Not even five minutes after Butler Bulldogs sophomore Gordon Hayward missed the half-court, last-second three-pointer that would have given his underdogs the college basketball national championship, a friend who’s one of the rare season ticket holders at Duke University’s tiny Cameron Indoor Stadium sent me one of those told-you-so texts. “Remember when I asked you if Duke would make it out of the Sweet 16 and you said ‘possibly’?” she asked. “Haha!!!”
I’ve been devoted to Duke basketball for as long as I can remember. While I like to think that my parents taught me principles of fairness, honesty and hard work, I know that they also taught me two fundamental dictums: Love Duke. Hate UNC. I really do think of Trajan Langdon as a king of an era that’s gone, and I can’t abide any team that claims one of Bill Guthridge’s Six Starters. Petty, I know, but the Blue Devils really are in my details.
My parents also instilled in their children a distrust of winning orat the very leasta tolerance, maybe even an acceptance, of losing. Every year, they’d tote my brother and me to long, defeat-heavy seasons of Duke football and N.C. State basketball. That was when N.C. State was in the midst of its bowl run (from 1988-1994, they went to a bowl every year) and when Duke was at the height of its NCAA dominance (from 1988-1994, they missed the Final Four only once). Mom and Dad were secret sadists, I guess.
So even though Mike Krzyzewski’s 30th Duke squad looked good early this year, I didn’t get too optimistic. After all, this team had substantial problems. Its premier recruit, towering freshman forward Mason Plumlee, broke his wrist before the season started. The other big men seemed competent but not exceptional, while the backcourt appeared to be comprised of good shooters who weren’t always capable of finding good shots. Guard Nolan Smith had to watch the first two games from the sideline, and his replacement, blustery Polish guard Olek Czyz, transferred halfway through the season.
That text message to the ribs came, of course, after Duke won its first national championship since 2001. Since November, they’d become quite good, actually, playing and improving as a team. Brian Zoubek, every ACC fan’s favorite punch line, became an unlikely machine in the closing months of his senior year, grabbing rebounds and blocks and points like never before. Lance Thomas, once so awkward in the post, became one of the most versatile, dependable defenders in the league. And SchminglerDuke’s backcourt of Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singleradopted symbiosis. When one player was off, the other two lifted him. In doing so, they never became this year’s most talented group of players, but they became the team that, in the end, stuck around long enough to watch Hayward’s heroic hurl rattle from the basket. Turns out, it’s nice to win, even if it means being wrong.