DURHAM — Being a walk-on at Duke is never easy, but Michael Savarino has one more thing to remember than most players who have been in that role.
“It’s Coach,” he says. “Not Grandpa.”
Savarino is the son of one of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s daughters, making player and coach the first grandfather-grandson tandem in college in recent memory.
It’s been an adjustment for both of them.
“We measure a bunch of things every practice,” Krzyzewski said. “Workload, sprinting speed, distances. We have this system where I get a report every day. Last week, I was looking at the report and Wendell (Moore, a Duke freshman) was just off the charts. I showed it to Mickie.”
That would be Mickie Krzyzewski, Coach K’s wife.
“I said, ‘Look. Wendell is developing the habit of playing faster.’ So, she’s looking at it, and she says, ‘Where’s Michael?’”
Krzyzewski said, “He didn’t play. He’s a walk-on.”
“It’s the first time a grandmother has given me a hard time about playing time,” he said. “Now I’m worried. She’s never looked at those things. I’m waiting for, ‘Where’s the report? He only did this?’ The mother so far has been OK, but we haven’t played any games.”
Savarino, who has grown up around Krzyzewski and Duke, isn’t likely to be intimidated by the Hall of Fame coach. In fact, he’s probably heard all of Coach K’s lines.
“Lines? No,” he says. “I’ve heard all of his curse words. He’s such a witty guy. I know I haven’t heard all of his lines. He always has something great to say to encourage these guys…”
Savarino has to stop and catch himself. They aren’t “these guys” anymore. He’s one of them.
“… the team,” he continues, “to do better things.”
Krzyzewski is infamous for doing some rather un-grandfatherly things when he gets upset with his team during games or practices. Savarino is looking forward to seeing that up close.
“He has not done anything to surprise me yet,” he says. “I think I’ve seen it all. Maybe there’ll be a broken clipboard or throwing markers. Something like that. I don’t know. I’m ready to see that.”
Despite the family connections, Savarino has earned his spot on the Blue Devils.
“It’s been great,” Krzyzewski says, “because he’s not on the team because he’s my grandson. He’d be a pretty good Division II player, but he wanted to come to Duke, and he could get in. He knows everything. He knows the lay of the land.”
“He’s a tough kid,” Coach K continues. “We do combine testing like the NBA does, a couple times a year. One of the things is the 185 bench press — how many times you can do that. Maybe it says something about the strength of our team, but he did the most. He did 10 of them.”
That was at the first combine testing session, soon after everyone reported to campus. Krzyzewski was quick to point out that several players are doing more than that now.
Having the coach’s grandson in the locker room could also present another type of problem: Do players worry about watching their tongue around Savarino, knowing that any complaints might make their way back to Krzyzewski.
“I think I’ve got the guys’ trust,” Savarino says. “They definitely trust me. I think that was originally the case. They were a little timid toward me, but I expected that. All the guys have opened up to me. They aren’t worried about me saying something to Coach — not that that’s something I would do.”
Krzyzewski and Savarino set that ground rule before he joined the team.
“He and I established that whatever’s said in that locker room stays in that locker room,” Savarino says. “He and I can have a private conversation about things that weren’t said in the locker room.”
“He’s been accepted by his teammates as Michael … or Mike … or whatever the hell they call him,” Krzyzewski says. “Knucklehead, probably, sometimes.”
Often, a coach’s son — or grandson — ends up getting treated more harshly than the other players, to make sure there are no charges of favoritism.
“Absolutely not,” Savarino says. “He treats me like a normal player. I hope he does that (is tougher on him). We’ll see if that happens.”
Other than the occasional question about playing time, Savarino hasn’t heard from his grandmother or mother about tips on how to deal with Krzyzewski.
“No pointers,” he says. “I don’t know what they can give me. I got some pointers from the team on how to act in practice, how to be involved, how to do extra things. But not from my mom or my grandma. They just give me encouraging words like, ‘Keep working hard.’”
It’s an unusual situation, but both Krzyzewski and Savarino seem determined to make it work.
“It’s gonna be a blessing, honestly,” Savarino said. “It’s gonna be a really great experience. Hopefully, I get him a couple more years after that, too.”