Saturday, March 28, 2009


As I think I've mentioned before, I attended Duke for the last five years. Being the contrarian prick that I am, I always rooted for Duke to lose. But the other night a few weeks back, for the first time, I was actually a little saddened by a Duke loss, and it's prompted me to scribble some meandering reflections on my time with Duke ball.

Like rap, I came to ball late - in 2001, to be exact, the year my hometown Sixers went to the Finals and Iverson was every Philly Jewish kid's boyhood hero. Before that the only sport I watched, naturally, was golf. So I was never cognizant of Duke's basketball tradition or that they won the championship that year. When I applied and got into Duke, in an ill-conceived attempt to rankle everybody who thought I should be going to Yale, I figured that it behooved me to start watching Duke ball, and one night, alone at home, I tuned in to the Duke-Kansas Tournament game. Nick Collison was otherwordly that night, not so much overpowering or jumping over our defenders as floating around them with sublime aplomb. We went down, and Collison was drafted in the late lottery and went on to do absolutely nothing in his career.

Then I went down to Duke. Fresh off of managing my high school basketball team, a ragtag outfit of D-3 players that somehow managed to knock off the then #1 point guard in the country, one Mustafa Shakur, (incredibly, recruiting services at the time had this guy pegged over Chris Paul), for the league title, I figured I'd manage the men's team. It turned out that the managerial squad was this bizarre, Coach K-worshipping unpaid cult of suited trust fund babies who spoke in hushed, venerating tones about the Values of the Program and did shit like watching Shavlik Randolph's diet and shielding the doors to Cameron with their scrawny frames so no one could spy on practice through the windows. So I went to work for the women's team instead and attended my first Midnight Madness (that wonderful ceremony where the team has its "first practice" the NCAA allows it to have before thousands of screaming freshman fans, and I put first practice in quotes because for weeks prior of course they're having unofficial practices in secret) as a civilian. When we got to Cameron they played footage of the '01 championship game against Arizona to rile us up, and I, never having known that we'd beaten the likes of Gilbert Arenas and Richard Jefferson for the championship, and naturally being a bigger fan of guys like Arenas than dullards like Shane Battier, strangely began to root for Arizona to win even though I knew they couldn't, the game having been played two years prior. Inevitably, Duke won the game, the court went black, and out of the darkness walks.... Jason Williams on crutches! For the thousands of crazed fans assembled there, and even for me, it was a pretty powerful moment, on some real Lazarus from the dead shit. Of course, Williams had gotten in a motorcycle accident after his rookie year in the NBA, just months prior to this shindig, and no one quite knew at the time that his pro career was over. It hadn't gotten off to such an auspicious start, anyway; with the exception of a triple-double against Jason Kidd, his play was remarkably poor, and off the court there was the whole pathetic name-change kerfuffle, from Jason to Jay so as to avoid confusion with Jayson Williams (the murderer) and Jason Williams (the controversial WHIT EBOY point guard). But with the accident all that was forgotten, and Jason assumed his place in the Dukie fallen hero pantheon with Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, who supposedly would have been our answer to John Stockton had he not destroyed his body in a pickup truck accident in
his rookie year a decade prior. Anyway, Jason stepped up to the mic in his crutches, laconically urged the 03-04 team on to greatness, and proceeded to spend the next couple years hanging out in Durham, supposedly because of our wonderful rehab facilities but really because of the superabundance of Jason Williams groupies.

After this initiation into the glories of Duke basketball, I remained a fan for about a month, right up until our very first game, a home contest against the Detroit Titans. Detroit actually beat us for the first 31 minutes of the game and the prospect of such a nonentity beating us on our home court to the crushing disappointment of hundreds of paint-smeared Asian chemistry majors was so thrilling that I promptly became a Duke anti-fan. The 03-04 incarnation wasn't the easiest team to root against; Redick hadn't quite ascended to superstardom and our leader, Luol Deng, was one of the nicest, most unassuming, funniest future pro athletes you'll ever meet, while Shelden Williams, our sole big man of note, was just really nice and hadn't yet started fucking Candace Parker.* (Fun Luol fact: rather than sleep his way through campus, Luol took up a girlfriend, namely the daughter of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, AKA The Last Real Banker Alive.) Perhaps because of that kindly demeanor, Luol never lived up to the Duke's Carmelo hype and we went down in the real title game to UConn, who had Ben Gordon and Okafor, and remember that at the time there was a non-ridiculous debate as to who Orlando should take first in the draft, Okafor or Dwight Howard. Unfortunately I was at the height of my depression at the time and watched the first half of the game alone in a dark room.

