CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DUKE—There are many reasons that the Duke Blue Devils lost to the University of Miami Hurricanes on Super Bowl Sunday, at home, in overtime, 78-74, foremost among them the 300 pounds of Reggie Johnson, poor free throw shooting, over reliance on the three-point shot and a first half filled with enough turnovers, fouls and defensive lapses to make a UNC fan’s heart pitter patter with joy and anticipation (of this Wednesday night at 9 p.m., in case you’ve suffered a recent head wound), yet despite all these symptoms, the true reason remains a mystery.
“No,” intoned Coach K, when asked if he knew why Duke lacked energy for the first 20 minutes, and let the silence sit for five long seconds.
“I don’t have an explanation,” explained Ryan Kelly.
“Weak,” said Austin Rivers.
“Some of basketball, a lot of it, just comes from effort,” offered Miami head coach Jim Larranaga.
Down 28-42 after a miserable half, Duke made an effort. After symbolically coming off the bench again, Seth Curry, in one of his best performances as a Blue Devil, might have thought he was back at Liberty University, slashing to the basket and hitting threes, pull-up jumpers and drives on his way to a team-high 22 points in 39 minutes, with four assists, three steals and no turnovers on the side. With the unusually ineffective Mason on the bench, Miles Plumlee poked balls away from the dangerous Mr. Johnson. Rivers rebounded, early and often, coast-to-coasting twice. Quinn Cook pounded his chest and asserted himself on defense, including a forced air-ball from Malcolm Grant after a Miami timeout, with 3:02 left in the game and Duke down by one point, whereupon the home crowd stood up as one body and filled Cameron Indoor Stadium with the feeling of a destiny and a game about to be won.
Everyone—Duke, Miami, the fans, the media—had been waiting for this moment all night, perhaps all season, and for some of the youngest in the crowd, maybe their whole lives. Because the crowd seemed back, after weeks of scolding in the media for lack of volume and verve. Body painted students lined the rows, shaking off some early-game complaints about sore hands and throats unused to weaponized cheering. Miami’s huddle faced some semblance of a shout-down during timeouts. A cameraman nodded in satisfaction. Chants of “please don’t eat me” sailed out towards fat players, and refs were urged to seek alternative professions and consult specialty doctors. Cameron seemed loud again, and Miami had never won here, and it was going to stay that way.
After all, Duke wins these games, at home, despite difficult makes by Johnson over the outstretched hands of Miles, despite a miss at the line by Rivers that might have put Duke up by one, despite miserable first halves. Duke had to win after Miami couldn’t get a shot off and the game went into overtime, with their best three-point shooter fouled out, and the Blue Devils guards about to drive with total ferocity and earn six free throws in the extra period, two by Curry (89 percent), two by Cook (81 percent), two by Rivers (68 percent)?
Zero for six. Lose by four. “You can’t cheat the game,” Krzyzewski zenned. He was pissed off after this one, like a dad that raised 31 children and somehow ended up with a 32nd who didn’t look like any of the others, or him, or the mom, and wrecked the car again and again despite getting straight As and remembering everyone’s birthday. “You got to play that way all the time, and then I think free throws go in at the end. At least most often than not.”
There is a sense—from Coach K, from the players, from fans and foes and the press—that’s something’s missing from the Duke basketball experience this year. The crowd may have sounded, at times, like it was as loud and active as it’s been this year, but not to everyone. “I don’t even want to talk about the fans,” Coach K said. And: “The place doesn’t have energy. We don’t, the place doesn’t. We had none, I’m not blaming anyone else. It’s us. We should have energy even if the place is empty. It’s that important.”
The curious case of Crazies v. K aside—stay tuned!—what else is going on? Sometimes it’s called defense. Sometimes effort, hunger. Sometimes experience. Yet the one word that has not been heard often this season, in either diagnosis or praise, from the all-time winningest coach in Division I men’s basketball, is the word “leader”, a word that Duke’s coach has written books about, gives talks about and takes very seriously, and a word that is all but missing from his post-game comments in 2011-12, apart from a brief mention of Mason Plumlee’s “great leadership on the court”—noted on Nov. 12, after a win over Presbyterian in the second game of the regular season. Who are this team’s leaders? Coach K has provided ample descriptions of who to look for in his oft-quoted writings:
“During critical periods, a leader is not allowed to feel sorry for himself, to be down, to be angry, or to be weak.”
“Every leader needs to remember that a healthy respect for authority takes time to develop.”
“A leader takes responsibility for his own actions and mistakes”
“A leader may be the most knowledgeable person in the world, but if the players on his team cannot translate that knowledge into action, it means nothing.”
Strong, free of pity and anger, patient, responsible, turning knowledge into action: The history of Duke basketball is filled with such players, and it seems possible that Rivers, or Curry, or Mason Plumlee—or the big hearted Cook and Thornton and Hairston, the communicative Kelly, the confident Dawkins, any or all of them—may still join their ranks, and that the word leader will return to Coach K’s post-game lexicon once more. But it’s clear, for now, that during critical periods, leaders can’t score 22 points and then miss two freebies in the OT (Curry), and waste the most important possession of the game (Cook), and shoot 1-7 on 3-pointers and 5-9 from the line (Rivers), and get belly bumped into submission (Mason), and get burned on first-half defense (Dawkins et al), all at the same time.
In one of the greatest sports books ever written, the autobiographical novel A Fan’s Notes, Fred Exley [who was, as it happens, a New York Giants fan —ed.] recalls his father being asked whether the 8-year-old Fred was tough. “It’s too soon to tell,” says Exley’s father, an answer that shocks the questioner, who knows the football-playing father as one of the toughest guys he’s ever met. “I’m sure he’s tough,” the man responds, with surprise, and walks away before anything more can be said. Duke—its fans, its team, its world—is sure that Duke is tough, sure with the surety of faith, history and hope, but the father, who knows best, knows that it’s not too late, but getting late, and yet too soon to tell.
Guest correspondent Eric Martin lives in Durham. A stage adaptation of his novella Donald, co-authored with Stephen Elliott, is playing at Manbites Dog Theater.