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Putting the ‘K’ in Lakers?

Times Staff Writer

The Lakers’ search for a coach has led them to Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was offered the job Thursday in a meeting in North Carolina with General Manager Mitch Kupchak, according to team sources.

Said a source close to the Lakers on Krzyzewski, who has won 621 games and three national titles in 24 seasons: “It’s his for the taking, his job to lose,” with a multiyear contract discussed at an estimated $8 million a year.

And Kupchak isn’t the only Laker who has spoken with Krzyzewski recently. Since the end of the season, Kobe Bryant also has spoken with him.

Kupchak returned to Los Angeles late Thursday night. Asked then if he’d made an offer to Krzyzewski, he said, “No comment.”

He would say only that he’d hoped to have a coach in place by “sometime next week.”

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“But,” Kupchak said, “it’s kind of moved back a little bit. There’s no real deadline other than the sooner the better.”

Kupchak and owner Jerry Buss interviewed Pat Riley on June 21 and Rudy Tomjanovich on June 22. Buss then flew to Italy, leaving Kupchak to finish the process. Through two weeks of the coaching search, it would appear that Riley was the first choice, Krzyzewski second and Tomjanovich third.

An NBA source, and another within the Laker organization, said the team’s interest in Krzyzewski stemmed in part from its wish to placate the vacillating Bryant, who is a free agent. Bryant has said he would have played for Duke had he not gone straight from Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High to the NBA eight years ago.

Since the end of the season, the Lakers have let coach Phil Jackson go and opened trade discussions for Shaquille O’Neal -- apparent attempts to entice Bryant, who has feuded with both, to re-sign.

The Lakers had pondered Krzyzewski previously, according to team sources said, most recently when they hired Jackson in 1999. His name had arisen, though it is unclear whether contact was made with Duke, before Mike Dunleavy was hired in 1990 and four years later, when Del Harris was hired.

Duke Athletic Director Joe Alleva said the discussions between Kupchak and Krzyzewski were “serious.”

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with him the last few days,” Alleva said. “Obviously, we’re going to try to do everything we can to keep him in college basketball.... I don’t know how close they are. I hope they’re not very close.”

Krzyzewski, 57, has a lifetime contract with Duke, signed in 2001. The deal runs through 2011, when Krzyzewski reaches the university retirement age of 65. The contract is open-ended, however, and could be extended. It also gives him the title of “special assistant to the [university] president.”

Asked what more the school could offer, Alleva said, “Well, we’ll work on it.”

Contact was made between the Lakers and Krzyzewski, according to a source in the Duke athletic department, early in the week, after Kupchak notified Alleva and Duke President Richard Brodhead. Alleva said he’d been approached “quite numerous” times before by NBA teams in regard to Krzyzewski, who’d been courted most notably by the Boston Celtics in 1990 and the Portland Trail Blazers four years later.

And although the source said Krzyzewski had been approached by the NBA “every year,” the Lakers “are a unique franchise and a unique situation. You have to listen.... I know it wouldn’t go this far unless it was serious.”

The news that the Lakers had entered into negotiations with Krzyzewski drew nationwide interest midafternoon.

ESPN broke into its coverage to televise Alleva’s news conference, and employees at Duke were blindsided.

“The people I talked to were shocked,” the Duke source said. “It had been a tightly held secret. Of course we all want him to stay.”

News reports Thursday night out of Durham said dozens of students and fans had gathered at “Krzyzewskiville,” just outside the Blue Devils’ home court, with signs urging the coach to stay.

Krzyzewski has resisted NBA advances for years, but those trying to explain his sudden curiosity point to the challenge of coaching the Lakers, the league’s glamour franchise in apparent and sudden disrepair, and the unstable state of the college game.

Krzyzewski had not lost a player early to the NBA until five years ago, when sophomores Elton Brand and William Avery and freshman Corey Maggette declared for the draft after losing to Connecticut in the NCAA championship game. Since then, Duke has been as vulnerable as many of the top-tier programs, this year losing Luol Deng after one season and recruit Shaun Livingston to the Clippers before Livingston made it to the campus.

“The state of college basketball is not the greatest in the world,” Alleva said. “I’m sure that’s frustrating.... But that’s the landscape of college basketball.”

Of course, situations in the NBA can be fluid as well, with the Lakers as proof positive. Jackson is gone just one NBA title short of a record. O’Neal has demanded a trade, Karl Malone is considering retirement and Bryant and Derek Fisher are free agents.

Many leading college coaches have returned to the college game after failed attempts in the NBA. Last month, Larry Brown became the first to win an NCAA title and an NBA championship, with 16 years between the two. Recently, Rick Pitino, Leonard Hamilton and John Calipari fared poorly in the NBA after successful college careers. Mike Montgomery left Stanford for the Golden State Warriors on May 21.

Krzyzewski is considered by many to have crossover value, that his college success is great enough to convince even the pro player. With the Lakers, he’d have the added benefit of being Bryant’s apparent coach of choice, assuming Bryant re-signs.

John Feinstein, an author, Duke graduate and friend of Krzyzewski, said the coach Krzyzewski would be torn.

“The factors that would keep him are he genuinely loves the place, he’s loyal to the kids, and he understands about legacies,” Feinstein said. “If he leaves now, his legacy will not be the same as if he coaches 10 more years and ends up winning more games than any college basketball coach in history and finishes with four or five national championships.”

Whether Krzyzewski’s style translates to the NBA, Feinstein said, “is the $64,000 question.”

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Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this report.


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