To Coach K and His Campers, K Academy Is No Game

For 13 years, Mike Krzyzewski has hosted his K Academy, an event that requires a $10,000 donation to the Duke University Athletic Association and for each player to be older than 35. Michael Jordan built the biggest and most financially successful of these “old man camps,” but when His Airness stopped hosting his Las Vegas event, K Academy became the longest-running camp on what I shudder to admit is called the “fantasy circuit.”

Other coaches—Kentucky’s John Calipari, Kansas’s Bill Self, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Jim Larrañaga at Miami, to name a few—host camps over long weekends in the summer, but Krzyzewski’s draws the most “players” and requires you to play eight full-court games to win the event’s championship. (Winners of the K Academy title actually climb a ladder to cut down the nets, are given commemorative watches and get to hoist the trophy, which Krzyzewski jokingly calls “the third most famous in all of sports behind the Stanley Cup and the Masters’ green jacket.”) The games are not often pretty but are highly competitive, which should be expected when you ask 80 aging Type A personalities to defend, box out and throw elbows.

As part of Krzyzewski’s effort to “do this big,” the games are videoed by a full production crew and streamed live over the Internet, complete with stat sheets, postgame interviews and an announcer calling the action. (Full disclosure: There’s nothing cooler than to hear “And that’s another Yaeger bomb” blaring from the speakers after I hit a three-point shot.) A video of a last-second game-winning shot by Dan Feldstein in the 2015 camp went viral on the Internet and ended up on ESPN’s home page. The production team even splices together an, ahem, “highlight” reel at the end of each camp, set to the tune “One Shining Moment,” just like the reel played at the end of the NCAA championship game every year. Well, it’s just like the real reel in that there are basketballs in the video.

The most popular postgame watering hole is actually the massive ice tub across the hall from the locker room. Duke’s athletic training staff works overtime trying to hold us together with tape and braces. Every year, someone blows out a knee or tears an Achilles. The most valued players aren’t always the most talented, but those who coaches know will still be standing on Sunday.

Krzyzewski also uses the week as a de facto reunion for his former players, inviting them to come back and coach. Among us commoners walk legends such as Grant Hill, Steve Wojciechowski and Shane Battier. Krzyzewski encourages them to return not only for each other, but to develop relationships with the businessmen who pay to be there. Some special relationships have emerged. Hill and a couple of guys who have long attended the K Academy, Rick Schnall and Jesse Itzler, joined together in a partnership that reportedly paid $730 million to buy the Atlanta Hawks this year.

Itzler and Schnall are among a strong contingent who come every year. One of the more obsessed campers said he has now made 36 stops on the fantasy circuit over the last 20 years. Do the math.

OK, more full disclosure: I was so smitten by the event after receiving it for my 50th birthday in 2013 that I asked my wife to keep giving it for as long as I can play. In 2015 I attended for the third year in a row. Several weeks after my first trip to the Academy, Krzyzewski invited me to join him as a guest on his national radio show, delivered weekly on SiriusXM. We discussed work I’ve done for an upcoming book about the building of great team cultures, including interviews I’ve done on his Duke program. As the interview ended, I stayed on the line to say thanks, but my microphone had been muted. That’s when I heard Coach K and his co-host discussing my time at his camp. I’m assuming they didn’t know I could still hear them.

“He’s not the most talented guy,” the best college basketball coach alive said. “But he plays hard and with enthusiasm.”

Fantasy? Mike Krzyzewski had just delivered a scouting report on my game!

Coach K is featured on the September 2015 cover of SUCCESS magazine, where I take a look inside Duke University’s basketball program to provide an analysis of champion leadership from the legendary coach himself.

 

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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Don Yaeger

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