On the day after Thanksgiving, 1983, I sat in the second row behind the bench of the college basketball team of a struggling program that had won just 38 of 85 games in the coach's first three years at the program's helm. It was the team's opening game of the season, a season the experts did not expect to be special. Because of the holiday, the arena wasn't entirely packed. And I was just a visitor -- the sports editor of the Georgetown HOYA newspaper, at the beginning of a season where my Hoyas would win the national championship, visiting a friend who played on this other college's golf team. With my standards high because of the talent of my Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas, and fully prepared to be underwhelmed by the team in front of me that evening, I settled into my seat expecting to see nothing more than a ho-hum game played by two merely fair-to-middling teams.
Instead, what I saw was the start of a dynasty. This young coach with a West Point background, an undistinguished record, and the unpronounceable name of Krzyzewski had a young team that played with hustle and muscle, uncommon grit, fierce discipline, and a blue-collar work ethic. A forward named Danny Meagher was a bruising junior, while a freshman point guard named Tommy Amaker dished the ball to a hard-working Jay Bilas, a smooth Mark Alarie, swingman David Henderson off the bench, and especially a dazzling fellow guard named Johnny Dawkins whom my golfing friend told me played a strong game of Stratego. The arena, the now-famed Cameron Indoor, was intimate and delightfully raucous. During the timeouts, I could hear Coach K-whathisname's raspy voice, full of intensity, exhorting his team to hustle, pass, and think. The game was a barn-burning nail-biter (sorry for the clichés), with Dawkins scoring from all over the court en route to (if I remember correctly) 28 points. And Duke's Blue Devils finally burned opponent Vanderbilt in overtime, 78-74. The game would start an eight-game win streak (and 14 out of 15) to open a season that would see Krzyzewski make it to the NCAA tourney for the first time in his life as either a player or coach.
And I came away a fan for life of Duke basketball (behind of course my Hoyas and my hometown Tulane Green Wave), impressed by their technical soundness, their work ethic, and their coach who had served as an Army officer and who, I would learn, insisted (as did the Hoyas' John Thompson) that his players actually go to class and earn degrees.
Two seasons years later, that same group of players (with Danny Ferry replacing the graduated Meagher) led the Blue Devils to an epic championship game battle with (and gut-wrenching loss to) the Louisville Cardinals of "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison, in Coach K's first Final Four. I was actually on Duke's campus again for my only other visit, on spring break, at a campus event featuring Otis Day and the Knights (of Animal House fame) singing "Shout" just as midnight ushered in my birthday, when Alarie and a couple of the other players entered the concert hall to a heroes' welcome after having just returned to campus from their successful game earlier in the day to reach the Sweet Sixteen. But the way I remember it, Alarie and company didn't act like typical BMOCs who thought the adulation was their birthright, but instead sort of waved sheepishly to the applause as they walked in before trying (unsuccessfully) to disappear into the crowd.
Good guys, those. Amaker, Dawkins, and Henderson, among others, went on to college head coaching careers (as did later point guard Quin Snyder, whose first name alone clearly is a mark of distinction!) Bilas is a classy and astute presence on ESPN hoops broadcasts. A number of later players (Christian Laettner notwithstanding), especially Grant Hill, were the epitome of sportsmanship. And Duke did the world the favor of upending the heavily favored, utterly renegade UNLV squad of Jerry Tarkanian in the Final Four en route to Coach K's first-ever national championship in 1991.
All of which leads me to wonder: Why is Duke basketball so widely hated? What is there not to like? They beat bad guys like UNLV. Their players really are students. Their program isn't corrupt. They play ball the right way, with sound fundamentals. They work, they are disciplined, they hustle. They earn their stripes. They stress excellence. Most of their graduates become solid citizens. (Take Bilas, for example. In addition to broadcasting, he is a practicing lawyer of the right sort; he leads several major charitable endeavors, and he had the gumption early on to buck the Duke administration by offering strong, unambiguous support for the falsely accused Duke lacrosse players.)
Their coach does all sorts of good works. He is an Army man. He's a patriot. He credits his opponents. He has a wonderful family. And he almost always votes Republican.
Now he has won the fourth national title of his tenure, along with four runner-up finishes and three other Final Four appearances. Sure, his team did it by beating a admirable group of overachieving underdogs, a Butler squad that plays the most technically sound and effective defense I have ever seen (and that includes all the great Hoya defenses under the elder John Thompson). Sure (as Wilt Chamberlain said), it's easy to hate Goliath, and Duke has become a Goliath of sorts of college basketball. But none of that should detract from the sheer impressiveness not just of the Duke/Coach K record, nor from the integrity with which they have achieved it.
These are conservative cultural values, these values of successful hard work, that Duke epitomizes. We should admire Butler, certainly, but we should celebrate Duke's program and its victory. Coach K did not inherit a great program; he built it from scratch. He started as the comparatively poor-boy made good, up by his bootstraps, beating a Vanderbilt. It's the American way. And it's very, very much a way to admire and to like.