.

Then we'll have to watch losses, like the ones all three Triangle teams suffered on a recent Black Saturday. We'll have to speculate on what's causing this major annoyance in our lives. "What's WRONG with them?" we'll ask. "Why are they so inconsistent?"

After that same Virginia game, freshman Matt Jones sat in front of his locker and answered questions about his first college start that night.

As Jones explained when he received the news, the reasons he was told for the lineup change, and how he thought his night went, he fought off a grin, looking guiltily over the shoulders of the assembled reporters.

Behind the group, a teammate was clowning his baby-faced teammate, who was receiving the first media attention of his young Duke career. As Jones tried to keep a straight face, the teammate mocked him, or perhaps his questioners.

Four years before, a little earlier in his freshman year than Jones was on that night, the teammate had a similar loss to the one Krzyzewski recently suffered. The impact was deep and long-lasting—career-threatening, in fact.

The teammate took some time off, and then spoke to a national magazine before the season, peeling back his exterior scars to allow the world to get a glimpse of the turmoil underneath.

He let us see.

He was human.

He wasn't knocked back, though. Far from it. Bowled over, perhaps. Laid low. Steamrolled by an unfair and seemingly random fate. It's one that, despite Krzyzewski's wishes, we'll all experience in some way. And when we do, we'll want people to understand our pain, and our struggle to understand how the rest of the world can go on as if nothing's happened when clearly, our world has been turned upside down.

"Why can't he be more consistent?"

"It's time to grow up."

"What's wrong with him?"

The Blue Devils lost two of their first three ACC games this season, a stretch that started nine days after the day that Krzyzewski erroneously describes himself as being knocked back.

He wasn't facing a physical defense or fast guards. There was no opponent for him to defeat, no game plan to draw up this time.

Whether he was aware of it or not, Krzyzewski tried to take some time. It was time he didn't have—not if you ask us. There was a season to be played. A standard to live up to.

After Virginia, Krzyzewski confessed his humanity, and explained that his personal loss had affected his coaching. "I've had to get more observant with my team," he said. "I take full responsibility for those first three games. Everything is on me."

After taking nowhere near enough time, Krzyzewski spoke to a room full of observers, and the nation his words would be reported to. He peeled back his own exterior scars to allow us to get a glimpse underneath.

In that same game, a four-point win over a Virginia team that beat a team across town by 31 two days earlier, Krzyzewski changed lineups en masse, sending five new players into the game at a time.

Parker, the teenage superstar who turned out to be annoyingly human, explained the rationale for the substitutions afterward. "Coach wanted us to go as hard as we can, for as long as we can."

Keep that foot on the gas. Keep charging forward. That way, you won't find yourself getting knocked back.

We wouldn't want our sports figures any other way.

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