I returned to Duke in January of '06, when J.J.-mania was at its height. In the interim, my freshman year roommate had become the school paper's sports editor, and he used to seriously argue to me that J.J. (a) was possibly the greatest college player of all time and (b) could have a Reggie Miller or Rip Hamilton-type career in the NBA. Also in the interim, Sean Dockery, who went from Chicago high school legend to an offensive zero/defensive specialist at Duke, had been deified as a latter-day Christian Laettner on account of a deep buzzer-beater he hit against a bad Virginia Tech team in a meaningless regular season game. Of course, a team built around an overrated spot shooter cannot stand, and we bowed out in the Sweet 16 to LSU and the supposedly once-in-a-generation talents of Ty Thomas. The commentators discovered, with stunning alacrity, that, gee, Duke never really had guards who could create jack shit, and relied way too heavily on threes, and lacked NBA athletes (they never realized this before?), and for the first time it began to dawn on kids in my class that we might not make it to see Duke win a championship. But fear not, the boosters said - now that J.J. (who was still the greatest ACC player ever and all but maybe, by dint of his own greatness, attracted so much defensive attention that you couldn't win a title with him, or some crazy bullshit like that), was gone, we could unveil our not-so-secret weapon - Josh McRoberts!

Here at Duke, or rather, back there at Duke, we've always had a fascination with Big White Guys Who Can Shoot And Dribble and Stuff. (That and Little White Guys Who Can't Create Their Own Shot and Stuff.) Before the McRoberts Experience, we had Shavlik Randolph. Shavlik, people forget, was so good in high school that he considered going straight into the draft. Shavlik was so good that, at a high school where Pete Maravich played for four years, he held all the scoring records. Of course when he came to Duke, all this skill vanished. It got to the point where you got excited if he canned an open 18-foot jump shot, as if that was the apotheosis of big-man versatility. I once asked Shavlik in an elevator why he always dunked with two hands. (In the Duke basketball offices, the alcoves around the elevators are bedizened with the pro cards of NBA standouts like Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, and Mike Gminski. No idea what message they're trying to send there.) He starts stammering, holds his hands a couple feet in front of his face, turns them over back and forth as if to inspect them, and says, "m-m-my hands are too small." I don't know if playing at Duke shattered his confidence or if the talent evaluators were wrong to begin with or whether it's really easy to break Pistol Pete's records. But you'd think that after Shavlik they might have shied away from ballyhooed white post players who couldn't play the post (but could dribble behind their back and make wobbly threes in practice). Of course, they didn't. Josh was generally regarded by the student body as an enormous prick, and it was a shame to see him disappoint so many title-starved engineering students. My roommate when I got back to school in '06 was this Haitian dude from Brooklyn, and everytime Josh would dribble the ball behind his back on the break, Verlaine would go, "he's got mad handles son! Just imagine [when said mad handles are unleashed next season on an unsuspecting basketball world]!" Of course, having big men who can do things that other big men can't do isn't any more of a devastating asset for a team to have than, say, having guards with great post moves, especially if these things are things like, kinda being able to shoot but not really, or, doing cool stuff with the ball but being too slow to blow by anybody with it. Josh led us to a first-round exit, got taken by Portland in the second round because Greg Oden and he were friends (Portland probably should've taken that as a warning flag about Oden), and went on a bad date with Lauren Conrad of The Hills. Leading one girl I knew who Josh fucked to say that the date had "brought me closer to LC," her hero. These are the kinds of women who attend Duke.

Once J.J. and Josh were out, Coach K went out and got ersatz J.J.'s and Josh's in the form of Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. Scheyer famously scored 21 points in 75 seconds in a high-school game (and bore a striking resemblance to that autistic kid who scored 20 points in the last 4 minutes of a high-school game)**; like Shavlik taking out Pistol Pete's single-game scoring record, or DeMarcus Nelson somehow becoming California's most prolific high school scorer of all time, it was one of those classically misleading Duke recruit factoids. Scheyer was billed as a J.J. with more ball skills, but he wasn't nearly as good a shooter and the ball skills were never good enough. Singler's a respectable player who was supposed to be a star. The senior leader of this group was Greg Paulus, a non-talent who, in a sick parody of Duke fanhood, gave up football in spite of being the best high school quarterback in the country because he wanted to play for Coach K so. (Of course, being too small to play in the NFL had something to do with it too.) The longer his career dragged out, the less playing time he got, until he eventually became virtually indistinguishable from one of our human victory cigar walk-ons. (Creepy fact about our walk-ons; most of them have prominent CEOs or owners of NBA teams for dads. I doubt that money actually changes hands - though maybe it does in the form of contributions to the university, Coach K's charities, etc. - but kids whose fathers own the Boston Celtics definitely get a major edge in the walk-on selection process.) However you felt about the guy, it was sad to see him regress from mediocrity to mascot.

