Hating Duke is the Real National Pastime

published April 5, 2010

A good sports hate is worth its weight in bile.

Take the Yankees.  For four decades they’ve been owned by a bully and a tyrant, someone quick to humiliate those who weren’t smart enough to be born into a rich family.  They threw gobs of money at big-name ornaments, whether they fit in or not.  They looked to win through sheer overwhelming force.  Their fans believe “adversity” means eight seasons between championships.  I understand hating them – and also those who hate the Red Sox, darlings of the literati, focus of their self-proclaimed Nation, smug in their moral superiority to the lordly Yankees even as their tactics and payrolls have come to look the same.

I can certainly see hating the Oakland Raiders.  (All of Denver is nodding.)  Al Davis has become an embarrassment, but even the good teams he built were deeply hateful; his defense would rather let you catch a pass so they could break you in half than go for the interception.   The eyepatch on the helmet stood for the blind eye they turned toward thugs, felons, and sociopaths, all of whom wound up in silver and black sooner or later.

The Dallas Cowboys are the hate that keeps on giving.  First it was Tex Schramm, Tom Landry, and “America’s Team.”  Then it was Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, the “triplets,” and Jerry’s newest toy, the Taj Mahal of sweatitoriums.  Notre Dame’s another one: the corn of “win one for the Gipper,” Touchdown Jesus, “Catholics vs. Convicts,” Rudy, the go-it-alone TV contract – there are a century’s worth of reasons to declare, “My favorite team is whoever’s playing the Fighting Irish.”  (Did I mention “the Fighting Irish?”)

For the life of me, though, I don’t understand why so many people so reflexively hate Duke.

Mike Krzyzewski took one of the most difficult jobs in the country in 1980 – coaching at a college with strong academics just ten miles from his main rival, who only happened to be Dean Smith and North Carolina – and has won, won consistently on the conference and national level, recruited cleanly, graduated nearly all of his players, was an assistant coach on the original U.S. Olympic Dream Team and head coach on the 2008 gold medal Redeemers.  And for this, he’s the bad guy?  In a matchup with Bob Huggins, whose players throughout his career have attended far more arraignments than commencements?

Yeah, Christian Laettner seemed a little too perfect, especially in that regional final against Kentucky when he went 10-for-10 from the field and the line, hitting the shot at the buzzer for the win (over that renowned paragon of class, Rick Pitino).  Bobby Hurley always seemed like a little brat, though he certainly ran the floor well in Duke’s big ’91 upset of UNLV (coached by that paragon of scholarship, Jerry Tarkanian).  J.J. Redick and Steve Wojciechowski were also part of the long white line that is Duke basketball – as long as you’re willing to ignore Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Grant and Thomas Hill, Brian Davis, Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer, Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Corey Maggette…

The most-read article over the last seven days on RealClearSports.com was a piece of tripe from the Miami Herald, “Duke Despised, and It Starts with Coach K.”  Krzyzewski is arrogant, we are told without demonstration, and the writer hates his “little beady eyes,” his “nasally and annoying” voice, his name that is “impossible to spell” and whose sound “follow(s) no laws of language.”  (I guess that makes former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski an anarchist.)  Jason Whitlock, whose writing I generally find thoughtful and provocative, took the lazy route in his own pretournament column, complaining that Duke was given the easiest path to the Final Four of all the number-one seeds because NCAA wanted to increase its ratings.  This theory ignores the fact that the combined RPIs of the 2-3-4 seeds in the South region suggested that Duke’s route was tougher than that of Kansas or Syracuse.  (The Orange and Jayhawks made the question of whose 2-3-4 seeds were more difficult wholly moot by losing to fifth and ninth seeds, respectively.)

College basketball is filled with players who read on a sixth-grade level; coaches who skip out on their contracts at the first hint of a better offer or NCAA investigation; presidents who dream of the big-time and don’t mind the occasional on-campus assault if the players help them get there; a governing body whose idea of enforcement is to sit by the phone, and whose proposed tourney expansion will keep kids out of class for weeks at a time. There are a lot of things worth hating in the sport; Duke’s not one of them.  It’s not the only school that does things the right way and still wins, but it’s the one that seems to take the most crap for it.

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