by Vincent Thomas
For about two-thirds of my life, my happiest, most gleeful moment of every Mad March tournament happened either when my squad won the championship or when Duke lost. And, since I can only recall a handful of times “my squad” won (1990 UNLV, 1997 Arizona, 1999 UConn and 2003 ‘Cuse), most of my spring highlights centered around was seeing a red-face Coach K lead wet-cheek Dukies off the court with towels over their heads to hide the tears. I cannot overstate this enough: For most of my life I have thoroughly and utterly despised the Duke Blue Devils. When Will Blythe, author of the Duke-loathing book To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever, wrote a piece for Esquire entitled “Hating Coach K,” the deck read: “Mike Krzyzewski (aka, the Rat) is one of the all-time greats in his chosen field, but, hey, so was Mussolini” it actually took me a moment to register the sarcasm. No joke.
But something happened, this season. I felt no glee watching ‘Nova humiliate Duke. That 77-54 drubbing did nothing for me. I’m aware that much of the country still hates Duke, but I can honestly say that I couldn’t care less about the Blue Devils. I’ll never root for them and, given the option, I’ll pull for the opposing squad. But, win or lose, it won’t make a meaningful difference. Although Coach K still fields a roster full of high school All-Americans and they still win at a clip most programs envy, Duke is pretty much harmless these days. And for Duke, “harmless” is basically synonymous with “pathetic” and I don’t spend much time hating pathetic people/things.
At the height of their influence and relevancy, I really loathed Ja Rule’s music and George Bush’s presidency, etc. Now? I find Dubya somewhat comical and I’d rather listen to Ja than Akon, I can tell you that. I’m not a “kick ‘em while they’re down” kind of dude. After a while, I wished 50 Cent would have just let Ja live and cringed when the crowd on The Mall booed Bush at Obama’s inauguration. Initially, 50 did us all a favor and made Ja go crawl under a rock. The things is, after Rule was effectively made a laughingstock, Curtis kept his foot on the poor clown’s neck. Unnecessary. Bush was a pathetic, irrelevant, powerless figure for months when he walked out onto the Inauguration perch. The boos and “nah, nah, nah, nah. hey, hey, hey. goodbyyye!” was an extra pile-on — the country had already signaled their disgust with a landslide election for a candidate that was Bush’s antithesis. Relieved of any type of relevance and cachet, pathetic figures, like Ja, Bush and Duke, engender basic ambivalence. I say that so matter-of-factly now, just a few years removed from the abhorrent J.J. Redick Days. To go from a deep-seated disgust — where I wished the program and its players everything just short of ill-will — to this nonchalant apathy is remarkable.
My Duke Hate had its genesis in 1989. My Pops was a Georgetown fan because, like many of his cronies, he was enamored with John Thompson the Fearless and Defiant Black Leader and he was awed with the very essence of Hoya Paranoia. I was just a tad too young to really dig the Ewing/Floyd/Graham Hoyas, but by 1988 I was ready to root. Pops had hipped me to “this young boy from Virginia that they say is the next Ewing.” He was talking about Alonzo Mourning, of course. So, still in middle school, I picked up the Sports Illustrated college basketball preview. “Here Come The Hot Shots” was the title. It had Billy Owens dunking on the cover. That freshmen class featured ‘Zo, Owens, the great Chris Jackson … and Christian Laettner. Laettner was from my hometown. Well, not Buffalo proper — he grew up about 25 miles southwest in Angola, NY. He went to high school, however, at Nichols School. Nichols was a smarmy, elitist, private prep school for a bunch of schmucks that certainly were all Duke fans. Around that time, if you grew up in Buff, you were fans of Cliff Robinson (of UConn and Portland fame), Marcus Winfield (of UNLV dropout fame) and Ricthie Campbell (never made it to Syracuse, eventually involved in a drug shootout with the fuzz). Laettner was just some 6-11, prep school buster with floppy bangs. In fact, I was surprised he was even featured in a national magazine and didn’t know Duke from Drake. As the season went on, though, I grew into a pretty zealous G’Town fan and wanted nothing more than for them to get to the Final Four. It woulda happened, but those punks at Duke (Laettner, Danny Ferry, etc.) knocked my boys off in the Elite 8. Let the hate begin.
