That crash was represented in the first photo Jon sent, the one capturing him in a heap on the sideline at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas a moment after Golden State Warriors wing Joe Ingles poked his right eye with such force and at such an ill-fated angle that Scheyer’s eyelid was cut, his retina torn and his optic nerve significantly damaged.
In that moment, as an undrafted rookie playing for the Miami Heat in the NBA Summer League, Scheyer couldn’t comprehend the career detour he had just encountered. He began that day as a recently crowned national champion at Duke and a confident shooting guard determined to win a roster spot alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“I was going to stick,” Scheyer says. “I promise you. I was going to make that team.”
Before he knew it, Scheyer was instead in a trauma hospital in Nevada with his right eye swollen, full of blood and blinded and his NBA aspirations suspended. To this day, that summer league snapshot elicits a certain level of grief for the whole family.
But in that same post this summer, Scheyer also provided an uplifting picture, a grinning selfie from his fifth-floor office inside the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center at Duke. Twelve years to the day after suffering that gruesome eye injury, Scheyer reminded his family that everything, as usual, had turned out OK.
His smile was now that of a proud and determined 34-year-old attacking another day as the new king on the Duke basketball throne, the successor to the legendary Mike Krzyzewski as the Blue Devils head coach.
Here Scheyer was now with his limitless energy, a clear vision for the future and an opportunity no one in the family could have dreamed of.
Call it fate or destiny if you’d like. More accurately, this was simply the latest grand payoff for Scheyer’s immeasurable audacity.
“When you set big goals, you have to go for it,” he says. “I just don’t know any happy medium. You have to go for it. Like this opportunity now? I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Are you kidding me?”
To many inside the college basketball world, what Scheyer is attempting in replacing Coach K and pushing to uphold the prestige of Duke basketball is the equivalent of trying to cross the Grand Canyon on a piece of tight dental floss.
He is following a sports icon, the owner of a Division I men’s record 1,202 victories plus 13 Final Four appearances and five national championships. And he is doing so with a program that is at once one of the country’s most admired and respected but also one of the most despised and scrutinized. The outside pressure already has built.
“I get it,” Scheyer says. “You’re never supposed to be the guy who replaces the guy.”
Krzyzewski, though, sees this situation differently, certain Scheyer has every qualification needed to experience a long run of success. Everything in Scheyer’s playing and coaching background points in that direction.
“This,” Krzyzewski says, “is what he’s supposed to do. That’s the very first thing.
“When I recruited Jon, you saw it immediately: He was a natural. The game came so easy to him. There wasn’t really one thing that he did great. He just was great. And you saw that from the beginning.”
Five national championship banners hang from the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Two, Krzyzewski points out, have Scheyer’s fingerprints — from 2010 as a player and 2015 as an assistant coach.
Scheyer knows his climb — from the youth ranks in Chicago’s northern suburbs to the pros to the coaching world — has given him invaluable insight into the secrets of team building and the ideal methods for pursuing success. He also never has felt more confident in his ability to excel, reassured by the preparation he put in over the past decade to set himself up for coaching success.
“That doesn’t mean I’m not nervous,” Scheyer says. “It doesn’t mean I’m not afraid of certain things. Of course I am. But I have always been wired to take the most challenging route. And this, obviously, is going to be a challenging route.”
On Tuesday, after early season home victories over Jacksonville and South Carolina Upstate, Scheyer will bring his seventh-ranked Blue Devils to Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to face No. 5 Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic. This will be the first big-stage, bright-lights game of Scheyer’s head coaching tenure.
More importantly for an unproven coach leading a young Blue Devils team with grand aspirations for this season, this is another growth opportunity, a moment to be attacked with enthusiasm and ambition.
That’s the only approach Scheyer knows and the attitude he plans to take into every day as Duke’s coach.
“Jon is just fearless,” his mom, Laury, says. “He is. I don’t know any other way to explain it. He has just always loved a challenge.”
At a bare minimum, Scheyer’s family knows Jon is walking onto the big stage the way he always has, with eagerness and positive energy. He is fully aware of the intense pressure but truly enjoys the stakes, appreciates the grind and is excited to chase his next big basketball conquest.
“I want high-level pressure,” Scheyer says. “I love that. Because usually that means you have an amazing opportunity.”
II: Side by side
Perhaps Laury Scheyer should have seen this coming when the youngest of her three children was 8 years old. As an aggressive but scrawny kid playing in a Small Fry league in Highwood, Jon wound up on the floor frequently, collision after collision, spill after spill.
In those earliest days, he tended to stay down a while, writhing and bellowing and worrying his mother just about every time.
“There’d be these falls where you’d get that big reaction,” Laury says. “The big ‘Oooooh!’ Then Jon would stay down.”
One day, Laury decided she’d had enough of those mini anxiety attacks, the hands-over-the-mouth, “Please be OK!” episodes in the bleachers. So she issued a warning.
Next time that happens, I’m running onto the court to make sure you’re OK.
Jon never really stayed down again.
“That was my moment,” he says. “From then on, I would just jump right back up.”
As it turns out, that became a life skill, a character strength Scheyer used continually to prove he is made of rubber, bouncing higher from every disappointment, every fall, every failure.
Thus, when Scheyer thinks about the challenges he’s facing as Duke’s new coach and the inevitable setbacks, he exudes an infectious aura of self-belief, knowing the origins of that confidence.
“Look,” he says. “I know my history.”
As a freshman at Glenbrook North High School in 2003, for example, Scheyer and the Spartans took an exhilarating joyride downstate, reaching the IHSA Class AA state semifinals. That was farther than any team in school history had gone.
But Glenbrook North’s season ended with a gut-wrenching, one-point loss to Thornwood. The Spartans squandered a six-point lead in the final 90 seconds, and Thornwood guard Eric Gray drained a deep game-winning 3-pointer with 9 seconds remaining — over Scheyer.
