Consider The Blue Devil

Because they're so oversold, and so often so successful, everyone feels a little too much love or a little too much hate for Duke basketball.
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You probably don’t like Duke, and you certainly are not alone.

The reasons for this are multifold and manifest and not really worth invoking at length. They involve whiteness and privilege and brazen finance-bro douchery, as demonstrated by the various racist, misogynistic or harmlessly stupid fraternity e-mails that periodically percolate up from the school and its community of 18- to 21-year-olds longer on scholastic aptitude than tact.

This is sort of fair and sort of not: fair in the sense that Duke and its students invite this kind of criticism in much greater measure than their similarly white, privileged and brazenly finance-bro peers at, say, Vanderbilt or the University of Virginia, and not fair in that it’s usually pretty reductive to ascribe any universal quality to a school of five thousand undergraduates, and that the evidence against this ascription probably outweighs the evidence in its favor. Likewise the notion that Duke basketball is representative or emblematic of What People Hate About Duke, since again Duke basketball is Lee Melchionni and Jon Scheyer, but also -- and in roughly equal measure -- William Avery and Dahntay Jones. There’s an Elton Brand for every Brian Zoubek, which explains why the team is good enough to hate.

These precepts about Duke and Duke basketball are widely held, but also unfalsifiable; any exception to the rule is basically treated as evidence thereof.

Here’s what I mean: in my relatively recent past as a whippersnapping college newspaper person, I interviewed a quiet Scottish guy named Alexi Murdoch. Murdoch has intermittently released albums of pretty, whispery folk music, and you might remember him from that. Murdoch also, for a brief period in the early 1990s, studied at Duke.

The whole thing, as he told it, was sort of a bizarre mix-up. As a high schooler, he’d met a Duke graduate while on a rock-climbing trip near Asheville, North Carolina, and in the process of applying for college he’d mistakenly conflated the guy’s alma mater with this bucolic Blue Ridge mountain landscape. Speaking to me, he was open about the fact that he had basically hated his time at Duke, and that he’d blundered helpless into this culture of loud, performative socializing that was very much not his own, and how the only real silver lining was that he felt so lonely or alienated by it that he really studied his ass off or, in the neutered prose of my college newspaper feature, “his time at Duke was redeemed by an immersive education.”

We can interpret this story and other similar stories, of which there are many, two ways. In one, it’s a confirmation of What People Talk About When They Talk About Duke. You can also read it as, well, okay, if there are people who went to Duke and felt really alienated by this culture of loud, performative socializing, then this culture of loud, performative socializing is by definition not an all-encompassing condition, and maybe only exists in proportions similar to what goes on at other major universities.

As with most everything about Duke, it’s a matter of how you wish to see it, and why. Most people, I think, are probably a little more persuaded by the former interpretation. And even still, this is all a little bit simplistic, and maybe doesn’t comprehensively get at what people hate about Duke, but the general idea holds -- that in a powder-keg of high-achieving post-adolescents, there’s bound to be some element that contrasts markedly with Duke’s apparent monoculture of WASPy entitlement.

Regardless: Duke is pretty robustly disliked, and Duke schadenfreude is pretty robustly relished, and an early-round exit from the NCAA tournament, like the one that this year’s Blue Devils received at the hands of the running, gunning, Nae-Nae-hitting Mercer Bears is about as good, Duke schadenfreude-wise, as it gets. It feels like a bigger thing than it is, because the team that is losing is not just the team that’s losing -- it’s the whole suite of things, real and imagined and in-between, that everyone so detests about Duke, or “Duke.”


Part of it is the way Duke plays, a combination of ethos and personnel that stands out as sort of especially obnoxious among college basketball Goliaths. Louisville has its Montrezl Harrell weak-side blocks and Russ-diculous fast breaks, and those moments explain the disparity between them and whomever they’re playing. Arizona or Florida or Michigan State inspire resignation in their overmatched opponents. Kentucky reached the final by out-running and out-jumping everyone it faced.

