The first game of Duke's season, against UNC-Greensboro on Nov. 13, was broadcast only on Fox Sports South, which meant that my friends up North had to wait another few days to get their initial glimpse of this year's team.
"How do we look?" some of them asked, but I couldn't respond truthfully because by the middle of the first half, I had switched the channel. Duke was ranked in the top 10 — it hasn't dropped out of the top 10 all year, actually — and it was still the first half of the first game, so I shouldn't have expected much. But even then I was sure. This wasn't the team I had anticipated, and really, it wasn't the team I wanted to watch in my last year with free tickets to Cameron Indoor Stadium. So I responded as eloquently as I could:
"We suck," I said.
Now, to be fair, this was not entirely true.
This Duke team just wasn't like the Duke teams I had grown up with, and it certainly wasn't like the three teams I had watched up close from Cameron's rickety wooden bleachers. This team had no villains. Kyle Singler wasn't Christian Laettner, stomping on players and blowing kisses to the crowd. Jon Scheyer wasn't J.J. Redick, flashing the shocker in Chapel Hill. Nolan Smith wasn't Greg Paulus, flopping on a fast break. No one on this squad reveled in disdain, and no one on this team had earned any sort of swagger, perhaps because no one on this team had advanced past the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, and no one on this team had beaten North Carolina at home. If the most incriminating trait of this year's team was that Scheyer made funny faces, then it was true: the Blue Devils, for once, were boring.
Still, we root for our teams when they're shadows of what they used to be. If there's not a reason to watch, we find one. So I tuned into every game, sometimes fighting off sagging eyelids, scanning for a glimpse of hope — something to convince me to watch the next game, and the one after that. Unlike pretty much everyone else in the world, I wanted to like this team. (Except, you know, on the days that I was covering the team as a reporter. For objectivity's sake, let's just forget about those.) Slowly, "We suck" turned into "We're not that bad" and "We're actually pretty good" and, finally, at the start of January, just in time for conference play: "You know what?" I said to a friend. "I kind of like this team." And maybe you might, too.
* * *
For whatever reason, it's become vitally important this year to determine which Final Four teams are the most likable, which is really just a roundabout way of saying anew that Duke sucks. (Talk about objectivity!) If only DeMarcus Cousins were still around to scoff at such story lines; no one still playing is actually unlikeable enough to protest. Of course, Duke is not outwardly likable, especially not when it's matched up with a team like Butler, because Duke is Duke, right? Duke is Laettner and Redick and Paulus, and Duke is three national championship banners, and Duke is Mike Krzyzewski sniveling for charges. Duke is overhyped and underachieving, and Duke is as white as it is vanilla, and Duke is — well, it's just Duke. And fuck Duke.
Except this year's Duke team, much as the front of its uniforms may argue otherwise, isn't really that Duke. It is kind of boring. It doesn't really have superstars, not to mention villains. Its players show some sort of personality beyond mere petulance. And most important, it isn't all that good. Not like Duke's national championship teams of the past, at least. One veteran sportswriter here recently compared traveling with the 1992 Duke team to following the Beatles; if that's true, then traveling with this team is more like following Sha Na Na. Even Coach K admitted that this wasn't a great squad, just one with character — and he wasn't referring to, say, Nolan Smith live-streaming a trip to Target, or Brian Zoubek sporting the school's most ironic beard, but rather the kind that develops with losses. This Duke team is more likable than other Duke teams in recent memory (which, I know, is separating shades of evil), not because it's winning, but because it has never really won.
The players on this Duke team were around in August 2008, when Krzyzewski gave a press conference after returning from the Olympics in Beijing. His Duke team had lost on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament two years in a row; the class of 2008 became the first in 10 years to graduate without seeing a Final Four. The Olympic coach went out of his way to address the critics and naysayers and a "spoiled" fan base that griped about not winning national championships. "So whatever you want to do, whether it be the student newspaper, local, national ... you can throw all that stuff out, it ain't going to work," he said, staring at the two representatives of our campus rag. "For the rest of my career, I'm not going to do that relief thing. I'm going to go after it, I'm going to do it. And if somebody doesn't go to the Final Four during their four years at Duke, then that's just too damn bad." In other words: This Duke team never had time or reason to be anything but humble. Consequently, we fans, for the first time in far too long, were able to relish in the surprise glee of making the Final Four, rather than wallow in thwarted expectations.
Of course, that's not the only reason I've grown to like this Duke team. For starters, I'm almost obligated to find excuses to do so. I like these players because I see them on campus, eating the same stale bagel sandwiches as I do. I like them because my college years are inextricably linked with theirs. I like them because they're not one-and-done mercenaries, and I like them because they actually improved, as a team, over four years. I like them because their two starting guards lost their starting spots early in their careers, and I like them because neither one of them fussed about it. I like Nolan Smith because his nickname is Showtime, and I like the Brothers Plumlee because they can go by the Brothers Plumlee. I like Jon Scheyer because his parents bring donuts and coffee to students. I like Lance Thomas because he tattooed his right arm with the state of New Jersey, and I like him even more because he made it bigger when everyone noticed.
But most of all, I like them because they're different from other Duke teams. It's a team that my classmates and I can call our own.
* * *
That difference probably won't mean much to you, especially if you found yourself loathing Scheyer and his swinging elbows in the Baylor game just as much as you despised Laettner. I could come up with a whole slew of reasons why Scheyer might annoy you, and if I really wanted to, I could probably produce an equally long list of reasons why he doesn't annoy me, and in the end, we would both be right. For you, Scheyer is loathsome because he plays for Duke — no matter what Duke team it is that he plays for — and for me, Scheyer is not loathsome because he plays for Duke. That's the basic premise of supporting a team, right? If you don't like Duke — the idea of Duke — then you won't like an individual Duke team, even if it is more like Butler than Kentucky. And if you do like Duke, you'll do anything to like an individual Duke team, even when it is more like Kentucky than Butler.
At some point, maybe, Duke will stop being a projection of other people's anxieties about race and privilege and entitlement, and maybe then fans will evaluate the school's basketball teams for what they really are. After all, what we're really talking about when we argue about a team's likability is never basketball but the school's acquired baggage, piled up over decades. So if you really want, I can tell you more about my personal process of coming to terms with these Blue Devils and appreciating them for what they are and they aren't, all in an effort to convince you that my fandom isn't completely irrational, but all I'd really be saying is, in effect, "My subjective impression is better than your subjective impression." Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.
Trying to convince you to like Duke is about as pointless as trying to convince me to root for the Tar Heels tonight. Out of sympathy, you know? Because I hear they're still playing somewhere, too.