The next morning, Scheyer cut his picture from the newspaper, a black-and-white photo that captured him face down and in tears on the Carver Arena floor in front of a Thornwood celebration mob.
He taped that image to his bedroom wall and pledged to leave it there until he had a picture of the Spartans winning a state championship. His parents asked several times in the ensuing months and years if he was ready to pull that photo down. They were emphatically rejected.
Two seasons later, Scheyer and Glenbrook North won it all, seizing the Class AA state championship trophy with a 63-51 defeat of Carbondale.
“True to his word,” Laury says.
Adds his father, Jim: “He just wills certain things to happen.”
Naturally, after that triumph, Scheyer grabbed a new photo of him and his Spartans teammates celebrating at the final buzzer. He collected that picture not to replace the 2003 image of despair but to pair with it. Side by side.
For Scheyer, those two moments were unquestionably linked.
Scheyer also has photographic evidence of his early struggles at Duke, most notably a snapshot from the Blue Devils’ 79-77 first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Virginia Commonwealth in his first season. That picture shows Scheyer as a tired, battered freshman, again near tears and with a gash beneath his left eye that left blood streaming down his face.
That might as well have been the cover photo of Duke’s 2006-07 season, an 11-loss uppercut that shook the program and reminded Scheyer of how much work and struggle accompany the pursuit of excellence.
That team experienced a four-game losing streak in early February, a jarring skid that knocked Duke out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in more than a decade. An avalanche of outside criticism ensued.
At that time, every player since 1983 who had spent four years in the Duke program with Krzyzewski had gone to a Final Four. Imagine the weight for a freshman enduring a midseason slide.
Compounding the heaviness, Duke lost its final four games in March as well, including a double-digit loss to rival North Carolina, a first-day exit from the ACC Tournament and that crushing defeat to VCU, with Rams guard Eric Maynor hitting the game-winning jumper with 1.8 seconds remaining — over Scheyer.
Duke assistant coach Chris Collins, a fellow Glenbrook North alumnus and trusted big brother to Scheyer, printed the photo of the bloody Blue Devils freshman from that night in Buffalo, N.Y., and directed him to keep it. Don’t forget this, Collins told Scheyer.
“Jon probably weighed a buck-75 at that point. He looked like he hadn’t had a meal in a month,” Collins says. “He had been elbowed in the face. He’s bleeding. He looked gaunt. And the pain on his face and the dejection was obvious.”
Collins knew that moment could become an instant fuel source, pushing Scheyer to continue busting his gut to become a unifying leader for the program, energizing him in the chase of his ultimate goal.
“Fast forward now three years later,” Collins says. “The picture became Jon with his hands in the air. On the cover of Sports Illustrated. After winning the national championship.”
Once again, Scheyer had a two-photo union that said everything.
III: Going all in
Nineteen years and a million achievements removed from his fourth-grade basketball season, Scheyer still recalls in vivid detail the AAU Nationals in Orlando, Fla., where his North Shore Express team played up a grade level and, uh, really struggled.
“We got our asses kicked if you want to know the truth,” Scheyer says.
Did that sting? Hell, yes. But those kinds of moments have always invigorated Scheyer. And that trip to Florida might have offered one of the first signs of his intrepid wiring.
“You go down there and you quickly realize it’s a big world,” Jim Scheyer says.
For Jon, it was an instant energizer. His eyes lit up. There were zero signs of intimidation.
Says Jim: “It was like, ‘OK. I know what’s out there now. I know what to shoot for and aspire to.’”
Scheyer learned early how to think big and swing bigger, always seeking a high degree of difficulty. As he approached high school and many around the community encouraged his parents to move from Northbrook, to find a more elite program than Glenbrook North to maximize his potential, Jon scoffed.
“Why though?” Scheyer says now. “To me there was something to be said for trying to win a championship in my hometown. That to me was a moment in my life where you believe in yourself and you go for it.”
Sean Wallis recently dug up the letter Scheyer gave him before Glenbrook North began the 2005 IHSA state tournament. In 279 words — with vintage Scheyer wit and three times as much purpose — Wallis received marching orders from his close friend and fellow Spartans captain.
Time to turn everything up a notch, Scheyer emphasized. No moment is to be taken for granted. State championship or bust.
“We have played together all our lives,” Scheyer wrote, “and I know for damn sure that I would never be right if you and I didn’t end it together on top. I know that you feel the same.”
Scheyer exhorted Wallis to help raise the urgency of every practice.
“Guys need to be talking and working hard every minute,” he wrote. “I think guys will follow your lead if you kick up the intensity another couple of gears. We have to get the guys realizing how quickly it could end.”
One by one, Scheyer went through the entire Glenbrook North roster, typing every teammate a personalized letter, reminding each what he could bring to the mission and urging them all to understand the significance of their opportunity.
“This is a 17-year-old writing letters upon letters upon letters,” Wallis says. “And not just to the starting five but to every kid on the team. Jon had a touch to that.”
Wallis appreciated the earnestness in Scheyer’s writing because he had witnessed his buddy’s investment. Wallis had been in the car on the way to middle school travel games as Scheyer studied their previous game on the credit-card-sized screen of a camcorder.
He had watched the endless hours Scheyer spent in the gym, dribbling, shooting, sweating to squeeze the most out of himself and those around him.
He recognized the grand vision Scheyer had. Most importantly, Wallis believed in all of it.
“With Jon, it was always just like, ‘This is how it’s going to go,’” Wallis says.
And usually that’s how it went.
In his letter to Wallis, before specifying Glenbrook North’s first postseason objective — to “take care of business and kill Prospect” in the regional opener — Scheyer hammered the Caps Lock key.
“SEANY, THIS IS OUR LAST RUN TOGETHER, LET’S MAKE IT ONE WHERE WE CAN TALK ABOUT IT THE REST OF OUR LIVES.”
“And here we are,” Wallis says now, “still talking about it.”
Scheyer knew that over a three-week stretch, with proper concentration and team unity, he could chase down one of his biggest boyhood goals. Best of all, he could do it as part of a group that meant so much to him.
