Final Four action kicks off in Indianapolis at 6 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday with Michigan State facing off against Duke. It is a clash of two great programs, led by two great coaches, and I hope with every fiber of my being that Tom Izzo’s Spartans crush Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke like so many spoiled, whiny grapes at the bottom of a barrel. I hope for it wholly and completely—the way Old World Italians hope their grown children have first-born sons. And I am not alone.
Poor Duke, what did they ever do to deserve this?
Duke University is the smallest, smartest and most selective of the three major colleges in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina (the other two are UNC and NC State). Its total enrollment is under 7000, it accepts less than 15% of the people who apply, and this year it is #7 in the U.S. News & World Report National University Rankings (UNC is #30, NC State is #101).
As an academic and research institution, Duke is second to none. It sits at the apex of the area’s “Research Triangle,” with many of its graduates funneling into the biotech, pharma and computing giants that have come to call The Triangle home. The school’s faculty, post-docs and alum have no doubt added hundreds of billions of dollars to the country’s bottom line and unarguably made the world a better place.
Yet, like every good American who loves freedom and justice, I watch the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament every year rooting equally for two distinct events to occur: for my team to make it as far as possible (when they make it in at all) and for Duke to lose as soon as possible. This year unfortunately, I’ve had to endure four fairly comfortable Duke wins on their road to the Final Four. With my team (the Cal Bears) not even earning an NIT bid, it’s safe to say this has not been one of the more enjoyable tournaments of my life. Last year’s tournament, however, was something else altogether.
On a bright, sunny Friday, it was with mounting, irrepressible glee that I watched the senior-laden, 14-seed Mercer Bears beat the young 3-seed Duke Blue Devils in the opening round. As the clock wound under 1:30 and the margin began to widen, cheers for the mighty Mercer Bears—a heavy underdog—grew louder and the insults directed at Coach K and his Blue Devils squad grew more profane. When the buzzer sounded, the final score was Mercer 78, Duke 71 and there was much rejoicing in the land.
“Mercer” immediately began trending on Twitter. Then “Duke,” then “DownGoesDuke,” and briefly “DukeSucks.” I fired off this tweet, joining a cacophony of similar voices:
Here’s the thing: I couldn’t care less about Mercer. I have no idea where Mercer University is, I couldn’t tell you a single player’s name even though I watched every minute of the game, and I had zero rooting interest in their fate going into the next round of the tournament (they got spanked by Tennessee). But for those 40 minutes and the glorious post-upset halo of Duke hating and bracket gloating, Mercer was a shining ray of hope and a reminder that there is still some good left in the world. For at least a little while, they took our minds off missing Malaysia Flight #370, rootin’ tootin’ Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and recent news from NASA that civilization is going to collapse in like three weeks or something.
When I woke up that following Monday morning, with the first weekend of the tournament in the rearview mirror, the thrill of that epic Duke loss had fully worn off. I took my dog Buckley for his morning constitutional and, as he assumed his adorable poop stance under his favorite shrub, my mind wandered back to the Duke loss. I didn’t bask in the fact that they lost or luxuriate in my hatred for them, I was transfixed by a simple question: Why? Why do I hate them so much? Why do I hate them at all? Why do so many of us hate them so willingly and gleefully?
The obvious and immediate answer to these questions is the same: DUKE SUCKS. But why? Why does Duke suck? Ironically, I think Duke sucks because Duke is great. They’re just great in all the wrong ways. And it starts from the top.
This is their coach.
Look at those beady little eyes, that big beak nose, that round pinched balloon knot of a face. He has hair like a Kansas state senator trying to remove evolution from biology textbooks. When he’s not “molding young men,” he’s bitching at referees.
His name is Mike Krzyzewski; Coach K, for short. He is like a Polish Angry Bird. If Scrabble allowed proper names, you could win the whole game just with his last name. He’s been coaching Duke and USA Basketball since 1979-80 and has won more than three-quarters of his games as a head coach. Well, bully for him!
These are their players.
Christian Laettner, Danny Ferry, Shane Battier, Bobby Hurley, Shavlik Randolph, Shelden Williams, Greg Paulus, Steve Wojciechowski, Austin Rivers, Jason “Jay” Williams, Kyle Singler, Cherokee Parks, J.J. Redick.
Christian Laettner (‘88-’92) single-handedly ripped the heart out of the state of Kentucky in 1992 with a buzzer-beater you can’t not see at least five times every March. Having become friends with a number of Kentuckians over the years, the way they describe the memory of that moment is like getting Eiffel Towered by Brandon Walsh and Dylan McKay on camera in front of your entire family, and every March you get to relive the exact moment they climaxed all over your childhood.
Shane Battier (‘97-’01) looks like a cross between David Letterman and Michael Strahan. In college, when his head was totally shaved, it had so many wrinkles it looked like someone had carved off his skull and wrapped his brain in Shar Pei skin.
Jason Williams (‘99-’02) made everyone call him “Jay,” then drove his unlicensed motorcycle into a streetlight and nearly tore his leg off, effectively ending his NBA career.
Shelden Williams (‘02-’06) was a great center, for a Klingon.
