March Madness is upon us. It is time for your co-workers to harass you about filling out a bracket for your office pool because March is synonymous with college basketball.
Which means it’s time to root, passionately, against Duke.
After all rooting for Duke is like rooting for the Yankees, like rooting for Microsoft, like rooting for snow in Chicago: why would you?
But it wasn’t always this way. 19 years ago, the Duke Blue Devils were the Cinderella team, the team that everyone was pulling for, a force for good in a world of moral relativism. For Duke was the only thing standing in the way of UNLV.
The UNLV Running Rebels, the defending national champions in 1991, seemed to symbolize all that was wrong with college basketball. Their best player, Larry Johnson, was built like a linebacker, looked about a decade older than other players on the court and sported two gold teeth.
The Rebels’ players hailed from impoverished neighborhoods like Brownsville in Brooklyn, the 5th Ward in Houston and South Central Los Angeles and seldom earned degrees from the university. They played an aggressive and athletic style of basketball that seemed one step removed from the playgrounds. Their coach, Jerry Tarkanian, in what can only be described as a preemptive strike, sued the NCAA in order to forestall any investigation of his basketball team. This was happening even as members of his squad associated with Mafiosi like Richie the Fixer Perry. Perry is best known for
Help[ing] perpetrate the Boston College basketball point-shaving scandal (1978-79) and the 1973 Superfecta harness racing scandal in New York state….Perry is mentioned in Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 best seller, “Wise Guy,” a biography of Lucchese family soldier Henry Hill, who is now in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Hill called Perry a dealer in inside information for sports bettors.
And here’s Perry relaxing in a hot-tub with three members of UNLV’s National Championship team.
Still, UNLV won their title the year before by crushing Duke by 30 points! So, even as America rooted for Duke to pull off the upset and stops UNLV’s band of outlaws, there seemed little chance that it could happen.
While UNLV remained the unstoppable juggernauts from the year before, Duke was not the same team. The players victimized in the blowout of the previous year, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, were a year older and now knew what to expect from UNLV. Most importantly, Duke now had Grant Hill, a freshman forward more talented than any player on either roster. And their coach, former West Point cadet Mike Krzyzewski, was driven to avenge last year’s embarrassment.
UNLV’s overconfidence and Duke’s passion led to 79-77 Duke victory and transformed Duke from a plucky school that existed in the University of North Carolina’s shadow to the nation’s darlings. Coach K was now college basketball’s coaching icon. The Blue Devils were America’s team, at least in March.
And what does America love, if not a sequel? The next year Duke was called on to defend their title against a team of upstarts: Michigan’s Fab Five. Michigan started five freshmen, and seemed poised to upset what traditionalists believe is a fundamental basketball precept: experience produces victory. The Fab Five wore baggy shorts, black socks, their Nike sneakers flew off of store shelves.
If UNLV represented a morally ambiguous brand of basketball, the Fab Five seemed to embody style over substance. Except here was Michigan, one game from winning a National Championship with a team of freshmen!
Duke beat back the Fab Five’s challenge in 1992, becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles since John Wooden’s legendary UCLA teams in the 1960s. America, at least the America that exists in the minds of network and cable television executives, was sold: Duke was the gold standard of College Basketball.
There was just one problem. Duke made their name by beating Black teams known as much for their swagger as their talent in the early 1990s. The early 90s were the years of the Soundscan revolution, when Hip Hop elbowed its way into the cultural mainstream to be consumed by millions of suburban whites. Duke was increasingly the foil, the team your father rooted for, the corporatist institution arrayed against players who embraced, and were embraced by, Hip Hop culture.
Worse, Duke is, well, white. I mean really, really white.
While most college basketball teams might feature one or two white players, Duke’s teams regularly have 6 or more. So the image of Duke became the staid, fundamentally sound team that continually suppresses teams that rely on expression and creativity. Duke became the Establishment, the team everyone loves to hate.
None of this is fair. Duke plays an entertaining and efficient brand of basketball, their players graduate and generally stay of out trouble, Coach K deserves every accolade he has received.
But, every March I will root, passionately, for Duke to lose. And millions and millions of you will join me.