“Those were my boys,” Scheyer says. “Growing up since we were 5 and 6 years old. It was just like, ‘Here we are.’”
Here they were.
On March 11, 2005, the Spartans found themselves in a palm-sweating sectional championship game versus Conant, up one point in the fourth quarter but in a prolonged state of anxiety as their opponent stalled for the final four-plus minutes to play for a final shot.
On the day Glenbrook North coach Dave Weber’s mom died, Scheyer and the Spartans found a way to make one final stop in a 37-36 victory.
Four nights later, a new challenge presented itself in the Loyola University Supersectional against Waukegan. During the pregame captains meeting, the Bulldogs leaders made a calculated decision to ignore Scheyer at midcourt.
“They didn’t shake our hands and wouldn’t look at us,” Scheyer says. “(They were) looking off in the opposite direction.”
As if right back in that moment, Scheyer starts to grow agitated.
“That’s fine,” he says. “That’s fine.”
Says his dad: “Jon doesn’t need much.”
Scheyer pulled his hand back. And when that meeting with the officials ended, he gathered his teammates and went off.
“Started swearing a lot,” he says, “I just said: ‘It’s on. Here’s what we’re about to do.’ ”
In a 70-58 victory, Scheyer exploded for 48 points to punch the Spartans’ ticket back downstate.
“Should have been 50,” he says. “I missed a dunk.”
Once downstate, the Spartans rolled past Brother Rice in the quarterfinals and blew out Rockford Jefferson the next day. Now here they were, at the end of Scheyer’s envisioned postseason blitz, toppling Carbondale and hoisting the state championship trophy.
Even then, as a precocious teenager, Scheyer realized the pursuit of grand goals required a willingness to go all in. With everything. Effort. Concentration. Emotions.
“I felt like my voice and the impact that could have on our team was as great as anything else,” he says.
As one of the most well-rounded high school basketball players in Illinois history and with an elite feel for the game, Scheyer added something else to the championship gas tank, filling it with belief — in his own abilities and preparation but also in the connection of his team.
More than 17 years later, Scheyer knows why he took all that time to address each Spartans player in writing, why he directed his energy in that manner.
“Nothing,” he says directly, “was more important to me.”
IV: On a mission
Without diving deep into the details, Scheyer’s continual pursuit of success can be summed up as a two-step process: Envision it. Make it happen.
That’s what has propelled Scheyer this far, and it’s the approach he’ll use as Duke’s coach to continue a championship legacy.
“You have to believe something before you achieve it,” he says. “And I’ve never struggled with that belief part.”
In an instant, he rewinds to the home stretch of his four-year Duke career and specifically to March 3, 2010, inside the visiting locker room at Maryland. With a chance to clinch the ACC regular-season title that night, the Blue Devils had played hard, stayed together and put on one of their better performances of the season — and still lost by seven.
In the final week of the regular season, Scheyer found himself face to face with one of life’s harshest realities: Even endless dedication and laser focus guarantee nothing.
The ticking clock of his college career sounded like a jackhammer. He sat against a brick wall in the Comcast Center locker room with tears leaking from his eyes.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “Vividly.”
At that point, Scheyer’s final season as a Blue Devil had only three guaranteed games remaining. One final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and then college basketball’s big dance.
Yes, Scheyer was closing in on 2,000 points, finishing his career ninth on Duke’s all-time list. Sure, he was the 2009 ACC Tournament MVP after leading the Blue Devils to that championship a year earlier. As a senior captain, he had become a shoo-in for first-team all-conference honors.
But he had yet to win an ACC regular-season title. He had yet to lead Duke past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. He hadn’t come close to reaching his true destination — winning it all.
Scheyer suddenly felt shaken by the reality that he had reached his final month as a Duke player and his legacy was incomplete.
Perhaps that defeat in College Park, Md., was perfectly timed, triggering Scheyer’s determination and providing one last burst of oxygen to his competitive fire.
It had been 32 days since Duke’s previous loss, an 89-77 beatdown by No. 7 Georgetown in Washington with President Barack Obama sitting courtside. That loss caught the eighth-ranked Blue Devils’ attention, a galvanizing moment that triggered lineup changes and a renewed sense of purpose, especially for Duke’s five upperclassman starters.
The loss at Maryland, though, hit differently.
“It was because we did everything,” Scheyer says. “We prepared, we played hard. We did absolutely everything except make a couple plays we should have made and could make, the kinds of things we were going to have to do to go on and win the whole thing.”
From the bus, Scheyer sent his mom a text.
We are not losing again.
A few nights later, during the Blue Devils senior dinner with Krzyzewski and his family at the University Club near campus, Scheyer was asked to pick out the most memorable moment of his Duke career. He responded quickly.
Hasn’t happened yet.
“It was an honest answer. That’s it,” Scheyer says. “I truly believed that.”
Every morning and every night, Scheyer fueled himself with the same mantra: I came here to win a national championship.
At that point, no one was going to talk him into settling.
Envision it. Make it happen.
Bothered by the loss to the Terrapins, Scheyer and the Blue Devils tightened their bond.
“There is a toughness and a togetherness you can only develop through failure,” Scheyer says. “With that group, we had it.”
What followed was one of the most exhilarating periods of Scheyer’s basketball life, a 31-day climb to college basketball’s mountaintop.
Duke hammered rival North Carolina by 32 points on Scheyer’s senior night.
The Blue Devils blitzed Virginia, Miami and Georgia Tech to win the ACC Tournament.
Then, with an intense microfocus on each step in the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils proceeded through the bracket. Round of 32. Sweet 16. A 78-71 survival against Baylor in an electric Elite Eight showdown in Houston to reach the Final Four.