And then there's Henderson. Henderson, who incidentally, lost to my high school's team when he played with Wayne Ellington and our best player was that starting center for Xavier who doesn't score at all or do much of anything (great kid though), is really the last legit player we've had since Luol and certainly the most interesting and tragic. (J.J. lovers may see some tragedy in J.J.'s fate but they're nuts.) Seeing him in high school I expected huge things out of him, and after the first couple years I began to think he was just another great talent cannibalized by Coach K and his nefarious system. But this year was different, and thanks to him, for the first time since '04 they looked like more than a bunch of overrated Caucasians, like a team that - just maybe - could win something. And then it all came to a crashing halt. In the pantheon of terrible last games in a Duke uniform (and believe me, he's headed out, if only because this is the weakest draft ever), Henderson's 1-14 against Villanova may well be right at the top, above Williams's missed foul shot to tie the game and 6-19 shooting against a weak Indiana squad, DeMarcus The Body Nelson's 2-11, 6 point effort against West Virginia, Paulus's deeply sad "was he ever on the court?" four fouls in ten minutes game a couple weeks ago, and Redick's 3-18 against LSU. (Eerily, Scheyer shot 3-18 the other night as well.) So what happened? I hate the one foot in cultural studies, one foot in amateur psychoanalysis bullshit that goes on at FreeDarko, but I'd like to offer a fanciful FreeDarkoesque explanation. The thing that's always struck me about Henderson's affect on the court is his peculiar lack of joy. And not the "basketball's an annoying waste of time that stresses me out to death" lack of joy that you see on the faces of so many natural talents in the league or even big college programs who just play ball because financially they'd be fools not to, although when I recently read in the paper that Henderson's first love was golf, I started to wonder. The sense you get, if you simply google image Gerald Henderson or watch some of his dunks on youtube and note his celebrations, restrained and angry and somehow a little phony all at the same time, is of a guy who deeply cares about ball but is burdened by it - burdened, I would suggest, in a particular respect, the expectations that stem from his eerie resemblance to Grant Hill.

Now, maybe this is a thing that you need to spend some time at Duke to get, and maybe I'm biased because I have, but I would contend that the pressures on the Duke basketball player are almost unique in sports. It isn't like playing for your average storied program like Kentucky; Kentucky fans don't expect their players to live up to the great legacy of Scott Padgett or Tony Delk, to name a couple of Wildcat stars who led their teams to championships. They expect them to live up to the name on the jersey, which is pressure enough, but rather abstract compared to what happens at Duke. At Duke, the past is present. The coach who led us to our last championship and the two before that nearly twenty years ago is still with us, and isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Anything that goes wrong is the players' fault, because Coach K is Coach K, so it can't be his. After a loss, there's no "he should've played zone, he shouldn't instruct his players to take half of their shots from three year after year and be surprised when they inevitably go cold in the Tournament and miss," there's just, "Scheyer's a bum, how dare he go 2-10 from the perimeter." At Duke, the team's always expected to win a championship because the sportswriters are always foolish enough to, at some point in the season, rank us #1 in the AP poll and give false hope to the team's insanely basketball-ignorant fans. And when you're in the bookstore, there's always a highlight reel from the 1991 and 1992 seasons on loop. The tape they were playing when I first came to visit in 2002 on an unreasonably hot day in September was the same tape they were playing on my last day of school this December. The t-shirts with stupid jokes about how Carolina kids can't do math hadn't changed either. Kids who can't name 10 players in the NBA know that Christan Laettner made The Shot and Grant Hill threw him The Pass. So to not only be the great shining hope, the leader-on-the-court of the Duke Program, to not only have K say things about you after your last win like "down the stretch I just rode him... we were going to either sink or swim with him, and we're swimming," but to weirdly resemble and even play a little like one of the two biggest legends of the program must have been a crushing burden. And maybe on some totally subconscious level, Gerald realized that to win it in the role of a bunch of sick, racist, masturbatory losers' ersastz Grant Hill fetish object would have been wrong. To win it for a coach who's turned basketball in his little corner of the world into this creepy religion of frail white sainthood and sickening amounts of three-point shooting would have been wrong. And that's the great and simultaneously sad thing about this defeat, that it laid waste to the Coach K vision of basketball in a way that the past seven years hadn't. Because this time, the Crazies couldn't make the excuse that we suffered a noble defeat to a bunch of freakishly athletic swamp-dwelling black men, like they did with LSU, or that Coach K got tricked by an apostate, like they did with McRoberts, or that we just met a team more stacked with pro talent than us, like they did with UConn. This time we had all the talent that we should've needed, and we were demolished by a pack of second-round pick undersized forwards and combo guards. So we'll have to retool and revamp and reconceptualize the way Duke plays the game. And that's great. But it's also sad, sad to see something that you grew up with die, and so for the first time in the waning minutes of the Villanova game, I became a Duke fan.

