Okay, fine, here's my Coach K story
Also: A Facebook Marketplace deal made via plane, a strange North Carolina-related story about big money behind a small deli, and a tribute to Rick Bonnell.
That time when Coach K spilled coffee all over himself in my presence
Mike Krzyzewski is retiring. That’s very exciting news to my wife, who is a UNC grad and hates him with every fiber of her being. I cannot even lightly joke about Duke in her presence without having to offer an actual, earnest apology and offering to see a therapist.
That makes what I’m about to say all that much harder: I don’t think Coach K is a bad guy. I know this because four years ago, I had a very real encounter with him. I’ve told this story on Twitter a few times before, but I’ve never actually written it down.
Let me set the scene. It’s Tuesday, April 25, 2017. I’m at Duke University for the first time ever for a podcast interview with a professor. As we’re wrapping up, he tells me I oughta take a lap around campus and see the sights. So I do. I stuck my head in Duke Chapel. I got a coffee at Joe Van Gogh. I did not, at any point, confuse it with Wake Forest.
On the way back to my car, I climbed some stairs next to Cameron Indoor Stadium and started to walk across a parking lot behind the building. I heard a door click open. I wheeled around. And there he was. Coach K. In a blue Duke polo shirt. Holding a paper coffee cup. This was the first time I had ever laid eyes on the man in person. I tried to take this moment in.
And then, a few seconds later, he stumbled, squeezed the cup, popped the top off, and spilled coffee all over himself.
He looked down at his shirt, which was now covered in hot coffee. Then he looked up to see if anyone had seen this. I was the only person around. His eyes met mine.
Folks, I know from experience that people don’t react logically in many situations. So, while you think that I would have just kept walking, or ignored this man’s embarrassment, or offered to help pick up his coffee, or told him “oh man, that stinks,” I am here to tell you that I did none of those things. No. I opened my mouth and said: “Hey, can I get a picture with you?”
He stared at me for a moment as if I’d just grown a second head. No, he said. I typically don’t do that, and also, I am currently dripping with hot coffee.
I snapped out of whatever trance I had entered and told him, well, duh, I understand. I mentioned I was sorry about the spill, and hoped he had a better day ahead. Then I wheeled around and walked away, trying to fathom why I’d asked Coach K for a picture at a particularly bad moment.
I took a few steps, then the strap on my laptop bag snapped, and the whole thing crashed to the pavement.
I looked down, then looked up to see if anyone had seen it. There was only one person around. Coach K.
“Huh,” he said.
I shrugged as I picked up my bag. “Guess that’s karma for you,” I said, in a very dad voice. Maybe so, he said. I threw my bag under my arm. I said “see you later” to Coach K, and then scurried away.
A few minutes later, I was back at my car. I loaded up the remains of my bag, my computer, and my podcast equipment into the back, then I climbed into the front seat. Before I could close the door, I heard a car pull up behind me. I turned my head. There, in a large Cadillac Escalade, was Mike Krzyzewski. “Hey,” he said. I sat there, motionless. He pointed at my car. “You were about to drive off with your coffee cup on your roof.”
I let out a loud ugh, rolled my eyes, reached up and grabbed the coffee, and offered Coach K a thank you. “Can’t believe I almost did that,” I said.
“You know,” he said, “back when I was a cadet at West Point, I used to leave my hat on top of my car and drive off. It happened all the time.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I should really stop putting stuff on top of my car.”
“Well, I guess is what happens when we have a lot on our minds,” he told me.
“Well, have a great day,” he said.
“You too!” I replied.
He drove off. I sat in my car for a moment. I had a strange thought. Wait a minute. Are Coach K and I friends now?
Minus the selfie demand, it was an extremely pedestrian encounter. I, for some reason, don’t seem to have a weakness for celebrity. I think, maybe, it’s because of a career in journalism where I was always trying to pierce the veneer of popularity. But maybe it’s also a recognition that people don’t live all of their lives in the way that they’re portrayed. Yes, the coach that’s won more games than anyone in college basketball history is extremely good at what he does, and is as well-known as anyone can be in American life. And yet, he has to carry his own coffee. Occasionally, like the rest of us, he trips.
The only question I had to answer was: Why did I want the picture so badly? I had to think about that one for a bit before I came up with the answer. I knew of my wife’s hatred for Coach K. I also knew that she loved me. So I wanted to run an experiment. I wanted her phone to buzz, for her to pick it up, and for her to encounter this image with no warning. How, exactly, would she react to a picture where the man she loves shares a frame with the man she hates?
I didn’t get the chance, and instead I had to call her to tell her about my encounter. After she listened to the whole story, there was a moment of silence on the line before she spoke. “Dammit,” she said. “This humanizes Coach K for me.”
Mystery Solved? A Convoluted Story About A Small Deli That’s Worth $113 Million, Made Slightly Less Convoluted
During my call for North Carolina mysteries, a Twitter user threw this one at me:
Good question! I finished The Big Short, I thought, so surely I’d be able to decipher what was going on here. Nope! This story was basically written in financial Latin, and I’m not sure even the writer knew what he was writing about.