On the season’s final night, as the final buzzer sounded on Scheyer’s college career, the result of the national championship game was still in question. If only outsiders realized what was riding on the flight of that leather Wilson that Butler’s Gordon Hayward launched from just beyond midcourt at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That was the final moment of Scheyer’s four-year Duke journey, the shot that would determine once and for all if he could check the box on the one college goal that meant the most to him.
Hayward’s half-courter looked good on release too.
Says Lance Thomas, a Blue Devils co-captain: “I truly believe this: The universe doesn’t make mistakes.”
Maybe, then, it was a puff of wind or a collective gasp from that side of the stadium. But Hayward’s shot kissed the backboard, the rim and the cheek of destiny before landing on the hardwood.
Duke survived 61-59. National champions.
“If that had gone in,” Scheyer says, “I would have been devastated. Devastated.”
Instead, he experienced a rush of elation like he never had felt.
“We were rewarded for the entirety of our four years that we put in,” Thomas says. “The time, the effort. The blood, sweat and tears. The long, hard practices. The challenging meetings, the extra film sessions, the extra preparation, all the different conversations that were had. The universe doesn’t make mistakes.”
In the end, a little more than a month after that jarring loss at Maryland, Scheyer and the Blue Devils had won four championships: ACC regular season, ACC Tournament, NCAA South Regional, NCAA title.
All these years later, Krzyzewski describes that team, the journey of the starting five and that championship run as “pure.” He recalls that group as “unflappable.” Never flashy. Rarely spectacular. But, in their legendary coach’s words, they turned themselves into “a very difficult team to beat.”
“That was one of the most together groups I’ve ever had,” Krzyzewski says. “Those guys loved one another. And they shared everything. Although all of them were really good, not one of them stood out above the others. And they loved that.
“They were brothers. And they showed it.”
Thomas loves the way that group responded to years of struggle and grew from it.
“We got our noses rubbed in (crap),” he says. “We were broken early in our careers. But our spirit was never broken. And once we locked in, there was a bond of making sure we didn’t let each other down.”
Chris Collins, then a Duke assistant coach, still gets goosebumps thinking about that season and that run.
Collins was a teenager when his dad was coaching Michael Jordan with the Bulls. He was a McDonald’s All-American and Illinois’ Mr. Basketball in 1992 at Glenbrook North. He played in the NCAA championship game his freshman season at Duke and, as a Blue Devils assistant coach, went to three more Final Fours. In 2017, as Northwestern’s head coach, he brought the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and beat Vanderbilt in the first round.
Still, Collins says, nothing before or since has compared to the rush of Duke’s 2010 run.
“As much fun as I’ve ever had,” Collins says. “That was just a team that was on a mission. And all they cared about was team success.”
Scheyer’s role in that was unmistakable.
“His leadership was real,” Collins says. “And everything with him was so genuine. As motivated as he always was, he never let emotion get the best of him. And that carried over to his teammates. That’s why he’ll be such a good coach.”
V: A fork in the road
When Scheyer was in middle school, he wrote down three massive goals for his basketball career.
He wanted to become a McDonald’s All-American in high school. Check. (Glenbrook North, 2006.)
He wanted to win a national championship in college. Check. (Duke, 2010.)
He wanted more than anything in his life to play in the NBA.
Scheyer was certain he was on the doorstep of that final dream, ready to press the doorbell with the Heat, when he took that shot to the eye during that evening summer league game in July 2010 in Las Vegas.
The most grueling challenge of his life began.
Doctors told Scheyer that Joe Ingles’ finger not only had penetrated his right eye, but also had hooked inside and twisted it, causing an optic nerve avulsion and leaving him legally blind on that side.
Within a couple of days, upon a visit to two eye specialists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Scheyer heard a prognosis he had no intention of accepting.
It’s our belief you will never play basketball again.
Says Laury: “The doctors told us you usually only see injuries like this when someone goes through the windshield during a car accident.”
Laury had barely gotten the car out of the parking lot when Jon barked at her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But no one is going to (bleeping) tell me when I’m going to stop playing.”
Once the car was in the garage back home, Scheyer jumped out, tracked down a basketball and went directly to the driveway.
Jim and Laury didn’t bother saying anything. With heavy hearts, they simply offered space and watched at dusk as their son, with glasses on and a thick patch over his right eye, launched 25 3-pointers.
With every make, Scheyer backed up.
“It got to the point where I was off our driveway,” he says. “Shooting from the grass.”
Swish. Swish. Swish.
Twenty-three of those shots went down.
“(Bleep) them!” Scheyer said.
He slammed the ball down and walked inside.
While his summer league tryout with the Heat ended abruptly, Scheyer had no intention of packing it in, even with a demanding recovery process that required weeks of rest and inactivity.
Somewhat miraculously — and by his own admission, pretty recklessly — Scheyer found himself in training camp with the Los Angeles Clippers barely two months after the injury occurred. With only one useful eye but a surplus of will, Scheyer convinced himself his grit would prevail.
“I went for it,” he says. “And I’m still proud of that.”
Sure, he realizes now, that was a long-shot comeback attempt. Physically he wasn’t anywhere near ready to resume playing. Even more significantly, his brain hadn’t fully adjusted to or compensated for the eye damage. Scheyer was cut before camp ended.
His mood during that period was sullen as he coped with his lost vision and searched for direction in his basketball career.
Says close friend and high school teammate Sean Wallis: “It’s super hard when something has been at the core of your identity for your whole life and then all of a sudden it’s taken away in a manner where it can no longer be the way it always was.”
Jim Scheyer says that during that stretch Jon seemed far quieter than usual, “almost like he was in turmoil.”
Jon, though, describes it differently.
“For me, it was more about pursuing this dream I had always had.”
In April of that year, Scheyer was on top of the world as a national champion at Duke. In July, he was with the Heat and continuing his climb to the NBA. Then suddenly he became a perpetual patient, in and out of doctors offices and hospitals, undergoing tests, meeting specialists, seeking new treatments and pushing to accelerate his recovery.
Scheyer acknowledges he was edgy.
