Why Root For Duke Basketball


Apr 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook (2) shoots against the Michigan State Spartans in the first half of the 2015 NCAA Men

My first memory of college hoops fandom was watching Houston’s Phi Slama Jama squad get stunned by NC State in 1983.  I don’t exactly remember why I was at my grandparents’ house that evening, but I distinctly remember the orange shag carpeting.

Saints that my non-English-speaking abuelos were, they allowed me access to the living room TV to watch that game (provided I’d finished my homework, of course).

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I also distinctly remember rooting for Houston because, a) the name “Phi Slama Jama” sounded cool as hell to my eight-year-old ears, b) Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were awesome, and c) I recall having regionally sensitive allegiances at the time. Hence, Texas > anyone else.

I even rooted for Arkansas one year because they were closer in proximity than U-of-Who-The-Whatever.  Don’t tell anyone.

The toppling of Phi Slama was one of the first of many sports heartbreaks I have come to endure over the years.  When Dereck Whittenburg’s thirty-five foot prayer turned into Lorenzo Charles’s alley-oop dunk, I sat there stunned.  Who was I going to complain to?

My grandparents didn’t know a lick about college ball!  And furthermore, what did they care? How on earth did the Houston Cougars lose that game?!  I was so mad I would’ve tweeted about it and pretended my rage carried any real weight.

But it was 1983.

Being a child at the time, of course, my loyalties bounced from team to team.  By the following season, I was falling for Georgetown and Patrick Ewing as they wrested the title from the very school I had been rooting for a season prior.

The allegiance to the Hoyas lasted another season before they lost to Villanova.  I’ve always been ambivalent about Villanova.  Don’t like ’em.  Don’t hate ’em.  They’re Villanova.

But then an interesting thing happened in 1986.  The Final Four came to Dallas.  By that time, I was obsessed with basketball, collegiate and professional.

I remember watching a Duke basketball team lead by Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Jay Bilas, and Danny Ferry maraud their way through the tournament, only to get bested by the Louisville Cardinals.

I never hated Pervis Ellison so much as I did on March 31st, 1986.

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In retrospect–and at that moment–my die was cast.  I have since been a fan of Duke Basketball.  And this has not wavered.  My reasoning for my affinity has been explained away ad infinitum:  Coach K’s teams win and his kids graduate.

The hate that Duke basketball engenders humors me, too.  No Dallas Cowboys fan worth their salt is going to let a little hatred diminish their pride in their favorite team(s).  If anything, it makes us dig in even more.  Success breed hate.  This is beautifully touched upon in ESPN’s fantastic “I Hate Christian Laettner” 30-For-30.

See, by the time my high school years rolled around, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was front-and-center in my sports consciousness.  The Cowboys, Mavericks, and Rangers were varying between “This team sucks!” and “They mean well.”  The Stars were still the Minnesota North Stars.

Suffice it to say, college basketball filled a substantial void.

Laettner’s reputation now preceded him.  The underdog was, in the words of the 30-for-30, now the top dog.  Christian Laettner induced a level of hysteria and hate that I hadn’t seen up to that point.

It was during this time that my allegiance to Duke basketball blossomed into outright love.  It had everything to do with Christian Laettner.  The plucky underdog that got systematically dismantled by UNLV in 1990 came full-circle and “out-fundamental-ed” the defending champion (and undefeated to that point) Runnin’ Rebels in 1991

By 1992 however, the pluck had been fully replaced by the haughtiness of Laettner.  He’d had a great game against UNLV in the 1991 championship game.  The subsequent run-up to the 1992 championship game only served to fuel the blue flames of hatred.

Laettner’s reputation now preceded him.  The underdog was, in the words of the 30-For-30, now the top dog.  Christian Laettner induced a level of hysteria and hate that I hadn’t seen up to that point.

And I loved it.  And it all culminated with this, really.  Sorry, Kentucky basketball fans.

Christian Laettner was a big man with shooting guard moves.  He talked a big game, but played an even bigger one.  His opponents hated him.  His teammates didn’t care much for him, either.  He could shoot from the perimeter, but still finish at the rim.  He wore out Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal.  He talked trash, threw elbows, and wasn’t punished for it.  He was pretty.

He basically co-opted all the elements of “black” basketball into this white kid who looked good (knew it) and could play with anyone, regardless of their skin tone.  It was easy to see why Christian Laettner incited all the vitriol.  He didn’t fit the mold.  He wasn’t balky.  He wasn’t clumsy.  He was a cold-blooded assassin.

What you had in Christian Laettner was just about the toughest SOB to ever play the game on the collegiate level.  His athletic arrogance elevated his teammates to another plateau.  They may have hated his methods, but they could never argue with the results.

Fast-forward to now.

Any time Duke is within sniffing distance, I’m paying attention.  Doesn’t always happen.  They stumble sometimes.  Coach Krzyzewski gets pointed to and laughed at, as do his players.

But here I am, almost three decades into this Duke basketball thing.  The constant?  The same dude who’s still calling the plays, coaching for a potential fifth national-championship.

Coach K must be doing something right.  Go Quinn Cook.  Go Blue Devils.

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