A Polish immigrant, Emily Krzyzewski didn't go to high school and worked late at night cleaning office buildings in downtown Chicago, never losing sight of the one thing she wanted most: to provide her son an opportunity for a better life.
"My mom's been the greatest person in my life," says Mike Krzyzewski, 61, the legendary head basketball coach at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and head coach of Team USA at the Summer Games in Beijing. "She gave me the opportunity to dream and then the opportunity to go to private schools."
Emily Krzyzewski died of cancer in 1996, but the indelible imprint on her son remains. "Coach K," as he is affectionately known, certainly achieved a better life, coaching teams to three NCAA titles, 11 Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championships, and 10 Final Four appearances in his 28 years at the helm of the Duke Blue Devils program. And while winning is integral to Krzyzewski's game plan, it doesn't end on the basketball court. The coach with the golden-hearted mom is seeing to it that others get an opportunity to succeed. To that end, he honored his mother in 2006 by placing her name on the marquee of his pride and joy, the Emily Krzyzewski Center, a learning facility for less-fortunate children in Durham. In so doing, Coach K has inadvertently challenged himself.
"I knew that with her name on it, this'll be a lifetime commitment," says Krzyzewski, who's helped raise more than $14 million toward the nonprofit center's goal of $50 million. "We felt it would be a great example for the kids, with the relationship that I had with my mother serving as the spirit of the center."
Still in its infancy, the center employs six people full time, plus 65 volunteers. Originally, it was envisioned as the kind of recreation facility Krzyzewski attended in his native North Chicago back in the late 1950s, a place where kids of different races and cultures interacted through athletics and activities. But several months after opening, Krzyzewski and Emily K Center CEO and President Marleah Rogers realized that education "not recreation "should become the center's focus. Twenty-five master's-degree teachers from the local public and private schools contribute to the effort through academic tutoring and mentoring.
"It is a teacher's dream," says Rogers, 54. "We select students in early elementary school who are low-income and have academic promise, leadership potential, and committed family support. It is amazingly successful. People are blown away when they see it." Other out-of-school programs include a weekly girls' club, a theater camp, a leadership academy, college preparatory classes for high school students and a basketball camp in summer.
So inspirational is the memory of his mother that Krzyzewski uses her as an example to motivate his Duke players. "My mom was incredibly smart and had the highest level of dignity concerning work," says Krzyzewski, one of only six men's coaches in NCAA history to achieve more than 800 career wins. "I tell my players that you need to learn to love the process, that there's a dignity to work, it helps you and your self-esteem. I cite things that she did for me all the time with my team."
In addition to the Emily K Center, Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, are keenly involved with children through Duke Children's Hospital and the Children's Miracle Network of 170 hospitals across North America. Clearly, there is a connection with Coach K and kids.
"There's an incredible strength from being with those children and their families," Coach K says.
"Incredible stories occur all the time at Duke Children's Hospital, even if a youngster is not able to go on with life. How the hospital helps celebrate and dignify the life of those youngsters and families is amazing."
Giving, as Krzyzewski learned long ago from his mother, changes lives. "You know, to those who are given much, much is expected," he says. "I've been fortunate to be given much and I understand that you should do something with that. It's very humbling. Knowing you have the opportunity to do that, you better do it."