Immobility and extreme pain in his left hip cause by osteoarthritis nearly caused 65-year-old Mike "Coach K" Krzyzewski, the head coach of Duke
University men’s basketball team, to hang up his whistle in 1998. If he had,
one of the most prolific coaches in U.S. college and Olympic basketball would
have missed out on two NCAA Championships, multiple trips to the Sweet 16 and two Olympic gold medals.
The Centers for Disease Control define osteoarthritis (OA) as a painful joint disease that causes weakness and
disability and can place severe limits on daily activity and quality of life. It’s
the most common form of arthritis and typically patients don’t develop symptoms
before 45. One in two Americans will develop some form of OA in their lifetime
and 27 million adults currently have it.
In 1998, Coach K says he started experiencing groin pain. “When
I went to the doctor, he told me it was my hip and suggested a hip replacement,”
But the man who has guided the basketball careers of
hundreds of players, counting on them to take his advice, failed to take the
advice of his doctor.
“We were just starting the season and I didn’t want to take
time off. I figured I could put off surgery,” he says. “That’s a move that almost
ruined my entire career and our team’s season.”
Krzyzewski says he had to fight the pain resulting from his
OA every day. And that pain cost him a significant of mobility. “I lost a lot
of movement and could hardly get on the floor. I had to coach from one position
or a chair, which isn’t nearly as effective as being able to walk around the
side of the court.”
To manage his pain, ‘Coach K’ says he relied on “a lot of
medicine, but I didn’t manage very well.” And as the season went on, his
ability to effectively lead his team began to deteriorate.
“It’s tough to be positive with the players and other
coaches when you’re in pain or fatigued from trying to combat the pain. I was
using so much energy trying to fight the OA instead of taking care of myself.
That wasn’t a smart thing,” he says.
Coach K says he ended the 1998-99 season with regret. “I knew
at the end of the season I didn’t do the job I could have done if I was healthy.”
If given the chance to coach himself the coach would have said
taking care of himself was the priority. “I got to a point where I knew I
couldn’t go on. I either had to have the hip replacement surgery my doctor
recommended or I had to stop coaching.”
In April 1999, at the age of 52, Coach K had his left hip
Typically, patients having a hip replacement are
hospitalized for 3 to 5 days and undergo physical therapy for three to six
months. Coach K underwent rehabilitation from April to June.
He was back behind the bench full time in June but says he returned better than
“I was amazed how good it felt to not have pain. I thought I
was getting older and was supposed to have a limp or some pain related to age. I
didn’t realize just how much pain I was in until it was completely gone.”
He enjoyed improved mobility, too. “I’m 65 now and move
better than when I was 51 and 52. It’s amazing to have full range of motion
Krzyzewski says he would also have told himself “don’t be so
“Fighting pain doesn’t make you a better man. It made me
less productive and less of a better man. I shouldn’t have tried to be so stoic.”
Fear also played a role. “I was afraid having a hip replacement
would somehow feel odd. That I would know there was something foreign in my
body that wouldn’t feel like a part of me.” Those fears were quelled by his
doctor. “He assured me that wouldn’t be the case and he was right. It didn’t
feel foreign at all.”
A few years later, when Krzyzewski began experiencing similar
pain on the right side, he wasn’t as stubborn. “I went right to the doctor and
followed his advice to have the surgery right away. Now 12 and 10 years later,
I’m pain free and have more movement than when I was 50.”