* Nobody at Duke quite gets how that happened. The guy was the second best player on the team at one point and the two or three girls he dated during his time there were among the ugliest on what, as you might imagine, is a somewhat aesthetically challenged campus.

** J-Mac, as he's known, had his big game just a month after Scheyer's.


bding7 said...

it could be worse. you (or i, for that matter) could have attended haverford.

based on people i've met and know, you didn't miss much by not going to yale.

Badmon3333 said...

"... my freshman year roommate had become the school paper's sports editor, and he used to seriously argue to me that J.J. (a) was possibly the greatest college player of all time and (b) could have a Reggie Miller or Rip Hamilton-type career in the NBA...

This is the primary problem I have with the apeshit Duke-fan set. Overestimation of their ability: the last time Duke beat a tournament seed higher than No. 5 was when they won the championship in '01.

You don't have to go very far back into Duke's history to see the Lauded White Man Who Can't Really Play Pro Ball. I know Hurley had the accident, but I suspect he probably would have gone in the same general direction as Redick, who couldn't even manage to stand out on the Magic when they sucked.

tray said...

I mean, to be fair, in a different situation Redick could've gotten more PT and been a totally respectable three-point specialist; they just had a glut of mediocre guards who were just a little less awful than he was. But the problem was and still is that the guy isn't actually that great a shooter. Truly great shooters usually shoot better than 42% from three in college; that should've been a tipoff that he wasn't even going to be a Kyle Korver. And about lauded white men who can't really play, I mean, part of Duke zealotry is a sort of weird pride in the players who don't become good pros. You never hear people talking about Brand; Hill in a way is better loved by the Duke fans precisely because of the injuries. Duke kids feel that the NBA is this inferior brand of ball and that it's only natural that our selfless, scrappy players don't succeed in what they view as this selfish, circus-like, loafing parody of the game. So although they always predict dominance for guys like Redick, it doesn't faze them at all when they fail; it's not like they see a Redick as being exposed as a bad basketball player.

Anyway, bding, I liked Duke in a way. Definitely would've hated Yale.

Badmon3333 said...

Up until the playoffs, I'd agree that the NBA is at least a much-less-exciting brand of ball (my dad's excellently concise summation: "They never f*cking miss!").

I have nothing but respect for Coach K's mastery of the college game; but what always seems to tip me to the Carolina side is that Dean Smith and Roy Williams (even at Kansas) were coaching their players to not just play great college ball but also the kind of ball that will help them succeed in the pros. You can definitely make the argument that they just get some of the most talented ballers, and it's definitely valid, but Duke gets tons of good players as well, and they just don't seem to have the same kind of success, historically and year-to-year, as UNC.

tray said...

See even on a strategic level, does he have a great mastery of the college game, or just of ACC refs? It's not like his teams are untalented, per se; others do more with less. I really think that with what he had, if he didn't put so much emphasis on shooting the three, his teams could go farther. In the tournament every game's one and done, and if your whole game is shooting threes you're almost sure to have a cold night and lose, just as a matter of statistics. Unless of course you have a ton of great shooters, and really he usually has just the one and then a ton of mediocre ones. You take a ton of threes, you do score more and win more games over the course of a season, but you're also more vulnerable in any single game. Look at the Suns.

Badmon3333 said...

Tru dat - I also think that he hasn't stepped up the physicality of his teams' game when some of the other ACC heavyweights (really I just mean UNC) have. Carolina plays a much more physical game, to the extent that they ran right over 'Nova (the smallest Big East team, but still).

The Big East, much as I hate to say it as a Pittsburgh native, was a little overhyped this year.

ghengis blond said...

lol at dismissing the value of post skills in a guard player like bean ain't at his his best outmaneuvering peons and kissing the glass or shoulder faking into a wide open midrange.

the suns lost in 7 game series not because they relied too much on the three ball, though certainly that was a weakness, but because their point guard is incorporeal on defense and because they matched up terribly with the second best team at the time.

i'm a duke hater 4 sho