Monday, March 29, 2010

On Duke and Irrational Animus

Eighteen years ago, a 23-year-old Buffalo native with a Patrick Bateman coiffure sunk a turnaround jump shot from the top of the key that changed college basketball forever. I don't remember harboring any ill feeling to Duke before then; to tell the truth, I'm not sure if I really dislike them now, or I have just bought into some sort of Reichstagian mass delusion fanned by the blogosphere.

Like most people, I cannot articulate any concrete reason for my periodic vitriol toward Duke; the only Duke graduate I really know is a friend from high school. (I've always liked Carolina more, largely because that shade of powder blue is the greatest color ever invented.) I never engaged much with the Duke lacrosse story. I was indifferent toward Laettner--if anything, I found his hubris kind of amusing. I liked Grant Hill (though, of course, he is generally regarded as the exception to the rule); I have no beef with Alaskan basketball prodigies or the offspring of Doug Collins. I believe Jay Bilas is an excellent color commentator, even when I disagree with him, and while I believe J.J. Redick was wildly overrated as a collegian, I never harbored any vitriol toward him. I thought Coach K's American Express ad ("I am leader who happens to coach basketball") was perhaps the most embarrassing moment in the program's history, but I also recognize that his teams regularly have graduation rates in the 90th percentile. In this way, the lazy comparison of Duke to the New York Yankees is ridiculous; if anything, Duke is the opposite of the Yankees. They are working in opposition to a system that has almost completely de-emphasized academic performance; in truth, Kentucky is far more the equivalent of the Yankees than Duke.

In fact, the only legitimate complaint I can muster about Duke is that they are on television far too often, and that when they are television, certain follically challenged broadcasters (ahem!) tend to latch on to a cult of personality that renders their games almost unwatchable. But if the worst thing about Duke is that they are overexposed, this is not really a good reason for wanting them to fail. Is it?

Of course, I'm not going to deny that there are other factors at work here, complicated issues that are almost impossible to discuss without saying something that can be misconceived or taken out of context. There is the underlying question of race, though it seems this has far more to do with class than with race; if the NCAA tournament is the epitomal populist sporting event, Duke has been branded as the perennial "elitist" candidate. It doesn't matter that Cornell is likely home to just as many elitists as Duke; by succeeding in opposition to the system for such a long period of time, Duke has essentially branded itself as a self-righteous ascetic among the sinners. Still, why should this bother me? I am a fan of Penn State football. For years, opposing coaches have dismissed Joe Paterno as preachy and self-righteous and even blatantly racist. Should I feel differently because Duke is a private school? Should I feel differently because of a perception of arrogance that cannot be rationally pinpointed, and that I have never actually experienced?

I shouldn't, I know. And yet I do feel that way. I do. I don't hate Duke all the time, but I've chosen to hate them this year, because they seem overrated, because in a year when the NCAA tournament has swung back toward unpredictable populism, Duke doesn't really belong in this moment. They aren't that good. They can't be that good. And those sentiments may be entirely irrational, but this is the beauty of sports--they allow us to embrace irrationality without explanation. Maybe I should be pulling for Duke, but I won't. And I don't have to tell you why.


panicstreak said...

Theres only one reason I ever liked Duke. Alaa Abdelnaby.

Abdelnaby is perhaps best known for his infamous quote regarding Duke University's academic requirements: "The only way I can make five A's is when I sign my name."

Michael Weinreb said...

Also the greatest Egyptian journeyman in NBA history.