By Chris Le
Whenever I tell anyone that I’m a Duke fan, two words invariably come back in response.
This sentiment, which I now accept and have come to expect, is shared by 99 percent of the free world. For all it has achieved, Duke basketball wades the same spit-filled waters as the Yankees, the Lakers and Notre Dame football — storied franchises with winning histories. Wilt Chamberlain, himself a reviled symbol of dominance, once said, “Nobody roots for Goliath.” Well, since 1991, when Coach K won his first national title, he and his boys have been college basketball’s Goliath.
But I understand the hate. I honestly do. Duke has all the ingredients of anathema. The uppity WASPiness of a privileged and private university in workman-like North Carolina. The stack of ACC crowns, the fourteen Final Fours, the four national championships. The admittedly abhorrent Christian Laettner (perhaps, the Blue Devil who singlehandedly initiated this longstanding hate) and the slightly less so J.J. Redick. But perhaps above all else, it’s Dick Vitale with his raspy “DUKIIIIEES, BABY!” and the ubiquitous television exposure. Of Duke’s 40 games this season, 36 were on national television. They get more face time than Kate Gosselin and Kim Kardashian combined, and they’ve been getting it for a while.
That constant visibility changed my sports life. It’s the reason why I — someone who has no affiliation with the school — became a Cameron Crazy at heart.
My interest in college sports didn’t really take until the late 1990s. A late bloomer, you can say. It was around the time I first played organized basketball — basketball in general, really — and began to love the sport. I thought about the game during class, played it at recess and lunch, practiced it after school and couldn’t wait to get home to watch the night’s game. But, I had no loyalties to any team. My family lived in Milpitas, a small town that borders San Jose (which is famous for the Sharks … and, um … silicon chips … yeah, that’s about it) and is a 45-minute drive south of San Francisco. But, what kid is cognizant of anything outside their immediate surroundings? Not me. I was myopic. To me, Stanford was more a mall than a university. I didn’t have a local Division I school to root for.
So, as an impressionable kid with a nascent love for basketball, I began to like the team I most consistently saw on TV — Duke.
And, they just happened to be a good team. Though, not to the “Duke” standard of good. From 1994 to 1997, right around when I began to follow the Blue Devils, their reputation was far more threatening than their play. It was the forgettable era between the Bobby Hurley–Grant Hill-Laettner triumvirate and the Jay Williams–Mike Dunleavy Jr.-Shane Battier trio. The team went a combined 79-40, missing the tournament one year (in which Coach K sat out with a back injury), followed by first and second-round exits, respectively. Decent for most teams. Neither bad nor great, but definitely, not up to standard.
Still, powerhouse, middle of the pack or bottom feeder, they were always on TV. And for a preteen (who was a year or two away from discovering the wonders of masturbation), constant television exposure was enough to make me a fan. And, I’ve been a fan ever since.
But this year’s National Champion Blue Devils has a special place in my heart. They’re unlike any previous team. It’s how far they’ve come, I think, that makes me love them above any other. It was a “blue”-collar squad with one, maybe two NBA players — a fact that prompted ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb to call them “alarmingly unathletic” (to which Coach K responded: “He should be an expert on alarmingly non-athletic.” ZIIIING!!). Gone to the NBA was their most explosive player Gerald Henderson, and their second-best athlete Elliot Williams, who transferred to Memphis due to family illness. The roster lacked, it appeared, anyone who could create his own shot. From the get-go, this year’s team was decidedly un-Goliath.
But Coach K never doubted or surrendered, and more importantly, neither did the players. They stayed in school (a pattern with Dukies) and improved by the day (ditto).
Brian Zoubek, once regarded as a 7’1 piece of turd with a 1-inch vertical, evolved into a beast on the boards and a deciding factor in their championship … while still with a 1-inch vert.
It saw Kyle Singler, the fifth-best ’07 prospect according to Rivals (in one of the deepest, most talented classes ever. Check some of the names: Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, J.J. Hickson, James Harden, Anthony Randolph, Jerryd Bayless, Patrick Patterson, with Cole Aldrich ranked No. 30, Blake Griffin ranked No. 23 and Evan Turner No. 49. Holy Shit!), finally living up to his incoming hype. Singler is the toughest and hardest-working player since Tyler Hansbrough. I’ve seen the kid land squarely on his chin about six times in his career, and he didn’t so much as check for blood. Kid is made of nails.
Hardworking senior forward Lance Thomas maxed his potential and played his role of multi-faceted defender to perfection, never once complaining about offensive touches.
It saw Nolan Smith win a title on the 30th anniversary of his late father’s championship with Louisville.
And then there’s Jon Scheyer, who fits Gottlieb’s description of “alarmingly unathletic.” He moves in slow motion, I’ve never seen him dunk once and though I love his stroke, no one will mistake him for Ray Allen. Many mislabel him as a J.J Redick clone. I don’t see it — other than both being white, slow and unable to hurdle a stack of phonebooks. Scheyer is much more well-rounded, capable of driving and finishing at the rim in traffic. And, he doesn’t quite play with Redick’s cocksure demeanor. Jon is confident, but he’s not brash. He’s humble, almost surprised by his own success, and he’s smart, seamlessly converting to the point from shooting guard, and über-clutch.
This team didn’t steamroll opponents with NBA talent, it grinded foes with suffocating defense and hard-nosed rebounding and intelligent execution on offense. Each player developed and milked every last ounce of ability they had. It was the anti-Calipari, the anti-Kentucky, the anti-one-and-done; it was a group of juniors and seniors who built chemistry only time could afford, with a desire to win only the experience of heartbreaking disappointment could fuel.
Dare I say: It was the most likable Duke team ever.