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.

The alternative is Coach K forcing kids to graduate. And if we are going to pretend that NCAA basketball is about education, about true "student athletes"--if that's what's going on here--then what Coach K is doing is the right thing.

K is not an evangelist for student athleticism. He's not out there judging the Caliparis and the Barneses and the Bob Hugginses of the world. If you got him drunk, or got him to respond candidly, he might pull off a snide remark. That's the kind of guy he is.

But Duke has become a proxy for everything people see as hypocritical about the NCAA, and that's not particularly fair. Don't begrudge Coach K for the choices he made. He recruits the way he recruits because he sees it as the right move for him and his school. That's it.

People say they like college basketball because it involves team play, basketball fundamentals, players who actually try hard and play together as a unit. Duke exemplifies that, and then people turn around and say, "Oh, they're a bunch of stuck up white kids. Look at their ostentatious, pretentious 'fundamentals.' Look how they play the game the 'right way.' How arrogant! How odious!"


If you're going to hate Duke for those reasons, you can't also get riled up for the successes of Butler and Cornell, and be honest with yourself.

There's a general impression that everyone who plays for Duke is a Christian Laettner clone.

Here is a fact: Christian Laettner doesn't play for the 2009-2010 Duke men's basketball team. Neither does Bobby Hurley. They didn't play for the 2004 team either.

While you may find Laettner cocky and spectacularly unlikable, not every tall white kid from New Jersey is going around stomping on people's chests. If you think they are--if you hate every white Duke player who wears a crew cut, because you want to see Christian Laettner in him--then you're actually being racist. And classist. I said it.

Yes, J.J. Redick was kind of like Laettner. But Jon Scheyer isn't the same guy as Redick, and he isn't the same guy as Laettner. In fact, he's completely different from both.

On the whole, Duke produces guys who you'd want to have on your team. Look at Shane Battier, a four-year player at Duke who won a national title. People complain about him because of that, and because he likes to flop, but he's also the type of player you'd kill to have on your team. He seems like a good dude; he typically works hard and enhances the professional environment on his NBA teams.

There's a certain environment that fosters that--an environment that allows players to develop and learn to be professionals, be better human beings, and rely on each other as a team.

And Coach K deserves some points for fostering that.

Above all, be cognizant of what you're hating. If you hate Duke because of a burning enmity of class and privilege, then realize this: nobody hates the Duke football team. It's the same school, with the same student demographics, and it stands for the same things. If that's your reasoning for your basketball hatred, then you may as well hate the underdog football squad, too.

Duke is not Notre Dame, and it is not the Yankees. How many movies have been made about the Yankees? A lot. How many movies have been made about Notre Dame? At least a couple. How many movies have been made about Duke? Not counting documentaries--none.

It's disingenuous to say that Duke is inescapable and ubiquitous in the college basketball scene, and in the broader culture, like Notre Dame and the Yankees are. Unfortunately, Duke suffers from the loud admiration of sycophantic backers like Dick Vitale, who, as genuine and lovable as he is in his true affinities for Duke, turns people off by praising the "Dukieeeeeees." It's an unfortunate side-effect.

Re: Duke getting all the calls. Yeah, that's what happens when you're more established than your opponent. It is not fair. But it is also a product of the physical style of defense Duke developed under Coach K in the 1980s, something akin to the old-school philosophies of Big East teams like Georgetown. If you're always banging, the ref can't call every foul. Moreover, this is the refs' fault, not Duke's, and certainly not Coach K's. It's his job to work the refs; it's his job to try to win. If the refs are going to hand a game to Duke in the closing minutes, that's a terrible way for a basketball game to end. But you can't blame the team that benefits--they're just out there, playing hard. What else are they supposed to do?

It is also disingenuous to call Duke a hegemon, in this day and age. Yes, there was a spectacular run in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. Yes, they won the championship in 2001.

But there has also been a run of Sweet Sixteen losses--seven since 2000, plus one loss in the second round of the tournament, to be exact. Hating Duke now is a bit like hating the Yankees in the 1990s, when they weren't that amazing.

It's hard to give names to emotions. When a program reigns as America's Team, if Duke ever was that, a healthy amount of jealousy builds. But when Duke's reign of utter dominance faded--when Duke stopped going to the Final Four every year--while it maintained that reputation, all that's left is bitterness and hatred, and triumphalism, and "Ha ha, you don't win anymore! You suck now!" I'm comfortable with this when the object is Notre Dame--because Notre Dame will never change, is what it is, no matter who coaches it and no matter who plays for it, because its identity has been so concretized, and the institutions around it so built up, that it will never evolve. Duke, on the other hand, takes on the distinct personality and evolution of its coach. Now that K has coached team USA--a no-win situation for him, mind you, since USA was expected, demanded by the public to win gold--the Duke team has evolved, too. K has mellowed out a bit. Players can express their own personalities.

Whether it's jealousy, envy, bitterness, hatred, righteousness, whatever--it may have less to do with Duke, and more to do with the people who hate Duke. But that's nothing new for Coach K, whose family was burdened with the biases and righteous prejudices of non-Polish people on Chicago's North Side, and it's nothing new for any Duke fan in North Carolina, or elsewhere, who knows that despite all the advantages of rooting for the Blue Devils, the world is paradoxically against you.

So, to all Duke's vigilant enemies: stop externalizing your self-hatred. Either love me, or leave me alone.