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Celtics

Coach K couldn’t be lured to Boston. But he did leave an imprint on the Celtics.

Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca (right), a 1977 Duke graduate, tried to hire Mike Krzyzewski (left) in 2004 to coach the team.Courtesy Steve Pagliuca

After Jim O’Brien stepped down as Celtics coach during the 2003-04 season, team co-owner Steve Pagliuca had an unusual idea for a replacement. He knew it was a long shot, but he was hopeful that it just might work.

Pagliuca had played on Duke’s freshman basketball team in 1974, graduated in 1977, and maintained a deep connection to the university and its athletic program. So he called the legendary men’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, and gave his best pitch.

“I tried,” Pagliuca said by phone Monday. “But he wanted to be at Duke. I don’t really think we were especially close to getting him, because he had such an iconic program and he was so happy there. But if he was going to coach anywhere else, I think it probably would have been for the Lakers or the Celtics.”

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Krzyzewski stayed with the Blue Devils and went on to win his fourth and fifth NCAA championships, and when this season ends, he will retire as the winningest coach in Division 1 history, with 1,196 entering the postseason.

Although Krzyzewski turned down Pagliuca’s overtures nearly 20 years ago, his connection to the Celtics strengthened over time anyway. He coached Pagliuca’s sons Joe and Nick, he developed a friendship with president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, and he helped mold franchise cornerstone Jayson Tatum.

“For me, when I watch all these different [college teams] play, I’m really drawn from the outside to true programs,” Stevens said by phone. “And that clearly is a special, special culture and program.”

Stevens first met Krzyzewski when the Duke coach spoke at Stevens’s alma mater, Division 3 DePauw University. Stevens was working in basketball operations at Butler then, and he joined Krzyzewski at a small dinner prior to his speech. Stevens said they next crossed paths at the 2010 Final Four, when he was Butler’s coach, and Duke eventually defeated his team for the title.

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In the spring of 2017, the Celtics were trying to decide what to do with the No. 1 overall draft pick when they began to zero in on Tatum, who had just finished his freshman season at Duke.

Jayson Tatum got his start with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.Gregory Shamus

Tatum had held individual workouts in Los Angeles for the Celtics, 76ers, and Suns, who owned the first, third, and fourth selections. Tatum was certain the Celtics were going to select Washington star point guard Markelle Fultz, but there were some clues that they had other ideas. Stevens called Krzyzewski and asked about Tatum.

“He very accurately said that Jayson is going to be a star,” Stevens said.

Stevens also revealed to Krzyzewski that the Celtics were considering trading their pick to the 76ers and moving down to No. 3. Soon after, Krzyzewski called Tatum and shared this news with him, and he told him he should go to Boston for a workout. Tatum was reluctant, but he went in part because of the nudge from Krzyzewski.

The Celtics made the trade, selected Tatum, and he has been named an All-Star in each of the last three seasons.

“Coach K always thought Jayson was very, very special,” Pagliuca said.

Krzyzewski and Pagliuca grew increasingly close, particularly when Pagliuca’s two sons went to play for Duke. In 2006, Joe Pagliuca underwent back surgery at a Boston hospital, and the first call after the procedure was from Krzyzewski. Nick Pagliuca was a member of Duke’s last title team, in 2015, and was later a teammate of Tatum’s.

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Pagliuca, who was elected to Duke’s Board of Trustees in 2013, has even gotten his own taste of playing for Coach K: He has attended Duke’s fantasy camps almost every summer for the past 15 years.

When Duke visited Boston College earlier this season, COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult to find a gym, so the Celtics opened up their practice facility, the Auerbach Center, for the Blue Devils.

In the fall, Stevens went to Duke for several days and attended one of the Blue Devils’ practices to scout.

Brad Stevens speaks with the media in 2017 after the Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum.Charles Krupa

“And it was exactly what you’d expect,” he said. “A super-connected group working really hard together at a place they all believed in, playing for a person they all loved. It was really cool.”

Last Saturday, Pagliuca and his family flew to Durham, N.C., to attend Krzyzewski’s final home game. Joe and Nick were among the 96 former Duke players in attendance at Cameron Indoor Stadium, along with celebrities such as Jerry Seinfeld.

Tatum was unable to make the trip because the Celtics had a 1 p.m. game against the Nets Sunday. But he honored his former coach by erupting for 54 points in the Celtics’ 126-120 win.

“An incredible run,” Tatum said. “Forty-two years.”



Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.