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Duke’s Zafirovski Takes Father’s Lessons to Basketball Court

Mike Zafirovski
Mike Zafirovski, seen here, said he sees parallels between his mentor at GE, Jack Welch, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Mike Zafirovski was destined for an athletic career until he entered business and moved on to management at General Electric Co., Motorola Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp.

Now he’s cheering on his son, Todd, a reserve forward on the Duke University team that is four victories from winning its second straight title in the men’s national college basketball tournament.

The elder Zafirovski, 57, who will be in the stands tonight when the Blue Devils face the University of Arizona in the Round of 16 at the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, said he sees parallels between his mentor at GE, Jack Welch, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“There are such similarities between Coach K and Welch in terms of motivating a team and getting the most out of his people, so that has been a real treat for me,” Zafirovski said yesterday in a telephone interview. “Coaching in general and business, especially as we get older, is probably the closest thing to sports.”

The Duke-Arizona game is one of four today, with four more games scheduled tomorrow as the field is narrowed to eight teams heading into the weekend. The NCAA champion will be crowned April 4 at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

The University of Connecticut plays San Diego State University in the other game in Anaheim, California, tonight in the West Region. In the Southeast Region in New Orleans, Butler University plays the University of Wisconsin and the University of Florida faces Brigham Young University and national scoring leader Jimmer Fredette.

Non-Scholarship Player

Todd Zafirovski, 20, is a non-scholarship player who practiced with the Duke squad as a freshman before being added to the team as a walk-on. He has appeared in five games this season as a sophomore, and has not scored a point.

“It’s not the most glamorous job in the world being a walk-on, but I’m teammates with the 12 best guys in college basketball,” he said yesterday in a locker room interview at the Honda Center in Anaheim. “For sure it would be nice to get out there.”

Mike Zafirovski was 15 when he emigrated from Macedonia in 1969. He spoke no English, learning the language from members of the swim team at his Cleveland high school.

He received a swimming and soccer scholarship from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. He declined an invitation to swim for the Yugoslavian national team at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and then turned down tryouts from two professional soccer teams in the U.S.

GE, Motorola, Nortel

Instead, he went to work at GE, where in 24 years he moved up to president of GE Lighting. Then he moved to Motorola, where as chief operating officer he helped revive the wireless unit with the introduction of the Razr phone.

He joined Toronto-based Nortel in November 2005. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2009 and Zafirovski stepped down as CEO in August 2009.

“I always idolized him,” Todd Zafirovski said. “What he did to be successful is an unbelievable story, how he had to go to school without speaking English. I go to French class and I’m nervous.”

Mike Zafirovski is on the board at Boeing Co. and is doing consulting work while looking for another CEO position. In the meantime, he spends plenty of time flying from his Chicago home to Todd’s games -- Mike has attended 18 of Duke’s 36 games so far this season.

“This is second to none, it’s a dream come true for all of us,” the elder Zafirovski said. “For him to make it as a walk-on at Duke, we get goosebumps every time we see him play.”

Olympic Opportunity

Todd Zafirovski now is the one being recruited to play on a team that could go to the Olympics. The Macedonian national basketball squad has asked him to try out for the squad that will go to the European championships in Lithuania in August and September. A good showing there could earn Macedonia an Olympic spot -- offering Todd something his father never achieved.

“It would be a dream come true,” Todd said, adding he is not sure he will try out for the squad because it might conflict with Duke trips to China and Dubai.

Mike Zafirovski, who finished the Chicago Marathon last year and did an Ironman triathlon in 2002, said he and his wife, Robin, passed on a work ethic to all three of their sons.

Matt, 25, who gave a commencement speech for the Duke graduation class of 2008, now works in Seoul as vice president, international, for Groupon Inc. Kirk, 24, works for the Wasserman Media Group in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Todd, Matt and Kirk joined their father on a trip to the soccer World Cup last year in South Africa, and the family has always bonded over sports.

“No whining allowed in our family,” Mike Zafirovski said with a laugh. “We tried to teach them perseverance and hopefully the commitment to excellence.”

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