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Coach K shows grace in defeat

People around here — and elsewhere — can’t stand Duke. Mention Bobby Hurley or Christian Laettner at the nearest PT’s pub and heads will explode, though it has been almost 25 years.

So people around here and elsewhere, it can be assumed, are happy that Duke lost to unheralded Mercer in the NCAA Tournament and will not be part of the Sweet 16 this year.

Still, that was a pretty sporting thing Mike Krzyzewski did when he stopped by the Mercer locker room to congratulate the Bears and wish them well against Tennessee and the rest of the way before leaving the arena in Raleigh, N.C., the other day.

Besides the #CryingKansasKid, as he is now known on Twitter, and the crying North Dakota State coach — and 7-foot-5-inch, 350-pound Sim Bhullar of New Mexico State dragging himself into position on the low blocks against San Diego State the way a glacier drags itself into position after a winter thaw — the image of Coach K as the gracious loser probably will last longest.

At least he wasn’t crying.

But his eyes were a little red; you could still see the raw emotion of a difficult defeat in them.

For 1 minute, 9 seconds, which is how long the film clip lasts, it was almost enough to make one forget how pompous most Duke fans are, and how Duke gets all the calls.

“You guys have a hell of a basketball team,” Coach K said after poking his head inside the door that said “MERCER LOCKER ROOM” on the official blue NCAA placard.

“I love the game and you guys play the game really, really well, and your coach coaches it well. If we had to be beaten, I’m glad we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team. So good luck to you.”

And then he ducked back out the door, and what had been a raucous Mercer locker room was eerily quiet.

It reminded me of a scene in this old boxing movie called “Gentleman Jim” in which Jim Corbett, portrayed by Errol Flynn, defeats John L. Sullivan, played by Ward Bond, for the heavyweight title around the turn of the century.

Gentleman Jim is celebrating in style with pillars of high society when, looking in a mirror, he notices the vanquished Sullivan enter the ballroom. The high and mighty John L., humbled in defeat, has come to present Corbett with the title belt Sullivan held for so long.

“Auld Lang Syne” is playing in the background on soft strings when Gentleman Jim says he will try to bring as much honor to that belt as Sullivan did.

“You know something?” Gentleman Jim Corbett says to John L. Sullivan in the movie. “The first time I saw you fight I was just a bit of a kid. There wasn’t a man alive that could have stood up to you then. And tonight … well, I was just mighty glad you weren’t the John L. Sullivan of 10 years ago.”

“Is that what you’re thinkin’ now?” Sullivan says with a thick Irish accent.

“That’s what I was thinking before I even got into the ring with you,” Corbett says.

“That’s a fine, decent thing for ye to say, Jim. I don’t know how we might have come out, oh say, eight, 10 years ago. Maybe I was faster then. If I was, well, tonight, you’re the fastest thing on two feet. Sure it was like tryin’ to hit a ghost.

“I don’t know much about this ‘Gentleman’ stuff they’re hanging on about you. But maybe you’re bringing something new to the fight game. Somethin’ it needs and never got from fellas like me. I don’t know. But I do know this: Though it’s tough to be a good loser, it’s a lot tougher to be a good winner.”

The two shake hands and then the revelers at the victory celebration part, so the great John L. Sullivan can make his way through. The beaten champ takes his hat from the doorman and places it on a head held high while making the classiest of exits.

That’s what I thought of when I saw the clip of Coack K congratulating the Mercer players, eyes red, head held high, ducking out of the victorious locker room as he had ducked in, before the Mercer players could even react to his sporting gesture.

The guy watching the door should have handed him a top hat.

But a lot of people around here — and elsewhere — probably still are pleased as punch that Duke is out.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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