Mike Krzyzewski, “Coach K” – Uplifting Young Black Athletes 

Athletics, Sports

There are plenty of successful Black athletes who will tell you that one of the biggest and best influences on their lives and careers has been a 75-year-old White guy in North Carolina.  

A legend in sports 

Mike Krzyzewski (aka “Coach K”) has served as the head men’s basketball coach at Duke University since March 1980. After his more than four decades at the helm of one of the winningest teams in the NCAA, he is set to retire at the close of the 2021-22 season. Duke’s associate head coach Jon Scheyer, who played under Coach K from 2006 to 2010, is slated to step into those very big shoes.  

Coach K has led the Blue Devils to a history-making series of wins. He holds the record among NCAA Division I men’s basketball coaches for number of games won. Under his guidance, the team racked up five national championships in 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, and 2015. His Blue Devils have also garnered 12 Final Four positions. For his many successes, Coach K was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. 

Oh, and he also coached three consecutive US men’s basketball teams to Olympic gold medals. 

Struggling and striving 

Born in Chicago in 1947 to Polish immigrants, Mike Krzyzewski played high school basketball for his hometown’s Catholic League, taking highest-scoring honors for two years. When he attended college at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he played for Bob Knight, another coaching legend of the game.  

Krzyzewski went on to serve as coach at the US Military Academy Prep School in Virginia, as well as other service teams, before being hired as Knight’s assistant coach at Indiana University. He was there for a single season but returned to the US Military Academy to coach in 1975. 

Then came Duke. Despite Krzyzewski’s talent and Knight’s glowing recommendation, his first couple of seasons there were far from stellar, with zero recruits in 1981. Over the following two seasons, his combined record looked mediocre at just 21 wins and 34 losses. 

Becoming “Coach K” 

With his 1983-84 team, though, everything changed. This is when Mike Krzyzewski became the Coach K so widely respected and beloved today. He’d brought his first Black player, Johnny Dawkins, onboard as a guard, and Dawkins’ play was stunning. That was the first in a consecutive string of 11 seasons in which the Blue Devils amassed 20 or more wins, along with tournament positions.  

Coach K and his team garnered those five Final Fours in a row—the second-longest winning streak of its kind—between 1988 and 1992. Duke won its first two national championships consecutively, too, in 1991 and ‘92.  

The ‘92 season was especially spectacular, with the Blue Devils going 34-2 and earning top ranking in the nation throughout the season. And the championships kept coming, with Coach K recording his 66th career NCAA tournament win in 2005, surpassing his mentor, Knight, in number of wins in 2011. 

Part of the solution 

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the simultaneous intensification of calls for racial justice through Black Lives Matter protests brought out the best in Coach K. Always credited as an inspirational leader and communicator who earned the loyalty of his players, he stepped up during a nationally charged moment in a way few White public figures of his stature and popularity did. 

Coach K told an interviewer in 2021 that he and his four assistant coaches—three of them Black American—got together daily during the pandemic to talk in-depth about racial justice. While he’d always considered himself supportive of this issue, these conversations ignited a new understanding and passion in the coach. He finally said to himself, “I’ve got to do something.”  

So he made a heartfelt video, asking assistant coach Nolan Smith to stand on the other side of the camera. He directly addressed Smith, as he had in their many conversations, and the viewer. 

“Black Lives Matter,” Coach K told the world. “We should be saying it every day.”  

In words that remain eloquent and inspiring to many—and infuriating to some—he continued, “We have chosen the easier wrong for four centuries.” And then, “It is time to choose the harder right.” This is not a “political” position, he has reiterated. It’s simply the right thing to do.  

After the video went viral in June 2020, Jeff Capel, a Black American former Coach K assistant coach and now Krzyzewski’s counterpart at the University of Pennsylvania, commented on how meaningful his former boss’ words were as wave after wave of young people of all backgrounds sought to bring about a better world. “He’s tried to learn, he’s tried to educate himself,” Capel said of Krzyzewski. 

