I wrote this before the game last night, when my Blue Devils took on Butler for the National Championship. I post it this morning still glowing with pride from our win and giddy from one of the best championship games I can remember in my 26 years.
I love the Duke Blue Devils, end of story. They’re coming off the heels of their fifteenth Final Four, their tenth appearance in the championship game, and, if they win, it will be their fourth title. And yet, they are almost universally despised and loathed across the nation. Guess what? I couldn’t care less.
When I moved to North Carolina in the late 90s, I was thrust into a culture I had never experienced – the culture of collegiate basketball. For those of you who don’t know, there are basically four teams of merit in the legendary area known as Tobacco Road. Between Winston-Salem and the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, four universities lay claim to the allegiance of countless fans: Wake Forest, NC State, Duke, and UNC, respectively. Arguably the most intense rivalry of college basketball resides a mere eight miles apart on the campuses of Duke University and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. When it comes down to it, there is little in this state that doesn’t come back to two things – race and class. The same can be said for the notorious animosity between the two teams. To many people, Duke is seen as an elitist, mostly white institution, and they claim to see this reflected in the basketball roster. UNC, on the other hand, is seen as more of a team for the people, located in a flagship public university with a history of representing the economically disadvantaged and hard-working constituents of the state. To be perfectly honest, this dichotomy between educational missions is from where my eventual love evolved.
Let me be clear – when it comes to education in America, I can be a snob, and I freely admit it. I do not want to imply that UNC students are poor and stupid; I only want to emphasize that Duke is a national university on par with the Ivy League, Stanford, and MIT. They recruit internationally and have no obligation to serve the residents of North Carolina, nor admit their best and brightest. I think this is from where a lot of local resentment stems. On the other hand, I respect intelligence, ambition, and eloquence more than most, and I found all of these factors implicit in the players at Duke. I think the black versus white dichotomy has been overplayed in years past, and never thought of Duke as a racist institution; quite the contrary, really, as some of their best players were African-American and given equal prominence to white teammates. Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Chris Duhon were all as essential to Duke as Christian Laettner, Mike Dunleavy, JJ Redick, and Greg Paulus.
I loved, and still do, that Coach Krzyzewski actively recruits students who will stay for four years. In thirty years, he’s only lost three players to an early departure for the NBA. Players attend trainings where they’re taught how to respond to press and express themselves articulately when asked for comments. There is a real emphasis here on using college as a way to better the individual, and the players are seen as students AND athletes. I don’t see that at most schools, and certainly not at UNC.
I love that Coach K has stayed at Duke for thirty years. I especially respect that he teaches his players to play as a team, and doesn’t focus exclusively on his NBA potential like, say, Calipari at UK. He wants players that will stay for four years, play as a team, graduate, and then hopefully move on to the NBA at the end. As for his longevity, he’s been offered lucrative positions elsewhere, most notably his five-year, $40-million deal with the Lakers several years ago. To be sure, he’s been tempted to leave. But he hasn’t. There’s a devotion here, a level of loyalty, that just does not come along too often in collegiate athletics. You need only look to UNC’s bench and their infamous leader to see the effects of broken promises.
For sure, there is a pride that accompanies rooting for Duke. To be a Dukie, you have to have a certain swagger, a level of arrogance in order to combat the constant vitriol hurled at you from other schools. Rooting for the Blue Devils is a lesson in growing a thick skin, in maintaining class in the face of absolute hooliganism. I’ve certainly lost count of all of the personal insults and snide comments thrown my way once someone realizes I root for Duke. To be perfectly honest, I don’t care. On a certain level, I know that it’s just basketball, and not my life. On an entirely different plane, though, I know I’ve been just as nasty to some fan of UNC or Maryland or NC State, and I don’t whine too much. I know that we’ll get our due, and I’m confident we’ll do well tonight.
I want to make this clear, though: I’m not certain we’ll win. I think we’ll play a great game and it will be close; just as Coach K pointed out, Butler is not an underdog in this situation. They may not be perfectly matched with Duke, but they took out Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State. I’d argue that this championship is gonna be pretty damn close, and I, for one, can’t wait.
Mostly because I can only imagine what it’ll feel like to see us win our fourth.