“But I don’t know that it was about my eye as much as it was the reality that I had a dream I hadn’t accomplished yet,” he says. “When I’m not succeeding, I’m not fun to be around. I don’t hide the fact that I’m not OK with that.”
After Scheyer’s swing at making the Clippers didn’t connect, he found other avenues he believed could circle him back to the NBA. Over the next two-plus years, he played for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA D-League; for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel; for the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2012 summer league squad; for Gran Canaria in Spain.
That, in itself, may be as impressive an achievement as anything on Scheyer’s basketball resume.
“Think about that,” Collins says. “Think about trying to play a game that requires the ultimate in depth perception and peripheral vision and everything else and now trying to do that with one eye. Jon did that successfully. At a high level professionally. For two years.”
Adds Scheyer: “I am proud of the attempt and the courage that took.”
Eventually, at 25, it became clear Scheyer’s playing days were numbered. He had reached his fork in the road. When Collins, who preceded Scheyer by 14 years at Glenbrook North and coached him for four seasons in college, left Duke to become Northwestern’s coach in March 2013, he reached out about the possibility of Scheyer joining him on the bench in Evanston.
“That got my wheels turning,” Scheyer says.
Collins’ move, however, also left an assistant coaching opening next to Krzyzewski.
Coach K had made it clear to Scheyer he always would have a home at Duke. Now, as Scheyer looked for the off ramp to his playing career, Krzyzewski offered the chance to return to his alma mater.
“He called me an idiot actually,” Scheyer says now. “He told me I’d be an idiot to consider going anywhere other than Duke.”
Never one to argue, Scheyer returned to campus to begin what became a nine-season apprenticeship, studying the game from a new vantage point but applying the same drive and passion.
Scheyer always knew he wanted to coach. He just figured he would start down that road in his mid-30s, not at 25.
At no point did he think his first head coaching job would be at Duke. As Coach K’s successor.
Once upon a time, Scheyer bought into the idea that everything in life happens for a reason and even convinced himself of that for the first year or so after his eye injury. But he long since has canceled that subscription.
“People say to me all the time it was my eye injury that led to me becoming the next head coach at Duke,” Scheyer says. “But it’s only because of how I handled that adversity and how much I poured into figuring things out and making the best of my predicament.
“It’s not like that happened and now this was given to me. I don’t believe in that.”
Given a chance to pivot into coaching, Scheyer did so with purpose and passion and kept his foot on the gas.
VI: Driven to lead
Laury Scheyer intends this as a heartfelt compliment of her son — mostly.
“Jon can be exhausting,” she says.
That might sound like a harsh descriptor. But those closest to Scheyer recognize and admire his surplus of passion, his indefatigable work ethic and his daily desire to squeeze the most out of himself. They also realize it can be hard to keep up.
Scheyer is self-aware enough to decipher the nuance in his mom’s description.
“I know I can be a lot sometimes,” he says with a nod. “But I believe it’s for good reason.”
That reason? Scheyer always has had grand goals plus an inherent desire to chase them as part of a group. During a basketball odyssey of more than 25 years, he has learned the true meaning of commitment and has a standing request for just about everyone in his orbit: Strive with me.
“Go look at any truly great athlete or coach or someone in the business world who has accomplished something big-time or special,” Scheyer says. “I’d bet 99% of them would be described by people around them as exhausting. You know?
“There’s a certain drive that is there and a certain drive that is needed.”
That should continue to serve Scheyer well during this next pressure-packed leg of his basketball journey. So, too, will his insatiable thirst to continue evolving as a leader. In late 2020, that led him to seek the counsel of Cmdr. Mark McGinnis, a former Navy SEAL who has become a renowned leadership consultant.
Long before even the faintest chatter of Krzyzewski retiring at Duke, Scheyer began formulating a blueprint for becoming a successful college head coach, a jump he believed would occur at another program. He wanted to compile a personalized playbook to take into job interviews, to have a comprehensive description of the culture he wanted to build plus a firm grasp on what exactly he was selling.
As part of that mission, he connected with McGinnis.
“I wanted to get an outside perspective and some fresh eyes on, ‘Hey, here’s who you are,’ ” Scheyer says. “I was trying to fully establish what I feel my strengths are. But we also worked together to identify my blind spots.”
McGinnis says he was so immediately impressed with Scheyer’s disposition and forward-thinking vision that he proclaimed at the end of their first phone call that Scheyer was destined to become the next head coach at Duke — i.e. Coach K’s replacement.
Scheyer laughed out loud.
Since that introduction, though, and after nearly two years of regular conversation plus a handful of on-campus meetings, McGinnis can’t say enough about Scheyer’s combination of self-belief and introspection, the way he trusts his instincts and preparation but also understands his shortcomings.
Scheyer, after all, reached out of his own accord, wired to seek self-improvement.
“People who are self-aware like that, who understand their limitations but are so inherently pushed to grow and who will go to great lengths to do so, man, look out,” McGinnis says. “Those are the people who are dangerous.”
Initially, McGinnis had Scheyer take a profile test with the results helping inform the duo of the traits and strengths Scheyer should seek in his assistants.
Scheyer also participated in a handful of mock interviews and used those experiences in spring 2021 when he became a top candidate for head coaching openings at UNLV and DePaul. (UNLV hired Kevin Kruger; DePaul went with Tony Stubblefield.)
Then in May 2021, when Krzyzewski held a surprise staff-only meeting at Duke to announce the 2021-22 season would be his last, Scheyer and McGinnis changed gears. He had a new application to file.
“Now we began prepping specifically for the Duke job,” McGinnis says.
Along with positive reinforcement, McGinnis reminds Scheyer they first linked up so the former military leader could provide honest, direct feedback. Some of that has been necessarily harsh.
Earlier this fall, when Scheyer expressed annoyance regarding the lack of urgency and productivity his assistant coaches had shown to a specific task — but then steered around a firm reprimand in that morning’s staff meeting — McGinnis hit him straight. That’s on you, man.