Then in August 2020, Duke hosted an event registering students to vote, and Coach K was among the speakers. 

“I’m so damn proud of you,” he told his players and students, for their work toward racial and social justice. “I’ve listened to my players,” he said. “We can make a difference.”  

“Your generation is the generation that’s going to do it,” he continued. Growing up in the 1960s, he learned a lot of ways of thinking that were wrong, but he told the students, “I want to be on your team.” 

Legacy 

When Coach K announced his retirement, fans and journalists began speculating on who could continue his legacy. Many wanted to see a Black head coach in the role, such as Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and Johnny Dawkins, now head coach at the University of Central Florida. That Coach K’s handpicked final choice was Jon Scheyer, his only White assistant coach, stung a bit. But Scheyer has excellent skills and deserves a chance, especially since he has his mentor’s imprimatur.  

In the 1980s, when Krzyzewski was recruiting Dawkins and other Black players for Duke, the school was seen as elite and very “white.” The “cool” kids—and most who had struggled through racism and inequalities—preferred the University of North Carolina and the Tar Heels. Thanks to Coach K’s outreach, that line of thinking had taken a turn for the better by the late 1990s. It helped that he added Black former Duke players, like Dawkins, to his assistant coaching staff.  

But for many, Coach K’s lasting legacy is his founding of the Emily Krzyzewski Center at Duke. Named for his mother, this nonprofit hosts programs that boost the scholastic, leadership, and long-term professional possibilities for talented but underserved students.  

His father, who was only able to attend two years of high school, and his mother, who only completed the eighth grade and worked nights scrubbing floors at the Chicago Athletic Club, instilled in him an unbreakable work ethic and a quest for knowledge. It was his mother who encouraged him to pursue higher education at West Point.  

Now, some 2,000 students pass through the doors of the Emily K Center every year, a testament to Coach K’s commitment to paying his parents’ dedication forward to a new generation of kids.  

Commentary: Off the court, LeBron James’ vital role as father

Athletics, Fatherhood, Mentorship, Race, Sports

Originally published in Chicago Tribune, Feb 17, 2020

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The remarkable line from author Ralph Ellison’s book “Invisible Man” may seem hard to apply to LeBron James, a 6-foot-8 African American man known for his unparalleled athleticism on the basketball court. But, for a father with unmatched enthusiasm for the success of his sons, society has struggled to view James as the loving dad that he is.

Nevertheless, slowly he is silencing the belief present in society for many years that black men do not play a role in raising their children.

James’ enthusiasm at his son’s basketball games has been seen as juvenile, outrageous and childlike to some who refuse to see the love, compassion and fortitude in his movements. I remember as a young athlete looking into the stands and seeing my father — a validation of my dedication and being. In a similar manner, I suspect James is teaching his sons one of the most important lessons my father taught me: The world is full of opportunities for you to discover, and if you must, to create.

LeBron James, who then played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrates with his sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.
LeBron James, who then played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, celebrates with his sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio.(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In 1972 a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed to Philadelphia. For the first time in his 18 years of life, my father, Thomas Campbell, was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree — the only one of his siblings to do so. One of eight children, born into modest beginnings, my father persevered to college at a time when only 20% of black men had achieved more than a high school diploma. This was only the beginning, as he persevered to earn a law degree.

 

Forty-six years after my father embarked on his journey, I climbed six shallow steps to receive my medical degree. In that very moment, what I struggled to understand is what my father must have felt as I was declared “Dr. Campbell.” Growing up with a father who could neither read nor write, it must have been unimaginable for my father to believe he could cement a path for my sister and me to earn five degrees between the two of us.

 

But, in actuality all of my father’s actions have continuously encouraged my sister and me to pursue opportunities he never had. Thus, the magnificence of our achievement truly belongs to him. Similarly, James continues to inspire his sons to not only dream but to believe in the realism of their dreams.