Duke, in contrast, inspires frustration. Duke is Christian Laettner and Shane Battier, white-guy floor-slaps that Dick Vitale insists on lionizing as “tenacity.” Duke is Doing It The Right Way in the most overloaded and fatuous sense of the term, all four-year starters and five-point plays. When Duke wins, they do it with ball reversal and corner threes and bang-bang charge calls, which is to say, Duke beats you in the most deflating way possible.

Because they generally don’t look that good, although also if they aren’t that good then why are we down by 20 and it’s just like -- you know what? Fuck it, fuck these guys, this game is stupid, what else is on? Like the Yankees, or Notre Dame football once upon a time, Duke basketball is emblematic of a particular sort of ultra-smug sporting excellence, the subject of soft-lit and platitudinous ESPN segments that make you, the average sports fan and/or thinking person, just kind of want to vomit.

Except if Duke is all these things, it is also, at least in recent history, Josh Hairston and missed free throws and taking a bow against Lehigh or Mercer or early-ascent VCU. It is seeing their trademark high-pressure man-to-man defense and all that Tenacity and Leadership summarily pantsed by double-digit seeds and/or ACC bottom-feeders. Duke is, with surprising and seemingly unnoticed regularity, kinda fragile, because for a -- hark, that most repellent designation of Rovell-ian sham-amateurism newspeak -- program that’s so often presented as a sacred font of unwavering competence, Duke also has the capacity for moments of really baffling incompetence. This happened against Mercer in March, and will happen again. Duke, under all the layers of gloss and shellac, is a college basketball program, with college kids playing for it.


We tend to forget this, tend to link these talented yet transient teenagers to some bigger and more loathsome idea about Duke Basketball, properly caps-ed and swoosh-insignia’d. That we do it is understandable. Why we do it is, simply, Coach K.

Coach K’s extracurricular activities, when he is not Embodying Leadership and scaring the ever-loving shit out of ACC officials from Duke’s sideline, include coaching some of the most dominant all-star teams ever assembled to increasingly predictable victory in international competition, and captaining a mini-industry of himself, based upon Holiday-Inn-ballroom-seminar leadership hokum fitted with wide margins and large type into ghostwritten books. This is the stuff that really nags people about Duke basketball; this and the winning, which Coach K also has something to do with, and which happens and has been happening for a long time, with remarkable and unique regularity.

That Coach K -- the man, and also the sepia-toned portrayal thereof -- is the primary inspiration for Duke antipathy is maybe obvious. When his players leave, they’re just players, and the old Duke villainy lost in translation -- Ryan Kelly is now an underdog, Kyle Singler just a useful rotation player with a disturbing lack of pigmentation, JJ Redick a limited but hard-working perimeter player, and even Shane Battier’s name is no longer a dirty word. These were all villains at Duke, the preppy hench-players of the fiendish K. In the NBA, they’re just what they are.

All of this will go away when Coach K does. The local stuff is the local stuff -- nothing on earth will stop ACC teams from hating each other -- but also the cult of personality stuff and, probably, also the winning, at least on the scale that it currently occurs. Inertia is a thing in college basketball, but Duke -- in ways that are germane to that other discussion, about whether Duke’s more entitled and unsavory elements can be said to define the school as a whole -- is not the inheritor of a statewide psychosis for basketball in the manner of North Carolina or Kentucky, and as an exclusive private school never will be. Whoever succeeds Mike Krzyzewski probably cannot be expected to maintain the level of success that Mike Krzyzewski has. People will form expectations that will go unmet, because college basketball fans are like that and Duke fans are really like that, but they’ll learn, because they’ll have to.


There is one other thing that’s characteristic of Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke basketball teams, which is that they almost always look better at the beginning of the season than at the end of it. The obvious interpretation here is that K is simply ahead of the curve and gets his teams together more quickly than other coaches, so that when Duke ships off to the Preseason NIT or the Battle for Atlantis or whatever mid-November showcase they grace, they’re already playing like Duke against teams that are still trying to coalesce/learn each others’ names.

