(Bitter)Sweet 16: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Duke Fan

Duke alum understands why you hate the Blue Devils.

So my alma mater, Duke, made it to the Sweet 16 last night by defeating some school named Creighton. Since I graduated 35 years ago, Duke successes in the NCAA men’s basketball tourney haven’t been unusual. In fact, they’ve been the norm. Since Mike Krcy … Krzc … Coach K took over the team, he’s led them to this stage in the March Madness dance 21 times. As a result of this success, if you didn’t go to Duke, you pretty much hate Duke. I understand this. I really do.

When my kids were younger and Duke won the NCAA tournament, I’d buy them t-shirts to commemorate the occasion. They’d wear them proudly, only because they were too little to realize that outside of North Carolina, wearing a Duke t-shirt marks you out as a total dick. No Northerner assumes you went to Duke—or have a relative who did—when he or she sees you in Blue Devil regalia. The assumption, instead, is that you’re the sort of person who loves a winner. And who likes somebody like that?

I’ve spent more than three decades now squirming under the weight of this animus. If you didn’t go to Duke, Coach K comes off as a humorless asshole. Hey, I read all the Duke alumni magazine articles about him and his wife and their three girls and the grandkids and the dog and how misunderstood he is, how truly  lovable he is when you get to know him, and I don’t entirely buy it. The guy looks like a rat, with his mean little mouth and his mean little eyes. He whines to the referees. He whines to the press. He’s not the sort of person you’d want repping your alma mater … except that, dammit, he wins. And come to think of it, Duke players aren’t particularly endearing, either. If you eliminate Jersey’s Brian Zoubek, who opened a cream-puff shop after graduating (it’s since failed), it’s really hard to think of any present or former player you’d want to have a latte with. Okay, maybe Grant Hill. But generally, Dookies have a reputation for being too soft for the NBA. (I don’t happen to believe that their actual performance there merits that rep. But the rep remains.) J.J. Redick himself says he was a prick.

Then there are the Cameron Crazies, the fans who stack the seats at Duke’s home games. Even when I was going to those games as a student, their behavior—our behavior—was sometimes questionable. I remember one game where we showered the court with men’s underwear to mock an N.C. State player who’d been accused of shoplifting tighty-whiteys. I cringe at the non-spontaneous choreography of everything the Crazies do nowadays, from the whoosh when a Devil sinks a foul shot to the taunting when opposing players foul out. There’s something terribly unappealing about institutionalized petty behavior. And the fact that Coach K never reproaches his ill-behaved legions—who, incidentally, camp out for days in “K-ville” in enclaves following bizarre rules monitored by the Line Monitor Committee of the student government—makes me a little ashamed. Of course he’s not the boss of them. But he could do more to make them less unattractive to the world at large.

The truth is, I’m like a lot of Duke alumni, I think, in that my relationship with the baskettball team is love/hate (unlike, say, the pitiable football team, which I feel free to love, or the men’s lacrosse team, which … well, that one’s really hard to define). I don’t fill out any March Madness brackets, because I can’t bring myself to be sufficiently hubristic to declare that Duke is going to win. Half of me doesn’t even want Duke to win. That half wants us to get spanked by some school named Creighton, or Lehigh, or Wichita State. But the other half longs to celebrate and acknowledge the team’s, and the coach’s, remarkable string of success. Last night’s was the school’s 2000th men’s basketball win. That’s a lotta games.

So I remain happily ambiguous. It’s not such a bad state of affairs. When Duke craps out, I feel fulfilled, to some extent. I feel the same when Duke wins. It would be nice if my kids and I could wear Duke t-shirts and hoodies without being pegged as soulless jerks, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice. Especially since I’m more ambivalent about the team’s success than its haters could ever be.