In Defense of Duke

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Mike Krzyzewski jumped off the bench, reacting to the hard contact under the basket. "Hey, 42, that was a dirty foul!" he shouted at UNC center Scott Williams.

On the opposite bench, Dean Smith pulled himself up, clapped his hands and screamed at his adversary, "Don't talk to my players!"

Coach K glared down the sideline, crinkling his nose and forehead in anger.

"Hey, Dean!" he yelled back. "Fuck you!"
                     -Art Chansky, Blue Blood, on the 1989 ACC men's basketball championship game


We all need villains.

If it isn't Iago or Lex Luthor or Ivan Drago, it's somebody else. It's your neighbor. It's your boss. It's an entity you set yourself against, because in doing so, in making that decision and relishing that impulse, one takes an articulated stand on what is true and right about the world and its injustices. It becomes the New York Yankees, or the Detroit Red Wings, or it's Notre Dame.

Or it's the Duke University men's basketball team, and its leader, the progenitor of Duke's modern era of success, Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K.

It is a known fact that Duke is the most hated college basketball program in the country. If you tell someone you're a Duke fan, you could get a mean look, or you could get some profanity. I know, because I am a Duke fan myself. I own two Duke sweatshirts, and I don't wear them around too often, for fear of getting beaten up by a pack of club-wielding Maryland fans, or anyone from the state of Kentucky.

Duke hatred is a fact of college basketball, just as hatred of Notre Dame is of college football and hatred of the New York Yankees is of baseball. It's not quite as widespread, but yes, it is there. If you are in the state of North Carolina, and you tell someone you're a Duke fan, there is a 15% chance (slight exaggeration) he or she will say to you, to your face, "Fuck Duke." Literally. Out loud. There aren't a lot of other things in life that's true for.

There are many reasons to hate Duke, and I am familiar with all of them. I went there for four years, and I got my taste.

There is Duke's hegemony: eight nine straight seasons, from '86 to '94, in which Duke missed the Final Four only twice, plus three national championships in the Coach K era ('91, '92, '01). There is Duke's arrogance and snobbery, and, most importantly in all of this, perhaps, the issue of class: it is a private, formerly Methodist school full of rich white kids, segregated from the African American and Hispanic communities around it in Durham, North Carolina, and it looks like a castle, but only because it's modeled after Princeton. There is a really awful Greek system, which generally throws bad parties.

Coach K recruits mostly white players, and mostly upstanding, clean-cut guys from middle-class backgrounds. You don't see Duke players with tattoos; you don't even see them with headbands. There are no thugs in the Duke basketball program.

Duke seems to be a rigid, mechanical unit that suppresses individual play and turns everyone into a role player. (Perhaps that's why some of its best players haven't become stars in the NBA, unlike waves of Carolina players.) Duke haters see it as old-school to a fault. Coach K doesn't recruit NBA-bound, one-and-done players, opting instead for guys who will stay four years. It's anachronistic, people say; it perpetuates an idealized, stubborn, unrealistic vision of NCAA basketball and how it works. And it's holier-than-thou.

There is the privilege and unapologetic ambition for personal success that Duke has, at times, embodied. There is Coach K holding a fundraiser for Republican Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole, and insinuations that he used the Duke name and his position as coach to generate political cash. There is Coach K doing American Express ads.

There is Duke getting all the calls.

There is Christian Laettner, stomping on the chest of Kentucky's Aminu Timberlake in the 1992 Elite Eight game that also saw Laettner hit probably the most famous game-winner in the history of college ball.

But while there are many reasons to hate Duke, you shouldn't. Here's why.

For one, because of the story that began this article, of Coach K yelling "Fuck you!" at the renowned and revered Dean of college basketball, Dean Smith, a man no one cursed at, especially not a young, upstart coach who hadn't been in the league for so long. And at the time Coach K was an upstart: the boosters had given him a rough time when he got to Duke in 1980, and at first no one could spell his name. This was not the action of a man who was established.

Say what you will about Coach K and Duke, but know this. They have sharp elbows. They're not going to take your, or anyone's, criticism or bullshit. It will only make them fight harder.

Coach K grew up in a Polish household on Chicago's North Side. His father went by the last name Kross, to avoid ethnic discrimination. That's how things were. Mike Krzyzewski came up playing ball in the Chicago Catholic League, played for Bob Knight at West Point, and ended up as a Catholic in the South when not too many of them were around.

My point is this: Duke hasn't always been top dog. And since they became top dog, and subsequently lost that hegemonic status with so many early exits in the tournament, in their better moments they've retained the scrappiness and grit that defined them when Coach K was glaring down the sidelines, yelling at his vaunted adversary, "Hey Dean, fuck you!"

And you have to respect that.

Coach K has not assembled teams of street ballers with natural athletic talent. He has chosen another path: he has recruited less athletic players that will stay around campus for four years.

He's done this in an era where coaches like Rick Barnes of Texas are out advertising their schools as NBA Prep. ""We would love to win a national championship, but we're not obsessed with it because we're obsessed with these guys trying to live their NBA  dream," Barnes was quoted as saying recently in ESPN Magazine.

Coach K hasn't gone after all-world talent, but his teams compete with teams like Texas and the John Calipari NBA Preparatory Institute, which now resides at the University of Kentucky. He does it by getting his players to play hard, and play together. He teaches them basketball, gives them the X's and O's, and gets them to grind it out.

Barnes and Calipari produce programs with superb talent. But like the Fab Five at Michigan, which Duke competed against in the early '90s, with a similar dynamic at play, what you've got is a team that puts on a spectacular show, wins a championship, and then later has that win vacated and its banners taken down.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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