Coach Mike Krzyzewski Refuses to Play the Pain Game

Coach Mike Krzyzewski Refuses to Play the Pain Game

To many people, he’s known simply as “Coach K.” Famous for his unparalleled successes as Duke University’s head basketball coach and as an Olympic coach for the United States men’s basketball team, Mike Krzyzewski is beloved by millions of sports fans around the world. But the adored sports icon also has personal experience with chronic pain, and he uses his celebrity status to encourage others facing similar physical challenges.


“At the beginning of the 1998-1999 season, I started out with pain in my left hip,” Krzyzewski recalls. “I was advised that I should have hip replacement surgery, but I couldn’t see myself taking the time off to have the surgery. I thought I could just manage the pain.”

As head coach for Duke’s men’s basketball team since 1980, Krzyzewski has led the Blue Devils to four NCAA championships, 11 Final Fours, 12 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season titles and 13 ACC Tournament championships. He also guided the U.S. men’s basketball team to gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. But Krzyzewski says that if he had continued to ignore his ongoing pain, the professional achievements would have likely ended. His decision to deal with his condition led to surgery and rehabilitation, once in 1999 and again in 2002.

“I had to take a good deal of medication to combat the pain,” he says. “And even then, I became less and less mobile. It was basically bone rubbing against bone. I had a hard time going out on the court, and I had to sit just about the entire game when I coached. I was constantly tired, and I spent the whole season in pain. I really feel like we lost the national championship because I couldn’t coach as well at the time. So a couple of days after the season ended, I went in and had my hip replaced.”

The surgical results were excellent. Krzyzewski says his pain disappeared immediately and he tackled rehabilitation with enthusiasm.

“That type of pain causes a significant loss of mobility,” Krzyzewski explains. “It changes your gait and your body mechanics. Even after the hip replacement surgery, it took me a while to get out of the habit of limping. You do a lot of compensatory things when pain is constant.”


When Krzyzewski next battled pain, it was his right hip. However, this time the decision to have hip replacement surgery was an easy one.

“I had my right hip replaced before it could cause all that pain,” Krzyzewski says. “I knew I’d had good results after the first surgery, so I didn’t hesitate.”

Coach K also didn’t want to deal with the loss of energy that accompanied his first bout with chronic pain. Remembering how long it took him to perform routine tasks like getting dressed before his first surgery, he scheduled the 2002 operation without hesitating.

“One of the biggest challenges with chronic pain comes from the amount of energy you have to expend to fight the pain on a daily basis,” Krzyzewski says. “You only have so much energy every day.

“The first time around, I couldn’t demonstrate anything to my players, and coaching is very hands-on,” he continues. “The players assume that as long as you are there, you are ready for duty. The first time, my pain probably kept me from bonding as well with the kids on the team, which affects the team as a whole. I learned my lesson and didn’t put off the second surgery.”


In the years since his last surgery, Coach K has continued to add accolades to his record at Duke. With 927 total wins, he is now the most successful coach in NCAA Division I history; he’s also the top coach in NCAA Tournament victories, with 79 wins. Krzyzewski is one of only three coaches to earn four or more NCAA titles, along with the legendary John Wooden and Adolph Rupp.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is being Duke’s coach,” Krzyzewski says. “It’s wonderful to be part of something that is recognized for excellence like our university is.

“Winning the national championships were incredible experiences, and the first time we made it to the Final Four is something I’ll never forget,” Krzyzewsk continues. “Looking back, if I hadn’t had my hips replaced, I probably wouldn’t have been around for two more of those championships. Making that decision and doing the rehabilitation has given me a lot of moments that I would have missed.”


Coach Krzyzewski is an active philanthropist, both locally and nationally, serving as a chairman for Duke University’s Children’s Miracle Network Telethon and volunteering for the Duke Children’s Classic and the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research. He is also chairman for the Emily Krzyzewski Family Center, a community center near the Duke campus named in honor of his mother. He also created K Academy, a summer sports fantasy camp that supports the Krzyzewski Family Scholarship Endowment, a fund established in 2001 by the coach and his wife, Mickie.

Over the years, Coach K has also come to be known for rewarding loyal student fans, also known as the “Cameron Crazies,” with inclusion in pregame strategy sessions or with pizza while they camped out in line for game tickets.

“Mickie and Mike Krzyzewski both do so much for our university,” said Nan Keohane, former Duke University president, in a previous interview. “Their many contributions to our athletic programare well known, and their support of undergraduate academic and residential life at Duke should be as well.”

“We’re involved with a lot of charities,” Krzyzewski says. “I have a very full plate, but it’s rewarding.”


In addition to coaching, Krzyzewski is also an author. He has co-written several books, including two with his daughter, Jamie K. Spatola. The pair wrote Beyond Basketball: Coach K’s Keywords for Success in 2006, followed in 2009 by The Gold Standard: Building a World- Class Team, which featured Krzyzewski’s advice on team building based on his experiences coaching the team that eventually won the 2008 Olympic gold medal.

After victory at the London Olympics, Coach K says, “For me, it’s all basketball this year. As soon as I’m back from the Olympics, I’m back into our program at Duke. I’m really looking forward to the upcoming year. It’s what I love to do.”


Looking forward to the upcoming college basketball season, Coach K says he remains mindful of the importance of maintaining his own physical health.

“I exercise with a recumbent bike and lift weights,” Krzyzewski says. “We live on 14 acres of land, and I like to be outside, gardening or walking with my dog, a yellow lab named Blue. I know that what you give up when you’re in pain is significant, and I’m glad it only took me a season to figure out what I needed to do.

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways is the first, only and ultimate pain magazine. First published in spring 2008, PainPathways is the culmination of the vision of Richard L. Rauck, MD, to provide a shared resource for people living with and caring for others in pain. This quarterly resource not only provides in-depth information on current treatments, therapies and research studies but also connects people who live with pain, both personally and professionally.

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