I’m no different than most of you. A good portion of my Duke Hate stems from the fact that they beat some of favorite squads. Jealousy? Yeah, I guess you can call it that. Unlike the NBA, I jumped from team-to-team in college. UNLV popped up on my radar on Super Bowl Sunday in 1990 when Chris Jackson lit them up for, like, 158 points in about a 10-minute span in the first half. But I also remember Larry Johnson and his gold tooth and middle-part, the squad’s black kicks, Moses Scurry growling when he grabbed a board, the way the team huddled after free throws. This was like some new, Public Enemy kind of college squad. When they marched through the tourney and mangled Duke in the Finals, I was smitten. I loved how LJ bullied the Duke big men and how Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt frisked Bobby Hurley into diarrhea fits? They say Hurley had a stomach virus, but I think Anthony-Hunt intimidated the dude in bubble-guts. What happened next year, though? Right. Undefeated right up until Duke upset my squad in the Final Four. Depressing and angering. And it got worse. They repeated the next year by beating my favorite college team of all-time, the Fab Five.
Throughout these years, a motif appeared that lasted for close to 20 years: Duke as the Angels and their Brash Opposition as Devils. Back when LJ and the Runnin’ Rebs and the Fab Five were villains and the incomparable Kenny Anderson was supposedly “all flash, no substance,” Duke was lionized. And, yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and admit it: I thought America’s love affair — from both the fans and the media — with Duke had a conspicuous racial component. “Come on preppy, hard-working white guys that play the game the right way! Beat those black guys!” I even convinced myself that Coach K recruited stereotypes to perpetuate an image of being an anti-”black black” program. A squad full of white dudes and a few whitewashed black guys. Brian Davis, Grant Hill (as an adult, I realize he’s not whitewashed, at all), Thomas Hill, Jay Cornball Williams. I mean, did Coach K even attempt to recruit a Chris Webber-type? Not like Webb would have ever went to that snark-factory to begin with, but I believed Coach K wouldn’t want him if he did, let alone Glen Robinson, Stephon Marbury or Jerry Stackhouse. Didn’t fit the Duke Mold. So I hated the Duke Mold.
Even as Duke’s physical makeup changed — from Elton Brand to Chris Carrawell to Corey Maggette to Carlos Boozer, Duke squads were becoming more diverse — and the rest of the country began hating Duke with me, knocking them off the consensus-public appeal pedestal; I still had this overwhelming feeling that this was an aristocratic institution; like Duke was a discriminating country club. As a teenager, I almost came to blows with my only friend or associate that had the audacity to be a Duke fan … from the hood. “You sellout,” I shouted. “What? You wanna throw Nelson Mandela back in prison, too?!” Crazy. But that’s how I was on it back then. If you rooted for Duke, you were like a pro-apartheid Afrikaan, to me.
Time changed things, though. First, the high school-to-pro and one-n-done trends made college basketball less and less relevant for us basketball fans most interested in the “best” basketball, which, we know, is played in the pros. Second, and maybe more importantly, Duke just didn’t hover over college ball in that hegemony role, anymore. And once J.J. Redick, the last true Duke Villain left — and got suitably humbled in the pros — Duke really ceased to incite. I remember being sick to my stomach in the summer of 2004 when news floated that Krzyzewski was being considered for the Lakers vacancy; but even Coach K had an endearing turn as the Redeem Team coach. “These dudes love Krzyzewski,” I kept thinking, last August. “So the man can’t be that bad.”
And now? I mean, can you really gin up authentic hate, rage, antipathy and rancor for that squad Duke trotted out? It was a mediocre starting lineup and bench full of lead-foot Opies. My younger brother and I scanned that bench and couldn’t stop laughing. It was like Krzyzewski was being a prankster or something. That’s when Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham walloped them into glum, sheepish submission. And I watched it all without even the slightest sense of vindication. That’s when I asked myself, “Do you still hate Duke?” I guess not.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing commentator for ESPN and writes the weekly “From The Floor” column for NBA.com. You can email him your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or “follow” him on Twitter at twitter.com/vincecathomas.