I’ve known Coach K since I was 16 or 17 years old.
It’s crazy to think that it’s been more than 20 years. I knew Tommy Amaker first because he and my high school assistant coach, Kevin Sutton, grew up together in Virginia. Duke started recruiting me through their relationship. Ultimately, that led to Coach K coming to open gyms and things like that to see me play in high school in Maryland.
At first, when Coach K starts recruiting you, you’re in awe. You watch Duke on TV as a kid and you know all the great players – Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and those guys. You see Coach on the sidelines and you know he’s a great coach. It’s surreal when he’s in your high school, watching you play and talking to you about the possibility of playing for him.
Like fans and most people who see Coach from afar, I thought he’d be ultra-serious and a little intimidating. When I watched him on TV, I could just feel his intensity. I liked that about him. My father was a Marine and I liked that intensity.
When I actually met with Coach the first time, I realized how funny and personable he is. I remember thinking how down to earth he was. I was taken aback by that in a good way. That’s ultimately why I felt so comfortable with him. He just has this way of making people feel comfortable.
Being recruited by Coach K unlocked a lot of things inside of me. It gave me confidence in how good I was. You never know exactly how good you are, and I just knew from that point that I must be pretty good to have the best coach in the country coming to see me. That actually made me work harder and gave me the confidence to be the best I could.
Coach has always had a knack for helping players have a greater sense of confidence in themselves and getting the best out of everyone.
When I arrived on campus and actually started playing for him, I realized that it just got better. It was a lot harder than high school, as you can imagine, but you’re around great guys and you’re being coached by a terrific staff led by a coach who’s as passionate and driven as anybody I’ve ever known.
At that point, my relationship with Coach really started to develop. I was here at Duke, playing on his team. Pretty soon, games would be on the line. His message to me has always been, “Trust yourself and stop deferring. Take immediate action.”
Coach has a standard for how things should be done, and he pushes you to meet that standard. It can be hard when you’re pushed and challenged. Change is difficult. You may want to change and you can be all in, but that initial jolt wakes you up.
I learned to appreciate Coach’s intensity and the way he held me accountable. I knew he was doing it because he cared about me and he believed in me. He’s always thinking about his players.
I actually was injured at the beginning of my freshman year and had to redshirt my sophomore year because of injuries. In some cases, guys who are injured can almost be forgotten about, put on the back burner. I never felt that way. I never felt like Coach thought he was getting a raw deal or saying, “This kid’s always hurt.”
Coach always made me feel like I was a part of everything. He cared about me and had sympathy for what I was going through. For me, that really backed up one of the main reasons why I decided to come Duke – it felt like a family. It wasn’t just Coach; it was Mrs. K, his daughters, the staff. Everyone made every player feel like we were part of the family.
That made our relationship stronger and when I was able to get back on the court, I felt more confident and happy in the decision that I made. After that, no matter how much Coach got in my face or demanded of me, I was able to accept it because I knew it was coming from a place of love.
For me, Coach has always been an extension of my dad. All the principles and values that my dad taught me as a kid were things that Coach requires on a daily basis. He’s taught me so much about being the best I can be and living up to a standard, no matter how difficult times can be. He helped me develop the confidence to fight through any adversity and face any challenge.
Coming from high school, I knew that if I went to Duke, Coach K would help develop me into a champion. That was the main thing I was always focused on. We all have aspirations of playing at the highest level, but my ultimate goal was to be a national champion.
When we achieved that goal in 2001, I just remember being so appreciative of everything he taught me that helped me get to that point. You hear guys say they’d be willing to run through a brick wall for Coach K, and I’m here to tell you that it’s true. The bonds he creates are so strong that they help you get to where you want to go.
After we won that national championship, I was faced with the next chapter of my life and I was fortunate to be able to play the game I love for a living.
During the season, when you’re in a different country – and I played in more than I want to remember right now! – it can be hard to keep up communication back home. One of the things I love the most about Duke is that you’re always part of the family. So, I’d go overseas and play but in the summertime, I was right back here in Durham. I probably spent more time at Duke than in D.C., working out, training, working camps. That allowed me to stay connected and keep my relationship with Coach K strong.
I forget what year it was, but I was around so much in the summers that he came to me one day and told me that when I was done chasing the dream, he wanted me to come back and join the staff. I always knew I wanted to coach, but I never dreamed it would be here at Duke and for Coach K. When he told me that, I was floored. Developing that relationship with Coach and continuing it over the summers while playing overseas really opened that door for me.
Joining the staff in 2007 was a huge learning process for me. You don’t know what to expect. How could you? As a player, you’re not in the conference room and you don’t see all the day-to-day things that coaches go through. You’re in your own world, handling the responsibilities of being a student-athlete.
I had to really shift things in my mind and remind myself that there wasn’t a player/coach relationship with Coach K anymore. I was now working for him. He’s brought so many former players back to his staff, and I think all of us have had to go through that process. We had to take off the uniform, put our big boy pants on and learn what Coach needs from us as coaches.
One of the key things Coach told me when I first joined that staff was that learning from him also meant learning from his staff. Having great assistant coaches to show me the ropes was critical for me. The amount of freedom that Coach gives his staff also helps build confidence. He’s not a micromanager. That same freedom he gives you as a player, he also gives you as a coach.
In that same regard, the standards that apply to you as a Duke player also apply to you as a Duke coach. That roadmap or blueprint is already in place. Coach has a goal for you, and it’s up to you to figure it out, and he empowers you to be yourself. Ultimately, that’s part of the reason Duke has been so successful. Everyone on the staff helps everyone else and that helps sustain what has been built.
One of the great things about Coach K is his ability to adapt. If he was a piece of technology, he’d never become obsolete. He understands that the way he coached me 20 years ago isn’t the way you coach today’s kids. It’s very cool to see him now, doing things with a slightly different approach. He’s still striving for the same outcome – to motivate kids and help them be the very best they can be – but the way he’s been able to do it is by adapting.
For me, heading into my 10th year on the staff, it’s inspiring. The foundational things and the core values are all still there, but the flexibility and confidence to do things a little bit differently helps me as a young coach. You can’t be rigid. You have to grow with people and concepts.
On the basketball court, he’s continued to evolve and improve by staying in tune with what’s current in the game and where the game is headed. The game has changed so much and Coach has been ahead of the curve in a lot of ways, like playing “small ball,” valuing the three-point shot, having guards who can break people down and having versatile big guys.
Learning from Coach how to build a program, how to empower guys and how to stay true to your core values has been significant for me. He’s given me a lot of tools for success and I’ve gotten a world-class coaching experience under Coach K.
Looking back on it all, I couldn’t have dreamed that this would happen to me. Playing for Coach K, playing with some of the best teammates you could ask for, winning a national championship as a player, joining the staff and winning two national championships as an assistant coach.
If I told all of that to 16 or 17 year-old me, I couldn’t have believed it. I would’ve wanted to thank him in advance for believing in me and seeing something in me. I would thank him for allowing me to share the things I had in me with him and his family. I’ll be forever grateful for every life lesson and experience I’ve had since that time.
For a 16 year-old Nate James, that would be all he could say. Thank you.