What We All Can Learn From Grayson Allen and Mike Krzyzewski by John Mietus
Many of us in the basketball coaching community heard about the tripping incident this past month featuring Duke guard Grayson Allen and its fallout for head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke program. The incident sparked furor about Allen’s behavior on the court. This latest episode being the third incident within two seasons where he has attempted to trip an opponent. Whether you love Duke or hate them, a good coach can learn a great deal from seeing a coaching icon deal with a star player who makes behavioral mistakes.
I think the first thing we can all admit is that in coaching and playing sports a different world exists between the lines. The volume gets turned up on life. It is a powerfully emotional world that forces world-class competitors to keep a lid on their behavioral impulses. We all agree to the rulebook of the sport, so we can’t simply run up to an opponent and punch them in the face in order to win a basketball game. Some rules are clearer than others, but tripping an opponent in the heat of battle, while clearly inappropriate, can at least be understood through the lens of the release of competitive ego. Still, Grayson Allen broke the rules and deserved to be punished.
However, he deserved to be punished last year as well. Coach K did himself, Allen, and the sport of basketball a disservice by not following through on a tougher punishment after the first two trips. Why would a prominent, world-class coach act like this? For the same reasons that an unknown high school coach quickly reinstates two rule breaking seniors who happen to be good players: he wants to win more basketball games.
At Duke, and at many successful programs, winning has become not only desirable, but fully demanded by administrators, boosters, and the fans. Coach K has a reputation as a basketball genius to protect. The ego gets in the way of clear vision, especially when a coach feels great pressure to keep up with the past. Yet none of this justifies the light handed punishment of Allen last year, which likely caused the tripping incident to reoccur again this season.
Duke basketball now has a tremendous recruiting pipeline, a world-renowned academic institution, a rabid fan base, and the name recognition of Coach K leading the U.S. Olympic team. The suspension of a player, even a star player, would have a minimal impact on their ability to maintain success both in the present and in the future. Yet, Coach K still chose not to suspend Allen last year when the lesson about tripping could have been learned.
We as coaches must behave better than our players! We have to be the example for our athletes. This is so easy to say, but much harder to do. Coaching at any level is a power trip, and more so at the high Division I level where contracts are massive, fame is seductive, and coaches begin to think they can get away with anything. The list of coaches who have abused this power is lengthy, and while Coach K definitely missed the boat with Grayson Allen, I believe his overall legacy remains one of honest striving. Krzyzewski increased the punishment right after the latest trip in the form of an indefinite suspension and a stripping of captaincy. He did not unfairly punish Allen. He did not remove him from the program. And although “indefinite” turned out to mean only one game, a better message was sent to the player that inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated any longer.
For the rest of us, rather than wait until the third attempt to properly and appropriately punish players, I believe we can get it right the first time. As John Wooden said, “One of the greatest teachers is the bench.” Players who are forced to miss game time (full games, not this one-quarter/one-half nonsense we see so often) are more likely to evaluate how their behavior has impacted their opportunities. Players must see that the program rules are enforced equitably regardless of how talented the athlete being punished is. Ultimately enforcing the rules makes the program stronger as it binds the players together to a code of conduct (which must be foremost demonstrated by the coach). When all people in the program are on the same page, great progress can occur.
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