J.J. Redick (‘02-’06) writes poetry. He hand-picked these for publication in Sports Illustrated WHILE HE WAS STILL IN SCHOOL. This opening stanza from a July 2004 poem should haunt him for the rest of his life:
No bandage can cover my scars It's hard living a life behind invisible bars
I could go on.
The list of annoying(ly successful) Duke players is so long, Grantland.com had to give Duke its own bracket in their “Most Hated College Basketball Players of the Last 30 Years” feature during the 2013 tournament. Complex magazine not only did a Top 20 Most-Hated Duke Players of All Time last year, they did a Top 10 Most-Hated White Duke Players three years earlier.
These are their fans.
They’re called the Cameron Crazies. “Cameron” for the name of the arena where the basketball team plays—Cameron Indoor Stadium. “Crazies” for the fact that they actually sleep outside to get into this place. Because the stadium is so small and there is only so much space for students (there are no student tickets), the line to get in starts hours and sometimes days before games. There’s even a name for the place where they line up and pitch tents: Krzyzewskiville.
The hallmark of the Duke fan is excessive face and body paint. This serves two purposes: 1) to show their team spirit and 2) to camouflage their hideousness.
The Duke fans’ not-so-secret handshake is to extend their painted arms in the direction of opposing players during free throws and out-of-bounds plays. They do this to concentrate their voodoo mojo and to maybe, if they’re lucky, touch someone who has had sex with a live girl.
Cameron Crazies do not trade in the currency of spontaneity. They have been known to crowdsource their trash talk before games in chat rooms, meet-ups and computer labs, then coordinate jeers and taunts at key moments. They were among the first to bring in those giant heads behind the basket during free throws, and their particular brand of clever signage tends toward math and grammar jokes. And when all else fails, they lean on the simplest, most infuriating form of trash talk: the score. Nothing incites bodily violence quicker than a Duke fan turning in your direction and saying “scoreboard.”
Every March, these three elements—coach, players and fans—come together like a voltron of smug self-righteousness. They form an unholy trinity at whose altar the rest of us pray not for salvation or their grace and mercy, but for their own humiliating failure. The more I thought about this macabre fixation as I walked my adorable little beagle through the frozen morning air, the more I realized our problem with Duke is really our problem with ourselves. Because what Duke does wrong is that they do everything right.
As a basketball team, they play smart and with discipline. They share the ball, they take good shots and they listen to their coach. They play like a team with very little selfish behavior. They huddle before free throws—theirs or the opponents’—and actually look like they’re supporting each other. Watching them play a lesser team during the pre-conference schedule is like watching the high school team from Pleasantville. Every shot goes in. It’s infuriating!
It’s no different with Duke students. A bunch of smart kids with 4+ GPAs and near-perfect SAT scores, who actually read books for fun and go to office hours for things other than trying to get an extension on a term paper because you got too drunk the night before and every night before that since you got to campus two years ago. They’re doing things in college, not just passing the time.
We want them to be superhuman athletic freaks or Asperger-y geniuses with photographic memories. We need them to be those things because they are all that stands between our own underachievement and the roof of a tall building. How can you compete with people who have been touched by God with transcendent ability? You can’t, so you don’t. And immediately you stop trying. Over time you make your peace with not being one of the gifted, chosen ones, and you begin to view these special people as a spectacle, as others. They are unlike you and me, these sprinters, basketball players, tech multi-billionaires. Painting them as others makes it easier for us to accept ourselves and our own fate.
TV coverage often tries to bridge the gap between us and them with human interest stories. Make no mistake, the goal here is to make them seem more like us, not the other way around. NBC’s Olympics coverage is defined by this strategy. ESPN had Up Close with Roy Firestone in the late ’80s and early ’90s, now they use Tom Rinaldi. 60 Minutes covers this same ground on the non-sports side. It’s no accident that the stories they do are meant to “humanize” the stars they feature. Still, what ends up happening is not humanizing, but mythologizing. You could easily map the Superman tale directly over 75 percent of the human interest stories that don’t begin in the inner city, for instance. And this only serves to widen the gap.
What puts Duke so squarely in our crosshairs is that they clearly do not exist on the other side of this gap. They do not have endowments like Harvard or Stanford. They do not have freaks of nature on their team like Kentucky or Kansas. We look at their bench or their student section and we do not see Anthony Davis and John Wall or the next Sergey Brin and Larry Page. We see versions of ourselves, of our kids. And we hate them for it because if they are not from the other side of the gap, they are from our side. And that means they succeeded by doing things right, by doing things we didn’t do: practicing the fundamentals, working hard, studying, sacrificing, persevering, delaying gratification. It’s the same reason people can’t stand Mormons or mock the humility of the heartland. They’re too good to be true.
This is not Duke’s problem, this is our problem. And every March, when Duke enters the NCAA Tournament as a top-3 seed (as they almost always do), we struggle to accept it. Our taunts about them devolve into accusations—they’re whiny, they complain to the refs too much, they get too many calls, they play dirty down low, they’re spoiled babies, they cheat, etc. If they’re not superhuman, they must be super-privileged, that has to be the reason. Deep down we know they’re not like us, and we’re right. It’s the other way around. We’re just like them, except we dropped the ball and they picked it up and ran with it.