This is almost certainly a credit to K, since a) no one else seems to be able to do this so reliably and b) Duke hasn’t been lower than a third seed in the NCAA tournament since 2007.

The flip side being that, as the coaches of the non-living-legend-division figure out which buttons to press, everyone else starts to catch up to Duke, and more generally to each other. You see this among college basketball’s elite -- John Calipari’s semi-annual cadres of prodigiously talented freshmen are the obvious example here -- but also among the not-so-elite, the Tennessees and Daytons that bloom late for their own individuated reasons and in their own weird ways.

And this might actually go some way toward explaining how Duke is the team that every sports fan and/or thinking person wants to see upset and the team that seems to most reliably oblige those sports fans come March by failing to justify their seeds and ceaseless searing hype.

This is, obviously, a somewhat paradoxical designation. The logic of underdog fandom implies that the more unlikely an upset, the more exciting it is to watch and root for. But Duke -- which has been a 3-seed or better every year since 2007, and yet has survived exactly half of the first weekends of the tournament in that time -- is in fact one of the  more upset-prone heavyweights. Which, again, is to say that they’re just a college basketball team. But which is also to say that they provide exceptional all-around service -- their fans get what they want half the time, and the rest of the time everyone else in the college basketball world gets to cheer the collapse of all things Duke-aligned.


So. Maybe these are halcyon days for Duke schadenfreude; there is never really an offseason for something this popular, and the glow of Mercer’s March uprising hasn’t totally faded yet. But another possibility is that there’s a pretty durable disjunction between how good Duke is and how good people think Duke is, not just this year but every year. And, further, that this is a disjunction that is reinforced by college basketball’s best-team-in-March-wins structure and whatever happens to the human brain when faced with ordinal rankings of 64 mostly unfamiliar outfits and the challenge of filling in a bracket.

To the naked eye, Duke looks like a Goliath. A sharp-shooting, ball-denying Goliath who’s projected as a mid-to-late lottery pick, but also a neon-Wayfarered, trust-funded Goliath -- Broliath, if you want -- with an in at Goldman’s fixed-income desk, the bone-deep belief that he deserves every privilege he received at birth, and a compulsive need to turn up. The point, in both cases, is that these perceptions aren’t strictly true -- though I’d venture additionally the hypothesis that the former perception is borne out a little more on the court, on balance, than is the latter on the quad.

There’s a paradox in formal logic called the Sorites Paradox, which has been explained to me like this: you look at a continuous spectrum of colors from red (on the left) to yellow (on the right). You draw a line in the red portion of the spectrum. And then you say, okay, premise a), this line is in the red, and premise b), it’s also indistinguishable, color-wise from the line immediately to the right of it. But then you pick a line that satisfies premise a) and is unquestionably in the red, and you back out premise b) a few times, and you find yourself saying that yellow is red, which it obviously isn’t.

The point being that a certain amount of vagueness in the premise of an argument can lead you into some awfully strange conclusions. Duke and its basketball team aren’t exactly what they appear to be, or how we choose to see them. But they’re close enough, and next year those so inclined can celebrate Goliath’s fall again, without noticing how much Goliath looks like his opponents.

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William Avery and Dahntay Jones. There’s an Elton Brand for every Brian Zoubek, which explains why the team is good enough to

William Avery and Dahntay Jones. There’s an Elton Brand for every Brian Zoubek, which explains why the team is good enough to

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Lee Melchionni and Jon Scheyer, but also -- and in roughly equal measure -- William Avery and Dahntay Jones. There’s an Elton Brand for every Brian Zoubek, which explains why the team is good enough to hate.
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but the general idea holds -- that in a powder-keg of high-achieving post-adolescents, there’s bound to be some element that contrasts markedly with Duke’s apparent monoculture of WASPy entitlement.
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