“Every time a leader points a finger, I’m really quick to remind them that there are three or four pointing back,” McGinnis says. “So they have to ask themselves some hard questions. Did I give my people clear direction? Did I give them the resources they needed to be successful? Has our training been adequate? Do I have the right person, just in the wrong role? Jon has to ask those questions of himself.”
Using feedback from so many around the Duke program who constantly compliment Scheyer’s kind and friendly nature, McGinnis also offered some seemingly counterintuitive advice.
“You have to stop being so damn nice,” McGinnis says.
That, he emphasizes, means Scheyer has to “sharpen his fangs,” protecting his time and becoming more direct and demanding when anyone in the program — his program — is not meeting the standard or tending to business with proper purpose.
McGinnis reminded Scheyer that as exhilarating as becoming the Duke coach has been, he now is trying to survive inside a shark tank. In a cutthroat sport inside a blue-blood program with the grandest of expectations, Scheyer can ill afford for his program to slip based on small lapses in concentration, focus or competitiveness.
In recent months, McGinnis urged Scheyer to transition from his comfort zone of being a top-tier recruiter and highly respected assistant coach into the undeniable head honcho at Duke. He must continue learning how to delegate, manage his time and create accountability from everyone under his command.
McGinnis also gave Scheyer a popular SEAL team mantra: “Move fast and break (stuff).” It’s a reminder to experiment, take chances and learn from mistakes on the fly.
“Mistakes are opportunities for growth when they’re handled the right way,” McGinnis says. “Jon needs to make a bunch of those.”
With a smile, Scheyer offers an alternative to his mom’s “exhausting” label.
“I’d say I’m relentless,” he says. “I don’t stop. Honestly. Failure, success, I keep coming.”
Maybe that’s part of what McGinnis means when he alludes to Scheyer’s “greatness X-factor,” that infectious quiet confidence that so naturally resonates.
“There’s a saying in my world that when all hell is breaking loose and they’re screaming and crying, look for the quiet guy,” McGinnis says. “Because he’s about to cut fence and go sort some (stuff) out.
“Jon is that guy. He just has that way about him.”
VII: Creating a bond
That way about Scheyer already has caught his players’ attention.
Forward Jacob Grandison, a graduate transfer from Illinois, recognizes this landmark transition in the history of Duke basketball and all the attention and pressure attached. But he also has been drawn to Scheyer’s equanimity.
“He’s kind of Tom Brady-esque,” Grandison says. “He’s always pretty calm, even in the fast-paced environment he’s always in. It’s calming for us to see him be as calm as he is. You already feel his confidence. And that creates trust.”
Scheyer wants his players to have that belief in him. Just as he wants them to commit to self-improvement and bond with each other.
He understands the idea of replicating his college journey is far-fetched. Teams rarely have three and four seasons to jell anymore, to experience hardship, to mature and grow. It’s his duty to speed up that growth.
Still, the DNA of championship teams remains mostly the same.
“You have to be tough,” Scheyer says. “You have to form trust. You have to communicate well. Even though all of this is on a different timetable than when I played, as far as how long you have to develop that, it doesn’t make it less important. You just have to be more creative with how you accelerate all of that.”
On a Thursday morning in September, Scheyer asked his players and coaches and several others from the Blue Devils program to come to Cameron Indoor Stadium before sunrise for a team-building activity.
He had invited singer, songwriter and Duke alumnus Mike Posner to share the story of his career breakthrough and subsequent battles with the trappings of fame.
Posner also intended to lead the Blue Devils through a Wim Hof breathing routine, a demanding meditation exercise designed to produce an almost trance-like state of relaxation while challenging participants to test their limits through breath.
It’s not exactly the most common 6 a.m. ritual for young adult males. So the initial skepticism from players and coaches was expected.
Somehow, though, over a span of 50 minutes or so, the moods swirling inside Cameron became palpable. Some players experienced numbness in their fingers and toes and profound lightheadedness. Others temporarily lost connection to time.
“That was weird,” says Blue Devils center Ryan Young, a graduate transfer from Northwestern. “We were doing it for almost an hour. But when we got up, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you if it had been 10 minutes or 2 hours.”
Others reached depths within the Wim Hof method that created an intense emotional release accompanied by uncontrollable tears.
“At the end of it, we got closer,” Grandison says. “When it got emotional for certain guys, there was a space for them to express what they felt. That all goes into the deposits of building a team.”
Assistant coach Amile Jefferson, an admitted “phobia guy,” confesses he checked out pretty early on the breath-holding orders yet still found his way to a contemplative state.
“It offered all of us time to reflect,” Jefferson says. “It was cool being with our group inside Cameron and having that moment to reflect on all that has been done in this gym. Those banners hanging above us. The floor we were on. Just thinking of all the winning that’s been done and the fans who have been here.”
To be clear, Cameron was empty.
“But you could feel the aura,” Jefferson says. “This place has a presence.”
Perhaps this was Scheyer’s new alternative to typing out a stack of letters. And in much the same way he used summertime dodgeball competitions and a field trip to the Drive Shack golf range to enhance chemistry, the Wim Hof experiment had its purpose.
“Those moments build a bond,” Jefferson says. “When you get to March, March asks, ‘What did you do in June and July, August and September?’ And to be honest, at that stage, you’re only as strong as your team’s bond. We’re creating that.”
VIII: Prepared for the job
When the news broke in June 2021 that Scheyer was Duke’s chosen one, selected to replace Krzyzewski as the Blue Devils coach, the reactions from those closest to him were similar. As Sean Wallis puts it, he was a bit surprised but then again not surprised at all.
“Of course it was Jon,” Wallis says. “Of course.”
Lance Thomas, Scheyer’s buddy, Duke classmate and co-captain during their college playing days, had immediate and full confidence in the move. Thomas always admired Scheyer’s basketball IQ but emphasizes how Scheyer’s pluck will feed a think-big mentality for the entire program.
