The Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team is a NCAA Division 1 college team representing Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. It is known for being one of the top college basketball programs in the NCAA for decades as the fourth-winningest team with five NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championships under its belt. The team’s success can be attributed to not just the talent of their players, but also the strength of their leadership under Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Meet Coach Mike Krzyzewski
Fans and athletes of college basketball around the country look to Mike Krzyzewski, commonly referred to as “Coach K”, as the paradigm of college basketball coaches. The Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team began to move up in the ranks in 1980 when Coach K joined the program. Forty seasons later, and the Naismith Hall of Fame coach is considered one of the greatest coaches in the history of men’s college basketball, with record breaking numbers. When people think of what makes Duke men’s basketball so successful, they automatically look to Coach K.
Although Duke men’s basketball has had 78 of their players drafted to the NBA, Coach K knows that talent doesn’t always win championships. He believes that the best performing teams need to care about each other and trust each other – not just as basketball players, but as brothers. It is this belief of Coach K’s that led to the team’s famous motto, “The Brotherhood”. Coach K is dedicated to the success of his team on and off the court by living this motto of The Brotherhood to its fullest extent.
The Duke men’s Basketball and Dear World Partnership: Our role
“A common mistake among those who work in sport is spending a disproportional (sic) amount of time on “x’s and o’s” as compared to time spent learning about people.” – Coach K
When you know the kind of environment that Coach K strives to foster for the Blue Devils, a partnership with Dear World makes sense. Just like we have gone into offices and used the Dear World method to build relationships between employees and bosses, Coach K brought us in with the objective of building those relationships for his team, so they could perform as one unit, instead of as a bunch of talented individuals. Duke men’s basketball’s Associate Head Coach Jon Scheyer told his sister about how they planned to develop new bonding strategies, and she was a client of ours who told him about Dear World.
How we began working with Duke.
Coach Scheyer emailed Dear World founder Robert R.X. Fogarty, and the basketball team brought us in to lead a Dear World experience for the first time in the fall of 2014 during their pre-season orientation.
We started the process by gathering the team for a session on storytelling and who we are. Since Dear World has a history of working with athletes, Fogarty made sure to highlight the stories of athletes such as New Orleans Saints players Drew Brees and Steve Gleason as well as sports luminaries like Stuart Scott and Shane Battier.
“I made sure to draw on stories from our work that were of people who they could see themselves in,” Fogarty said. “So we definitely had stories in our session that were about athletes overcoming.”
Once the introductions were over, we led the team through the classic Dear World experience of discovering their own stories, creating their messages to write on their skin, and shooting their portraits. We took photos of each player with their message one by one in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The next day, we presented the portraits to the players and had each one stand up in front of their photo to explain the story behind the image.
Players shared deeply personal and emotional stories of love and loss. For example, freshman Jahlil Okafor told the team about losing his mother when he was nine years old.
Coach K is always trying to find new ways to bring his team together, which was especially important for their 2014-2015 roster when he had a rather young team containing four freshmen. The four freshmen all played key roles, because three of them were starters and in the team’s top four scorers. As a matter of fact, Duke had four freshmen in a regular rotation depleted of depth, only having eight scholarship players.
“For a team filled with newcomers who were to step into key roles, the trust-building and accelerated chemistry was crucial,” said Nicole Auerbach, a USA Today reporter who wrote an article about Duke’s “one-and-dones” and why Dear World helped create quick bonds among a team that is constantly changing.
The article explains that when you have a talented team of players that could be picked up by the NBA at any moment, you do not have the luxury of taking your time to build relationships over the course of four years – you just have that one year to get the team as strong as possible to perform their best during that season.
We were presented with the challenge of providing players with a safe environment to open up about their lives through stories that do not come up in everyday conversations, and that might not have been shared otherwise. We wanted to not just create better understanding between players, but also to create more harmony and communication between players and coaches.
Members of high performing college teams like that of Duke men’s basketball and other NCAA programs tend to make players more at risk of mental illness brought about by many factors, such as pressure to excel athletically and academically, which can be seriously impacted by the team’s environment and normative behaviors.
“If teammates and coaches stigmatize mental health conditions or encourage a culture of toughness and not admitting weakness, symptomatic or at-risk individuals will be less likely to disclose their mental health conditions or seek help.” The Sport Science Institute
We hoped that our exercise with the team would encourage vulnerability and openness between players, and players and coaches, which in turn would positively affect their performance.
In a USA Today article describing Duke’s experience with Dear World to unite the roster, Coach K and former assistant coach Jeff Capel said that they noticed the quick bond between players that resulted from their Dear World activity. We cannot take credit for all of the 2014-2015 team’s success, but maybe some of it. That season, the Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team went on to win the national championship. They also brought along their Dear World photographs and hung them in their lockers during the championship run.
After their big win, Coach K even gave Dear World a shout out at their celebration parade in Durham.
“I was watching it [the parade] on ESPN, and it was really cool to have him reference Dear World, and how important this exercise was to bring the guys closer together,” Fogarty said.
The Blue Devils have always been highly ranked in men’s basketball, but before 2015, they hadn’t won the NCAA championship since 2010, and didn’t perform as well as fans anticipated they would in the years that followed: They lost in 2011 in the Sweet 16, in 2012 in the first round to a 15 seed, and in 2013 in the Elite 8. In 2014, the year before their next national championship since 2010, they lost in the first round to a 14 seed. Not only was 2015 prominent because of their fifth national championship win, but also because they had made a huge comeback from the recent years before.
Bringing it all together
We taught the Blue Devils a lesson in storytelling and empathy, but they taught us a lesson in breaking down stereotypes and cliches about athletes.
“I think there is a very narrow view that athletes are hypermasculine and not in touch with who they are, and that always is obliterated in their real experiences” Fogarty said. “It corroborates for me surely that people who have apprehension that high performing men aren’t willing to go there with each other is categorically false.”
We saw the positive outcomes of what can happen when teams take that step with one another, and so did the coaches and players, which has fostered a valuable relationship between Dear World and the Duke team in future years since their 2015 victory. From that season forward, we worked with Duke in 2016, 2017, and 2018 during their pre-season training.
Players told us in 2017 that at different times throughout the season the coaches would bring out their Dear World portraits and ask them if they have been playing and acting as they were when the photos were taken. The Dear World photos serve as a reminder for the players of their relationships with each other, and their relationships with themselves and who they strive to be.
Bonus: Coach K’s tribute to his late friend Jim Valvano
Not only has Dear World helped contribute to Duke Men’s Basketball’s culture of The Brotherhood, but we also helped Coach K write a Dear World story about his close friend and renowned sports icon Jim Valvano “Jimmy V”, who died of cancer in 1993. We released Coach K’s written letter and video tribute titled “I thought you would live forever” right before the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in 2016. The video has over 120 thousand views on Youtube, and appeared on multiple platforms including CBS Sports and USA Today.
February 5, 2019