LeBron James and my father serve as shining examples of the many black fathers who have created a future for their sons to change the world — a far cry from society’s vision for young black men. These fathers exemplify a view of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line, but is full of boundless direction and achievement — and is not tied to skin color.

Once criticized for their invisibility, our black fathers are now visible, illuminating their brilliance for the world in a way they always have — for us.

Pay Collegiate Athletes If It Is Tied To Their Education: Former Black Student-Athlete Turned Physician Weighs In

Athletics, Race, Sports

There is a script I continue to watch unfold: A young African-American male heralded in college as an elite athlete raises large amounts of money for his university. He then leaves this Mt. Olympus-esque world prior to obtaining a degree for the dream of playing in the National Football League. A few years, seasons and many injuries later this same young man is 30 years old, financially unstable with little to count for his past triumphs but some old newspaper clippings, ESPN highlights found on YouTube and unending aches and pains in his joints. I propose that if the NCAA provides financial compensation under a strict framework of academic compliance and encouragement, multiple issues can be resolved. I am a 30-year-old African-American medical school graduate, a current resident physician, and a former division III track and field All-American.

In 2011, I graduated college and returned to my hometown of Washington D.C., while a savior was moving in from Waco, Texas. Robert Griffin III the former Baylor University QB—nicknamed RGIII—had just been drafted #2 overall by the Washington football team. Each Sunday he had the crowd roaring, game after game, night after night, under the lights and loudspeakers. He was the second most popular person in town next to then President Barack Obama. Years later, as RGIII and I—nearly identical in age—look into the future, divergent futures stare back at us as his career lights are dimming while mine are beginning to illuminate.

Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsome signed the Fair Pay to Play Act allowing collegiate players to be financially compensated for name recognition and to hire agents beginning in 2023. If one steps back, this bill can serve as an opportunity to embolden student-athletes to increase their academic focus for a more enriched future. The financial burden for some players and their families is evident and demands consideration. For many of these families, they send their sons to elite football powerhouses with the hope of winning a national title and the goal of one day playing in the National Football League changing their familial financial landscape. The Fair Pay to Play Act or any bill of this magnitude can be utilized to promote academic compliance through financial compensation. Enforcement of class attendance in conjunction with assignment completion would hold these players more accountable. I propose there be an allocated amount of money a player be eligible to receive on a weekly basis. Yet, missed classes or assignments would result in a weekly reduction or removal of the financial stipend. Daily, the notion of a student-athlete loses its values with certain sports as institutions refuse to hold their student-athletes accountable in the classroom as much as the coaches are holding them responsible on the athletic field.

In 2015, according to Tuscaloosa News, Alabama’s football program earned nearly $46.5 million for the school during their 2015 championship season. Shockingly, this number was nearly $7 million less than the year prior. In the same breath, the organization pushing vehemently to deny these young men the chance to profit from their dedication—the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA—averages nearly 1 billion dollars in revenue annually. These earnings come from exposure and marketing derived from competition and winning, from the coaches who recruit the talent, and from the talent who sacrifice their beings and future. Financial compensation based on academic compliance would allow the players to send money home to their families, to save money and most importantly to better invest in their futures through educational attainment.

I can no longer bear to see former student-athletes holding onto memories everyone else has forgotten not daring to dream of more for their futures. Most NFL players have finished their career by age 30 with no college degree, dismantling financial instability and lasting damage to their bodies. This has to change. There needs to be more retired NFL players becoming businessmen, news personalities, and even coaches. A bill of this nature can create this narrative for these current and future young men. The compass needs to be realigned moving from viewing athletics as the highest point of ones life to utilizing sports and academics to more lifelong achievements.

The importance of sports and athletic prowess is not in question but without a push for education, we are the hurt ones—the men of color.