“Jon has always been a cocky little SOB,” Thomas says. “But that didn’t stem from arrogance. It’s tied into his preparation. It’s like when you’re going to take a big test and you feel that surge of confidence because you spent all week studying.
“Jon is very confident because he has put in the work and the time. That brand of confidence spreads like wildfire.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college basketball and the rest of the world in 2020, Scheyer took his pursuit of leadership knowledge to an almost obsessive level. He read books, listened to podcasts, took on independent research projects. Whatever he could get his hands.
He listened to motivational talks from Brene Brown. He read “The Inner Game of Tennis” and “Atomic Habits.” He did extensive research into the climb of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, who was hired as an NFL head coach at age 30, went to his first Super Bowl at 32 and won the Lombardi Trophy last season at 36.
What started as an effort to prepare for a head coaching gig somewhere transformed — once Duke’s succession plan for Krzyzewski solidified — into preparation for the Blue Devils job specifically.
Scheyer studied UCLA’s program from the mid- to late 1970s, learning more about the Bruins’ journey after the legendary John Wooden retired. He looked into what happened at North Carolina in the early 2000s, when just a few years after Dean Smith retired, the Tar Heels program hit a brief but sharp decline.
He became fascinated with the way Steve Jobs reinvented the culture and vision at Apple, then took the company to unprecedented heights.
“I believe in preparation fueling confidence,” he says.
Scheyer believes his wealth of basketball experiences is more than sufficient to give him both credibility and a deep library of knowledge. Plus, for more than a third of his life, he has been beside Krzyzewski — four years as a player and nine as an assistant coach — taking a master class in basketball, leadership and team building.
Thomas says outsiders should understand the depth of that union and its importance to what’s ahead.
“For as long as I’ve known Jon, he has studied the game so much that it’s second nature for him to be able to make a read on the fly,” Thomas says. “He trusts his gut because he understands the game at a deeper level than most. Plus he has had the best mentor in sports. So if he ever had a question, he was getting the best advice and the best counseling from a legend who has seen everything.
“Think about that. You’re pairing someone who is an absolute basketball junkie and a devoted student of the game with the best teacher possible. It’s a match made in heaven.”
IX: Under the shadow
Even now, though, the historical significance and magnitude of this next step for Scheyer doesn’t always compute for those closest to him.
“Our big hope for Jon was that he’d be good enough to play high school basketball,” his mom says.
Laury still has episodes when she awakes in the middle of the night and can’t fully comprehend all of this, that it’s her son who made this remarkable rise but now faces the demands and pressure that come with it.
“It weighs on me,” Laury says. “I really have those moments. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God. This is really happening.’ You’re in disbelief. You’re fearful. You’re excited. It’s all of that.”
Scheyer’s friends, family and mentors can’t help but worry about how he’ll manage the intense time demands of his new role; how he’ll handle losing and all the increased scrutiny; how he’ll find life balance that will allow him to remain well-adjusted and connected with his wife, Marcelle, and their three children: Noa, 4, Jett, 3, and James, 6 months.
Then they remind themselves that Scheyer will figure it out.
“Jon always figures it out,” his dad says.
Scheyer understands his newest challenge, at least for the foreseeable future, will come with constant reminders of the magnitude of replacing Krzyzewski. His close friends from home pointed out last winter that during their lives there had been six U.S. presidents but only one Duke basketball coach.
Scheyer’s family has remarked that his office at Duke overlooks Krzyzewskiville, where students camp out for admission to games; that his practices are held inside the K Center; that he’ll coach his home games on Coach K Court under a banner that recognizes Krzyzewski as the NCAA Division I record holder for career victories.
Oh, and just for good measure, Krzyzewski still has his office one floor above Scheyer’s in the castle-like tower attached to Cameron.
“But no pressure,” Jim Scheyer says.
Somehow, little of this is daunting to Scheyer. Where others may see Coach K’s massive shadow, Scheyer feels his presence. He knows all they experienced together and how it shaped him. He also knows he still has Krzyzewski as a resource, able to pick his brain or simply think out loud just about whenever he wants.
“I’d be an idiot not to use that,” Scheyer says.
Scheyer marvels at the feel Coach K always seemed to have, able to strike the right tone with an instinct for when to get all over his players and when to be a source of encouragement and reassurance.
As much as anything, Scheyer appreciated how Krzyzewski didn’t seem to have an off switch, how on recruiting trips or postseason decompression getaways to Las Vegas, he was always taking notes, brainstorming, seeking new ideas.
“The most important thing I learned from him is that it never stops,” Scheyer says. “Ever. The level of discipline, passion and commitment you have to have to be that successful is incredible. He was a machine.
“Coach lost a lot of games. But he never lost a game because he wasn’t prepared. His commitment to preparation was as extraordinary as I’ve ever seen.”
X: ‘It’s yours now’
On the final weekend of last season, Scheyer walked out of the tunnel at the Superdome and onto the court for Duke’s Final Four clash with rival North Carolina and was instantly intoxicated.
Damn, what a feeling.
“Just an incredible buzz,” he says.
In Coach K’s final season, at the end of an emotionally taxing journey, a hungry Blue Devils squad had surfed the NCAA Tournament’s dangerous but exhilarating break almost perfectly.
Over a demanding nine-day span, with West Regional wins over Cal State Fullerton, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas, Duke punched its ticket to the Final Four.
Scheyer reflected on how much that group experienced and endured — in the season’s final five weeks alone.
In Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium — amid incredible pomp and circumstance and in front of 96 former Duke players — the Blue Devils were stunned by North Carolina.
A week later, after a pair of bounce-back wins in the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils were toppled again in the conference title game 82-67 by Virginia Tech.
Still, there was something within that group’s resolve, something about its collective drive and mettle that portended a magical run if the players could stick together and apply the lessons they were learning on the fly.
That’s why the program’s 17th Final Four trip resonated so deeply for those who were a part of it.
