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When a Loss Doesn’t Have to Be a Loss

With all due respect to my friends in Alabama, it is “The greatest rivalry in all of sports.” That’s how Dick Vitale refers to the legendary tussles between Duke and the University of North Carolina basketball teams and I agree with him. You have a private school in Duke less than fifteen miles away from a major state university in UNC. Both are perennial contenders for the national championship. UNC leads the all schools with 18 Final Four appearances while Duke is in third place with 15. UNC has five national championships while Duke has four.  Earlier this year Duke beat the Tar Heels in a buzzer beater at North Carolina. This past weekend North Carolina avenged the loss by beating Duke 88-70 at Duke.

Will that loss portend turn a downward spiral for the Devils? I highly doubt it.

Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s Head Coach, is college basketball’s winningest coach. How did a guy take a private college next door to a powerhouse to GREATNESS? Since he has all those wins you would think he would point to one of those wins as the pivotal moment. Instead, when I asked him for a seminal moment for his program, he talked about a loss.

He told me that at the end of his third season (in which they had a losing record) his Blue Devils were pummeled by No. 2 Virginia, 109-66, in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. After the game, Coach K stared at the scoreboard to completely take it in and finally left the arena to meet some booster friends for a late meal.

After sitting down, one of the boosters raised a glass of water in a mock toast, “Here’s to a night let’s soon forget.” But that is not how Krzyzewski saw it. He lifted his own glass and offered this correction, “Here’s to a night we’ll never forget.”

He had taken his team into the ACC tournament and gotten humiliated by one of the best teams in the nation. But he didn’t make excuses. He used it to create a spark.

At the team’s first practice the next year, Coach K walked out onto the court and turned on the scoreboard, illuminating the 109-66 reminder of the stinging loss. He wanted his team to remember the pain of the loss and how badly it hurt to walk off the court.  That year, the Blue Devils won thirteen more games than they had the year before. Two years later, Duke played for the National Championship under Coach K’s leadership.

He used a humiliating televised loss as a springboard for improvement. “It was that loss, and turning the energy from that loss and remembering the pain that came from losing like that, which allowed us to become a more successful program,” Krzyzewski explained.

We often talk about positive energy moving us forward, but Coach K used “…the energy from that loss…” to Chase Greatness. With motivated people there is an energy even in defeat. In fact there was enough energy in that one loss to propel Mike Krzyzewski to more wins than any other coach in Division I men’s basketball. To this day, Coach K still talks about that game.

Have you ever suffered a loss or defeat that has energized you to a bigger victory?

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