LeBron James is right – the classroom is where the future is, including for athletes. I know. I lived it: Jason L. Campbell (Opinion)

Race, Sports

*Published online at Cleveland.com on Dec. 28th, 2017*

PORTLAND — “Nothing is given. Everything is earned” is the motto of NBA icon Lebron James. It’s also a pillar for his newly created I Promise School.

By intertwining a family-first ideology with a rigorous science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum for students in the 1st through 8th grades, the beauty and irony are evident. Someone who has made his entire life putting an orange ball into a hoop understands that a lifetime of success originates inside a classroom — not outside, on a basketball court.

“Nothing is given. Everything is earned in the classroom … first,” might serve as a more accurate descriptor of LeBron’s theory.

As we survey the majority of African-American communities, there lies a common denominator in how society views athletics — as the main mechanism by which blacks rise to success.

In primary schools, a factory-like process is pushed on many young black boys: Perform well on the basketball court in grade school; join an out-of-school team; earn a scholarship or invitation to attend a top athletic preparatory school; become a star recruit at a Division I athletic program; and keep your mind and eyes on the coveted title of “professional athlete.”

As these young boys become young men, there is an industry of coaches and recruiters who look for talent at an early age without valuing the young person themselves.

However, it does not need to be that way. As a young physician and former collegiate student-athlete, I had coaches who instilled values in me and goals on me to succeed in both the athletic and educational realms. If not for them, I would not be where I am today.

These coaches are a rare breed but need to be the common numerator.

The hard truth is that becoming a basketball player in the National Basketball Association is exceedingly difficult, almost like playing lottery odds. In the 2016-2017 school year, according to NCAA.org, there were 550,305 high school participants in men’s basketball, and 18,712 became NCAA participants. Thus, the probability of competing in NCAA collegiate basketball was 3.4 percent for male high school basketball athletes desiring to compete at the next level.

Only 1.2 percent of these NCAA student-athletes make it to the major professional level.

Neither of these aforementioned statistics account for longevity or success as a professional athlete. Suddenly a small fish in a big pond, some players end up in the league even if only for a single game or less. Despite these numbers, families and coaches are emboldened to push their young student-athletes to fight for careers in professional athletics.

However, what happens if we channel the same passion into pushing these young men to concurrently focus on exploiting the educational mission for long-term success?

National studies from 2012 demonstrate that black physicians comprise only 4 percent of active physicians, 6 percent of trainees in graduate medical education and 7 percent of medical school graduates.

If the same fury, encouragement, and will were instilled into young black men in the classrooms, what might be the possibility? Moreover, how much stronger would our entire country be with such a paradigm shift in priorities?

The right direction and guidance — similar excellence and discipline — used to excel at sports can be transitioned into the libraries, research laboratories and clinical rooms where black men are currently sparse. We often see black athletes but, in certain areas of this country, we rarely see black physicians. Pushing oneself to an exemplary level in athletics is nothing short of amazing, but enhancing your knowledge of a certain subject matter is one of the most self-fulfilling achievements in this world.

Lebron James has initiated a conduit for lifelong success for the black community in his hometown of Akron.

He evidences two of the most clichéd sentences in society, and as we know, most clichés ring true:

Home is where the heart is. Classroom is where the success is.

As my 30th birthday approaches, as a young trainee in an anesthesiology residency program, my career is in its infancy. In contrast, for my contemporaries in the world of athletics, most of their careers are in the terminal stages. Excluding environmental occurrences and certain medical conditions that may occur, we all will live at least another 50 years.

In truth, there are many successful athletes, like Lebron James, who have pushed beyond the limited box of athletics, recognizing that the seeds to the future success of the black male are in the classroom and not at the basketball courts or the football fields.

Today we plant the seeds.

And watch them grow.

—————————————-

Dr. Jason L. Campbell, a native of Washington, D.C., is a recent graduate of The Ohio State University College of Medicine and a former Division III All-American track and field athlete at Emory University. He is currently a physician resident in the Department of Anesthesiology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.