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Duke’s First Nobel Prize Winner Discusses His Best Ever Countdown To Craziness

A pretty cool story from Duke professor Bob Lefkowitz

Duke’s first Nobel Laureate Dr. Robert Leftkowitz being honored at the 2012 Countdown to Craziness

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2012, the first-ever winner from Duke University. He has a book coming out called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist”. One of his favorite adventures was being invited to 2012’s Countdown to Craziness as a personal guest of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski which is excerpted below.

Countdown to Craziness – Nobel Edition

by Robert Lefkowitz

with Randy Hall

I was awakened by an elbow to my ribs. The clock read 5:00 a.m. and the room was dark. I pulled the earplugs out of my ears and glanced over at my wife Lynn, who had just elbowed me awake and was holding the phone toward me. Usually, when you get awakened by a call this early in the morning, it’s bad news. This time, it was just the opposite.

“Stockholm is calling,” Lynn intoned. I took the phone from Lynn as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.

“Hello?”

“Professor Lefkowitz?” said a woman with a Swedish accent. “I’m going to put Professor Staffan Normark on the line. He’s the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and he has some good news for you.”

“Okay, thank you,” I said as my mind raced. The date was Wednesday, October 10, 2012. Staffan Nordmark came on the line, congratulated me, and stated that I would be receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This revelation meant that I would become the first Nobel Laureate in the history of Duke University.

The rest of the day, indeed the rest of the week, went by in a blur. The phone in my office didn’t stop ringing for a single minute. Needless to say, these calls had to be screened by my assistant, Donna Addison, who decided on the calls I would take right away versus the callers who could just leave a message. One call that Donna put through without hesitation was from the legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. At that stage of his career, Coach K had already won four national championships with Duke and two gold medals coaching Team USA at the Olympics. I had been a Duke basketball season ticket holder since the 1970s, but never had occasion to interact with Krzyzewski. Thus, it was a delight to have the chance to schmooze with him for a half hour on the phone when he called me a couple of days after the Nobel announcement.

Coach K was incredibly gracious during our phone conversation and said that he felt a special kinship with me: he was the first person to bring a basketball national championship to Duke and I was the first person to bring a Nobel Prize to our university. Given this connection, Coach K said, nothing would be more appropriate than for me to be honored at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the storied arena where Duke basketball games are played. As it turned out, there would be a special event the following week, called “Countdown to Craziness,” which would mark the official start of basketball season. This event would include player introductions and an intrasquad scrimmage in front of a packed house at Cameron. Coach K suggested that I should be honored in some way at this event.

“What do you have in mind?” I asked him.

“You’ll see,” he replied cryptically.

Coach K told me to bring a few guests, so I showed up the following week at Countdown to Craziness with Lynn as well as a couple of members of my lab, Seungkirl Ahn and Jeff Kovacs, who were both die-hard Duke basketball fans. Kovacs was such an insane fan that when he was a graduate student he was known as “Mullet Man” because he attended every Duke home game decked out in Duke gear and wearing a huge wig that was shaped like an over-the-top mullet. It was a thrill for all of us to sit behind the Duke bench and chat with Coach K before the proceedings began.

The lights went down and the player introductions began. Each player came out dancing to a high-energy song after his name was called, with all 10,000 fans going crazy. I was getting a little nervous because I had not prepared any dance moves for the occasion and was wondering if the crowd would be disappointed if I didn’t shimmy my way out on the court when I was introduced. When the player introductions finished, the lights came up and Coach K walked to center court with a microphone.

“Now I want to bring out a special guest. I’m sure you all saw on the news last week that Dr. Robert Lefkowitz became the first Nobel Laureate in the history of Duke University. I’d like to invite Dr. Lefkowitz to join us on the court.”

With that, I climbed over the railing and walked out onto the court as the crowd went berserk. I received handshakes and high-fives from all the Duke players, feeling the shortest I have ever felt in my life as I walked amongst this pack of giants. Coach K then took out a #1 Duke jersey that said Lefkowitz on the back, and the players helped me to put on the jersey as the crowd roared appreciatively. Coach K and the players then began to walk off the court and I followed them, but Coach K waved me back to center court to soak in the cheers for bit longer.

The students who attend Duke basketball games are known as “Cameron Crazies,” and they are renowned for their loud chants during the games. As I stood at center court reveling in the thunderous applause, I heard the students chanting something and pointing at me, but I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Finally, I realized that they were rhythmically chanting, “He’s so smart! He’s so smart! He’s so smart!” I cracked up and raised my arms in the air, which led the students to roar even louder.

After basking in the ovation for a few more seconds, I headed off the court and took my seat next to Lynn and the others right behind the Duke bench. The intrasquad scrimmage began and we were treated throughout the entire game to a running commentary by Coach K. “Watch this move, he’s been working on it the whole offseason,” Coach K would say. “By the way, we’re recruiting this guy’s cousin, but I don’t think we’re going to get him.” As a Duke basketball fan, it was a delight to hear all this inside information about the team and also be privy to insight after insight from one of the greatest basketball minds in history.

It was a magical evening to cap off an unbelievable week. I had been at Duke for nearly forty years at that point, and many different people in the Duke community had contributed to the success of my research program over the years. It felt wonderful to be sharing the Nobel Prize with everyone at Duke and to feel the buzz and excitement that had been generated all over the Duke campus by the news of this award. It was like a dream come true.

This article is excerpted from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist” by Robert Lefkowitz with Randy Hall.

Normally, Dr. Lefkowitz would be holding book-signing events on the Duke campus to celebrate the release of the book, but obviously that’s not possible right now due to the pandemic. So he’s been signing a bunch of bookplates, which can be inserted into the book to create a personally-inscribed copy, and his publisher is paying for these autographed bookplates to be sent to Duke folks who pre-order the book.

If you’d like a signed copy of this book you can place a pre-order and then email proof-of-purchase plus shipping address information to Icee Li (yl703@duke.edu). You will receive a bookplate signed by Dr. Lefkowitz, which can be inserted into your book to create a signed copy. This special promotion for DBR readers and other members of the Duke community is available only for pre-orders.