However! Thanks to The New York Times Magazine, I’ve gone from No Idea What’s Going On to I Sort Of Think I Know What’s Going On. Basically, a very small New Jersey deli was listed on a stock exchange you may have never heard of. One of the small backers of that deli, when it seemed to be a regular old deli, was Tryon Capital, which is based here in North Carolina. Then, in 2019, Peter Coker Jr., the son of Tryon’s managing director, took the company public, became the majority shareholder, and encouraged investment in the deli from A HONG KONG HEDGE FUND. The ensuing rise in stock price made the value of the company skyrocket to $113 million. What was the revenue of that company last year? $13,976!
Why is this happening? Well, it’s complicated. But basically, it’s a way for foreign firms to enter markets in the United States while bypassing a lot of time and regulatory headache. It doesn’t matter what the American company does. It just matters that it’s American. You really have to read the whole story to have a sense of what’s going on, and there doesn’t seem to be anything untoward happening here. It’s just strange to us non-finance folks.
By the way, I tweeted this story yesterday, and The New York Times added it to a Twitter moment, so technically, that tweet marks my Times debut. Ma, I made it.
Some Dude Got Into A Plane To Buy A Backpack Off Of Me
Last week, I went on Facebook Marketplace and listed an Osprey Poco backpack. It’s the pack you use to haul a kid around in the woods when they’re young. My kids, as they do, grew, and I wanted to unload it.
A guy messaged me, asked a few questions, and told me he’d take it. I’ll meet you at a tiny, grass airstrip in Oak Ridge, he said. Here, I thought he just lived nearby. No. He was going to swoop down in a small plane to pick up my backpack. I know, he wrote me, this is weird.
I had to work on the day he wanted to get the pack, so I met him at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem instead. I told some people about what was going on, and their responses fit into these categories:
Are you selling drugs?
Does he think the backpack is full of drugs?
Is he coming to murder you?
Will he murder you for the drugs he thinks are in the backpack?
Nope! The guy is a flight instructor at Liberty University, and he was making a few rounds in a small plane to check on some students. He had a moment, and figured he’d swoop down, Venmo me, scoop up the Osprey, and lift off again. I cannot stress how normal this transaction was. I met him in a parking lot at an airport service center. I never even saw his plane.
Sorry folks. I did not conduct a Facebook Marketplace transaction with El Chapo.
I did, however, get to stick my head in the terminal at Smith Reynolds, which is named for Z. Smith Reynolds, the would-have-been heir to a tobacco fortune who flew a lot and died suspiciously at age 21. His share of the inheritance went into a foundation that built a ton of stuff in Winston-Salem, including the airport. Its terminal remains delightfully Art Deco, if not mostly abandoned. I’m in awe of this aviation-themed stained glass window, which sits above the airport’s only gate and baggage return.
On Rick Bonnell
Rick Bonnell, who covered each and every Charlotte Hornets team for the Charlotte Observer, died unexpectedly this week. He was 63. The well-deserved tributes have been pouring in from around North Carolina, and from around the nation. This has been a particularly hard time for my friends at the Observer, who were reeling from the loss of a longtime photographer, David Foster III, just eight days before. My friend Tommy Tomlinson wrote eloquently about it all here.
I met Rick a few times during my days of running around Charlotte as a reporter. He was always friendly. I’d dip into a Hornets or Bobcats story occasionally. In some places, the beat writers look down on folks who only show up when there’s a big story. There’s this unwritten message they can shoot you with their eyes or body language or, even sometimes, a short comment. It’s usually: You’re a visitor here on my turf, you’re not here grinding it out and doing the hard work every day like I am.
Rick was never like that. He was just delightful to shoot the bull with in those scattershot moments when you’re all waiting around for a press conference to start, a practice to end, or a lull in the action. Other reporters and friends around Charlotte are saying this more eloquently than I am, and knew him as a mentor, a friend, and a curious observer.
I can only offer this observation: Rick Bonnell was one of the guys who was woven tightly into the fabric of Charlotte. He covered the Hornets since 1988. He was always responsive on Twitter. He had, literally, seen it all, and was one of those people who represented a bridge in Charlotte’s story. He’d observed and documented its rise from a sleepy but ambitious mid-size Southern town into a growth-fueled changing-by-the-minute metropolis. He was also accessible, and jumped into conversations with everyone. His reporting was both voluminous and always carried weight, which in an accomplishment considering that he had more than 11,000 bylines in his career. He could text Michael Jordan and get a response. I remember hanging out with the Bring Back The Buzz guys back when they were advocating a name change from the Bobcats to the Hornets. We were in the arena when one of them showed me a Rick Bonnell tweet that said Adam Silver thought it would happen. It was electrifying to them, but also, because it came from Rick, it was legit.
There are only a few people like this in every town, who always seem to leave us too soon, whose legacy is so large and yet so everyday that you can only realize its impact when their voice is suddenly extinguished. Outsiders like me realize that they’re never going to hear from Rick again. But larger than that, a generation of reporters has lost a mentor, many people have lost a friend, and his children and family have lost a father and a brother. I’m so sorry for everybody’s loss.