DENVER - A year ago, in a somber dressing room in Seattle a long way from here, Christian Laettner sat alone and wept.For a long time he could not speak, and nosy reporters kept a respectful distance.
Then he was sobbing to anyone who would hear.
``I let them down,' he said, looking across the room where Danny Ferry and Quin Snyder, two seniors who had just run out of college games, sat still in their uniforms, reluctant to remove the royal blue and white for the last time.
Suddenly, Ferry nodded to Snyder. No words were spoken. None were needed. Together the two seniors walked across the dressing room to stand there in a soft moment with a heart-broken freshman.
``It's all right,' said Ferry, who shared last year's college player of the year honors with Arizona's Sean Elliott. ``Just get back to the Final Four and win it for us.'
Laettner swallowed heard. ``Yeah. I'll try,' he said softly, not believing.
Fat chance, with Ferry heading to Italy, with Snyder heading off to business school and the rest of his life, with a high school kid named Bobby Hurley on the way to take his place.
Fat chance that Duke could ever make it to Denver.
But Laettner and Hurley and Robert Brickey and Alaa Abdelnaby tried. Oh, how they tried. And Mike Krzyzewski coached. Oh, how he coached.
Monday night, Duke will try to win it all for the first time ever. For Ferry and Snyder? Sounds good, but they'll try to win this one for their coach.
Their coach, who was being compared to the NFL Denver Broncos' Dan Reeves, whose team plays just across the street from this arena. Reeves wins a lot of games. He doesn't win the big ones.
But Krzyzewski won a mighty big one here Saturday afternoon and when it was over the team's Blue Devil mascot paraded around the McNichols Arena floor with these words printed on his headband: This Little Piggy Went Home.
Such an improbable thing, this.
This was the year in which the Duke basketball team graded out at no better than a B-plus, according to enterprising young sports writers back on campus.
They're doing right well with their finals, thank you.
And a year ago, no one knew if Abdelnaby would ever become anything more than a novelty, an Egyptian playing basketball.
``When I first got to Duke, I asked myself if I was in over my head,' he said. ``Off the court, everything was great. But all through my first three years, I thought, 'Hey, can I cut this? Can I handle this level of competition?' '
Saturday, and through most of March, he answered the question. Oh, how he can handle it now, handle it so well he burned Arkansas for 20 points Saturday afternoon.
But no one turned Arkansas' 40 minutes of hell into a Razorback purgatory the way Phil Henderson did. He scored 28 points, and hit the biggest 3-pointer of his career - so far - when he punched Arkansas' return ticket to Fayetteville 4:02 from the end with a shot that gave Duke an 87-81 lead and started a celebration in the far reaches of this noisy house.
Amazing. Phil Henderson wasn't going to be here. Said he'd rather be somewhere else when the summer grew long last year, and then gave up his team captaincy, an honorary thing, just to come back. Couldn't have happened without Henderson. Henderson, who less than three weeks ago was calling his teammates babies, saying they didn't care.
Oh, how they care now.
But Henderson said it couldn't have happened without the real captain, Krzyzewski.
``It's amazing,' he said. ``He can take a new group of guys each year and not have just a winning season, but a great season.'
Win or lose Monday night, this is what is known as a great season.
An unlikely great season.
Couldn't have happened without Robert Brickey, the spiritual leader and one of the seniors on this year's team. Brickey can forget all the other Final Four disappointments for the moment.
Forget that visit to Dallas two years ago when an allergic reaction to penicillin robbed him of his strength at a most cruel moment in his career, when he was not certain he would ever have another shot at a Final Four and a national championship.
He can forget, too, that big 26-8 lead he and Duke had against Seton Hall in Seattle last year in the Final Four, and the shooting pain in his upper leg and hip when he fell heavily. He tried to play again, but half a Brickey or less wasn't enough.
Now he can forget the badge of courage he wears on his right knee as a bulky brace against an early season injury. And the tightly wrapped upper thigh and the annoying hamstring muscle held in place there, his reminder of the success last week in the Meadowlands against Connecticut, the victory that got him and his buddies to this moment in Duke basketball history.
Perhaps late Monday night, Laettner can know that Ferry and Snyder understood as the three teammates stood hugged together in a special moment in Seattle.
Saturday afternoon, Christian Laettner was standing there at the free throw line with 1:38 to play when the crowd - Duke folks and Georgia Tech folks seated in opposite corners of this house - began chanting ``ACC! ACC! ACC!'
Laettner sank both free throws.
Arkansas' ballyhooed ``40 minutes of hell' had just turned into one heavenly blowout for the Blue Devils.
The celebration by then was well under way with high fives and hugs along the Duke bench. And when Krzyzewski pulled Abdelnaby and waited for the cheering to die, and then pulled Laettner from the game as well and got an ovation for him, the two big men stood there, 14 seconds from the championship game Ferry and Snyder had wanted so badly, hugging.
Hurley stayed until the end. Hurley, the freshman described in a boastful moment Friday by Arkansas guard Arlyn Bowers as the ``head' of the Duke team. ``Coach told us to cut off the head of this team, and Hurley's the head,' he had said.
But Hurley and not Bowers will be staying in town for one more game. Not even Hurley thought this would happen.
A year ago, when Duke beat Georgetown in the Meadowlands to advance to the Final Four at Seattle, high schooler Hurley called Krzyzewski to congratulate him.
``I asked if he could get me tickets to the Final Four,' Hurley said. ``I had never been to one.
``He said to me, 'Bobby, you should go to the Final Four when you play in it.' I never thought a year ago I'd get to go this soon.'
Naw. Freshmen can't get you here. Can't handle this pressure. Krzyzewski understood that.
``It took me a while to figure out he was going to run this team,' the Duke coach said. ``We must have practiced 15 minutes the first day before I knew.'
Hurley had only three points, but oh, how he tormented Arkansas.
With Ferry gone, with a rookie running the show, no way this was going to happen.
But it did.