Duke intellectuals stopped UNLVs, but only for a day

April 03, 1991|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

INDIANAPOLIS -- One more time: It is spelled Krzyzewski and pronounced Shu-CHEF-ski. He is a product of a working-class Polish family in Chicago. Blue-blazered, button-down, penny-loafered West Point graduate. Could be president of the local Jaycees. And, now, at last, coach of the national champions.

Round about midnight Monday, when the nets had been snipped and the tears were drying, Mike Krzyzewski said something so crystalline, so perfect, that it seemed to hang in the air, giving off light.

He had been asked to explain how the point guard of Duke -- this pasty-faced gym rat with raccoon eyes, this Jersey City playground pouter named Bobby Hurley -- how was it that, a year ago, he could be de-pantsed in public, on national television, just stripped bare by the Vegas wolves and forced to run to the bathroom, but then come back the very next year and beat his tormentors and go on and win the whole thing. How was such a marvelous thing possible? It was such an astounding achievement that there surely must be a very complicated explanation.

And this is what Mike Krzyzewski said: "He did what college kids are supposed to do -- learn from failure. There's nothing wrong with failing, as long as you learn from it."

Of course!

That was it precisely. That is the whole concept of the college experience, isn't it? Acquiring knowledge and deciding what is worth keeping and what is not and then acquiring more. Testing. Tasting. Learning from failure. Getting experience. Isn't that the name we give all our mistakes -- experience?

Hardly an original thought, to be sure.

But very late on Monday night, under the rippled teflon roof of the Hoosier Dome, Krzyzewski's words seemed to float around, blinking neon. He had merely struck on the obvious, only it hadn't been so obvious for a long time. It had been more and

more difficult to make any connection between college basketball and college education.

The equation is skewed. Increasingly, our student-athletes tend to be too much athlete, too infrequently student. There is a seedy smell to it all. Higher Education has come to mean Revenue Producing.

It has become evident that, as often as not, schools bring in youths who have neither the inclination, the interest nor the intent to learn. They are brought in for one purpose, and once their basketball eligibility has expired and they have gone off to the NBA or drifted into impending oblivion, they are still many credits short of a degree, their folders filled with incompletes.

Some schools, some coaches, some admissions offices, are more guilty than others. And some are presumed not to be guilty but just have been fortunate enough not to get caught.

Nevada-Las Vegas and its perfect-face-for-the-heavy, coach Jerry Tarkanian, have come to symbolize all that is wrong with the current system. The irony, of course, is that Tarkanian has the best winning percentage ever.

Tarkanian's defense of his program is that he simply comes to the rescue of the disadvantaged and who is he to keep people enslaved by their backgrounds, deny them access to higher education? That would sound a lot less self-serving if he didn't openly associate with people with nicknames like "The Fixer" and if, occasionally, one or two of his players actually took advantage of higher education. But he absolves himself of all responsibility by saying: "I'm not the admissions office. The admissions office let them in."

But he keeps them around.

He is not alone -- not by any means. In all the posturing and the noble rhetoric you hear about helping those who help themselves, what the speakers really mean is, they will help those who can help them.

So Duke beat Vegas, and there seemed to be a kind of justice in that. And a few days earlier, Stanford had beaten Oklahoma in the National Invitation Tournament championship game, and that could be seen as another win for a school where the players take courses more demanding than Valet Parking 101.

But it is easy to get swept away here, to romanticize, to say that Stanford's players do calculus during layup drills and the Dookies parse Latin declensions during timeout huddles. It is nice that schools with reputations for "doing it right" are the national champions, but it doesn't follow that reform has been achieved and the sewer sanitized.

It just means that, every once in a while, good things still happen to good people.

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