“We faced a unique brand of pressure,” Scheyer says. “But I think our group really developed that feeling of, ‘We know we all need each other.’ ”
That, to Scheyer, is the good stuff, the secret ingredient, the fuel for extraordinary achievement.
History will show Duke’s fairytale ending was replaced by what many consider a nightmare — a four-point loss in the national semifinals. To freakin’ North Carolina. In Coach K’s final game.
Make no mistake, Scheyer understands the final stages of that game offered his latest reminder of what a high-wire act it is when a team is seeking to make history.
“I still look back on a bunch of the key plays in that game,” Scheyer says, “and you recognize how crazy small the margin for error is. It’s a free throw. It’s a blockout. It’s a rebound. It’s a loose ball.”
Over the offseason, Scheyer watched the closing minutes of that loss more times than he could count. He took inventory on the championship-worthy plays the Blue Devils made and those they didn’t.
A clutch 3-pointer by Wendell Moore Jr. A shooting foul on Jeremy Roach. Two missed free throws by Mark Williams. The dagger 3 that North Carolina’s Caleb Love hit, somehow, over the outstretched left arm of Williams and his 7-foot-7 wingspan.
In a weird way, while uncomfortable memories were triggered, Scheyer experienced an endorphin rush that filled the motivation tank.
Failure, Scheyer has seen over and over again, is actually a how-to guide.
That’s why, even with only one player back who played in that season-ending loss, Scheyer hasn’t shied away from referencing the heartbreak.
“We talk a lot about the details,” he says. “If we’re talking about a rebound, you need to go get the ball. That might be the difference between winning and losing. If we’re talking about setting a screen or fighting through a screen, that might mean two points. And that might be the difference between your season ending or you going on to reach incredible heights.”
Has the agony of the Final Four loss to the Tar Heels dissipated? Hell, no.
“You learn how to hate it,” Scheyer says. “You learn from it. And then you figure out a way to chase another opportunity just like it.”
Hours after that loss, Scheyer found his way to Krzyzewski’s hotel room in New Orleans to visit and decompress and stayed past 4 a.m.
“That for me was a special moment I’ll never forget,” he says. “Coach K was at peace. He really was. You think of the astronomical numbers of his career — the wins, the Final Fours, the national championships. He had earned his opportunity to be in all those moments.
“And he understood that night that our team gave it everything they had. Our coaches gave everything they had. We were one play away from playing in the national title game.”
Krzyzewski showed no signs of bitterness or regret. He remained open about his disappointment but sincere in his gratitude that he and his team had the opportunity to take that stage and take their swing.
His inner peace that night was strengthened by his unwavering belief in the program’s future — and in Scheyer in particular. He had great conviction in the succession plan Duke put together. Scheyer already had assembled an unrivaled seven-player recruiting class that included four five-star prospects. That’s one way to ease the transition.
Krzyzewski also had seen, for nine seasons, how Scheyer invested in his coaching climb, studying the X’s and O’s, learning how to recruit at the highest level and, perhaps most importantly, strengthening his ability to connect on a deeper level with players.
The long list of recent Blue Devils standouts who consider Scheyer a trusted confidant includes Jayson Tatum, Tre Jones, Tyus Jones, Luke Kennard, Jack White and R.J. Barrett.
“He’s a keep-in-touch guy,” Blue Devils assistant coach Chris Carrawell says. “It’s about relationships with Jon. And he does an amazing job of maintaining those relationships. It’s not just a transaction with him. … Jon’s a connector.”
When the torch was passed, Krzyzewski offered straightforward advice.
“Just go for it,” he told Scheyer. “You’ve been a part of us building all of this and sustaining it. It’s yours now.”
As a player, Krzyzewski always admired Scheyer’s feel for the game and supersized gas tank: “Jon never got tired.”
Krzyzewski identified another strength of Scheyer’s as a player that is certain to catalyze his development as a coach.
“Jon was alert,” he says. “And when you’re alert, you make plays. You anticipate plays. The best players are alert. Jon was alert when he was in high school and then he became even more so as he developed his abilities. Now, if you can combine alertness with confidence, look out.
“If you’re alert, you see things. Then you have to be confident enough to instinctively react. That’s who Jon became. And that’s who he will become as a coach.”
Whenever outsiders ask Scheyer about his desires for his legacy as Duke’s coach or how he will survive amid the pressure of trying to follow Krzyzewski, he laughs and quickly emphasizes he’s too busy trying to put together a practice plan for the week to think on such grand levels.
After Friday’s win at Cameron, Scheyer is exactly 1,200 victories shy of his predecessor, meaning if he remained undefeated through the end of the 2052-53 season, he might be able to catch Coach K by the time he’s 65.
In some ways, the absurdity of that offers an immediate stress reliever.
Krzyzewski’s “Just go for it” pep talk came with a reminder to Scheyer to stay authentic and remain present within the challenges of that day or week.
“Don’t ever go to that place where someone tells you you’re trying to fill someone else’s shoes,” Krzyzewski says. “You can never fill somebody else’s shoes. And why would you want to? Fill your own damn shoes. And make those the biggest size you can make them.”
Scheyer reminds himself always to follow his instincts, even with the understanding they won’t always be right.
“You have to have amazing trust in yourself,” he says. “But you also have to be kind to yourself when you make mistakes.”
Scheyer knows the stakes and the pressure of what he has taken on but gets juice from that. He recognizes his impatience might become a weakness at times.
“There’s a process to so much of this,” he says. “Inevitably, you have to experience some ups and downs and learn through that. Well, I don’t want to go through the downs. And that can be a flaw of mine. I know that. But I’ve also surrounded myself with people who know that about me and can be helpful.”
Scheyer knows his history. He has experienced profound disappointment and championship euphoria along his journey.
In that photo he messaged his family on July 13, there was familiar energy in his smile.
“I’m thankful and grateful,” Scheyer says. “There’s no doubt. At the same time, I’m hungry. And I am driven to make the most of this opportunity.”