DURHAM, N.C. — Saturday will be the 1,562nd game of Mike Krzyzewski's superlative career.
When the ball is tipped at about 6:20 p.m. ET, so will commence the 647th and final time Krzyzewski will coach his Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a hallowed basketball fortress that he transformed into a living, breathing organism. Over the course of four decades, Coach K and the Cameron Crazies, in part, redefined the competitive value of home-court advantage — while also making college basketball look a lot better on television.
Krzyzewski is the most important entity in Duke sports history, and Cameron Indoor Stadium is No. 2. On Saturday, they'll join forces for the last time. There is no adequately preparing for this. Krzyzewski's walked into that building thousands of times. It's one of the most familiar and comfortable places he's ever known. Saturday will feel different. There is no way to brace for it, so his approach makes sense.
"Just let it happen and see what the hell happens," he said.
Sounds about right. It's odd to have a crescendo-type atmosphere in the regular season, but that's what he and Duke are heading toward. Next week's ACC Tournament will serve as an anti-climax to whatever plays out in front of the 9,300-plus fortunate souls who get to be inside one of the country's premier sports venues.
In keeping balance with the universe, all of this will — all of it must — come against rival North Carolina, this being the 97th episode in which Krzyzewski ; he's done just that 50 times before. A win for Duke would top K off at 573 victories inside the Gothic basketball cathedral that has hosted dozens upon dozens of huge games and frenzied environments over its 82-year lifespan.
The 490th consecutive Cameron Indoor Stadium sellout — a streak that dates back to 1990 — will be as star-studded a college basketball event as we've ever seen. As of Friday morning, the expected number of Coach K's former players, coaches and staff who will make their way back to the motherland is close to 80.
"The first few years, I don't think I would have predicted that any of them will be coming back," Krzyzewski said with a smile Thursday at his final press conference before a home game in his career.
Krzyzewski doesn't remember his first game at Duke (a 67-49 win over Stetson on Nov. 29, 1980) but he said he does remember his first home win against North Carolina from that same season.
Considering the size of Cameron, and with some tickets on the secondary market, it's objectively become the toughest ticket to land in the history of basketball. No matter the final score, the scene will be unlike anything the sport has witnessed. Krzyzewski announced his retirement in early June 2021. It's been a nine-month crest to this point. To see Krzyzewski on Thursday, it looked like the gravity of what awaits Saturday was finally sinking in.
"I've tried never to look in the past too much, or the future, but, you know, a little bit of thinking yesterday," Krzyzewski said. "This is your last game. At Cameron. Like, it's crazy. How did that happen? How is it here?"
It's here, and on Thursday, Krzyzewski — really, for the first time this season — sounded ready to acknowledge the impending ending in a way he's understandably nudged off in the past four months. As he so often and so easily does, Krzyzewski bounced back and forth between sounding reflective but focused, serious yet tongue-in-cheek. He didn't hit all the notes, but he hit a lot of them.
He also sounded like a man who knows some sensations await him Saturday that will be justifiably irrepressible.
"I've tried not to think about it that much, but I know it will be emotional," Krzyzewski said.
All this makes for a strange situation. We know Duke's season won't end Saturday night; no one knows when Duke's season, and thus Krzyzewski's career, will expire. It could be later this month; it might not be until April. But Saturday is the send-off for the ones who love him most.
Krzyzewski isn't eager to say goodbye, but he insisted on reminding us that he's prepared to go.
"I'm ready," he said, then added this line that shut down any hint of late-season remorse over a retirement decision that privately came at least a year ago: "Believe me, there's no thought in my mind."
Not only is Krzyzewski going out on his terms, he's largely leaving the Duke program behind him. There has been some occasional chatter about how much presence Krzyzewski would have around the program once associate head coach Jon Scheyer becomes head coach Jon Scheyer. K's words were definitive on Thursday.
"I will have nothing to do with our basketball program," he said. "This is not about me. Some people have told me some things have been written (that) I'm trying to maintain control. That could not be further from the truth. It was mine for 42 years, but it's Duke's forever."
It's still Krzyzewski's for another three, four or five weeks. And this is a man whose competitiveness has been so intense it's crept into obsession. Routine film sessions that would seep into 3 or 4 a.m. To think he'll soften up as he prepares for his last home game against Carolina would miss the mark on what got him to Saturday's commemoration.
"It's not like I'm looking forward to the end of the season," Krzyzewski said. "When I say I'm looking forward to that new chapter, don't confuse it with 'I'm ready for this to be over.' I'm not."
Saturday will earnestly begin his exodus. The game is effectively a backdrop for a ceremony — for everyone except the people playing and coaching the game. With so much attention paid to Krzyzewski, it's a curiosity to consider how the players will compose themselves on the main stage for two hours. North Carolina, which sets up as a double-digit underdog, is basically being given no chance to win this.
It is UNC-Duke, as a reminder. This rivalry has a way of leaning into the dramatic. Duke could win by 25, but a close game would only be fitting. Given the pageantry and anxiety surrounding this game, trying to predict how either team will immediately respond is a fool's errand.
"I don't want them to feel there's so much about me, you know, that the moment is about us," Krzyzewski said. "And so, I want them to understand it's our moment. And it just happens to be in this situation, and for them not to play because it's coach's last game. Play because we should want to win."
Duke does not honor its transfer students on Senior Day, and four-year Blue Devil Joey Baker is said to be returning next season, meaning that this year's Senior Day will be for one man: the guy who arrived 42 years ago, as a 33-year-old with the alphabet-soup last name.
"Who would've ever thought? It's my Senior Day," Krzyzewski said.
He asked: How is it here? Krzyzewski will look out on the floor that bears his name and find those answers in the faces of the players who will surround him. It will be one of the scenes of the year in sports.
He sounds like a man who's ready. Ready for one more Carolina game, ready for one last NCAA Tournament, ready for one more push to try and win a national title. But most of all, Krzyzewski sounds ready to relinquish his power. There's nothing left to prove. This really is it.
Until Saturday at 6:20 p.m. Then it's everything all over again.