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Coach K

Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski, Duke University’s head men’s basketball coach and a V Foundation Board member, speaks at the 19th annual V Foundation Wine Celebration at Nickel & Nickel Winery in Oakville in 2018.

Editor’s note: Duke University head men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has played a key role in the Jimmy V Foundation for the past several decades as the organization helps try to an end to cancer with research funding.

This year’s V Foundation Wine Celebration raised this past weekend raised $7 million, all of which will go towards cancer research.

This is a Q and A with the legendary Coach K.

G.S. Whitt: What are your memories of Coach Valvano’s speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards?

Coach Mike Krzyzewski: Well, Jimmy and I were like brothers and whatever he did does not surprise and when he spoke, and when he gave that speech it was his farewell. And so, he knew it and but what he did was not only inspire us, but he set the stage to form the V Foundation and fight this dreadful disease. And it was remarkable really. I actually always think it’s like divine intervention.

(Editor’s note: The V Foundation was founded by ESPN and champion basketball coach Jim Valvano to help fund cancer research. Valvano passed away from cancer in 1993, two months after giving a now legendary speech at the ESPY Awards.)

GW: Can you talk about the birth of the V Foundation and conversations you had with Coach Valvano?

MK: What he did the last four or five months of his life he was at Duke Medical Center. We became close when he became an announcer. We weren’t close when he was a coach. But when he was in the hospital there, I would visit him maybe three times a week or so and he eventually told me of his vision of ‘I want to beat cancer’ and he said ‘I want you to be part of it,’ and he recruited me. I wasn’t a five-star guy or maybe in his mind I was. But he said I want to win, and I’m not going to win. He knew already that there was no cure. And for him to have the attitude that he had was simply sensational. Not good, sensational. And I truly believe there was divine intervention and I’m so proud of him that he was able to look (beyond himself).

GW: So, where are we in that battle against cancer?

MK: We’re in a good place. We’re winning, but we haven’t won. But the Wine Celebration has been a huge part of all this. It’s raised over $108 million dollars in 20 years, and what’s even more important is it’s raised over S40 million in the last three years, so it’s a key thing in bringing money, for research, but also for awareness and a belief that we can win. Obviously, cancer is being beaten at certain levels, it’s just not being beaten at every level, and so we’re making amazing strides and The V Foundation wants to be part of that. But The V Foundation wants to be a part of it when we win.

GW: So what do you want the people who attend the event (Saturday night) to take away from their experience?

MK: Well, one we have been so successful in raising money the last few years at an extraordinary level, $40 million in the last three years, but we can’t get complacent. Cancer is not complacent. Cancer is a dirty dog and so not to be happy, but to be proud. If you’re happy, you may not go further. But if you’re proud you may take it to another level.

GW: So, don’t be satisfied.

MK: Don’t be satisfied. … Cancer hates Napa.

GW: That’s true.

MK: No, it does. It hates Napa because Napa is passionate. It’s persistent. It’s tough. It seeks excellence and it’s not going to go away.

GW: So you’re going into your 40th year coaching at Duke, we talk about the brotherhood (of Duke Basketball) that’s a big thing for Duke.

MK: It is, that’s right.

GW: In a word or two, can you describe what the brotherhood is like?

MK: The Brotherhood has been an amazing thing and the fact that I’ve been there for forty straight years helps. We have a fantasy camp where we bring back 35 of our former players. We try to blend the guys of every era together and the thing that they find is that they’re very much alike. They’re good guys. They love being at Duke, and they love our program. And then if we can blend them, they help one another. It’s not a family. It’s a brotherhood. It’s different. A family’s different than a brotherhood. And I’m very proud of my guys that they want that.

GW: What do the words brotherhood and family mean to you in this context of fighting cancer and nights like tonight?

MK: Cancer is only going to be beaten if you have a team effort. It’s a horrible disease but horrible is only beaten by togetherness and passion. First of all, wine is the only drink that evokes emotion. You can drink beer and scotch and all that. It doesn’t evoke emotion. That doesn’t mean people don’t enjoy [beer and scotch] but wine does that.

GW: It brings people together.

MK: It does, and the only way you do this is to be emotionally involved and that’s why I’ve loved it as a member of the Board of Directors (of The V Foundation). I said I want The Wine Celebration and I believe that this is the most important thing of The V Foundation.

GW: Why do you think it is the most important thing?

MK: Well, one: it raises the most money. But the other thing is we can celebrate The Scientific Advisory Committee by being here. We can announce whatever accomplishments we’ve done here. It gives us a forum that is unique and high class. So, I’m really happy about it. I’m very, very, proud.

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