Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why Do We Hate Duke Basketball?

I turned on ESPN a few minutes after Duke's win over Baylor and the first thing I heard was Dick Vitale (who does little to hide his affection for Duke basketball) passionately demanding to know why people hate a group full of players who play hard, technically sound basketball and care about academics.

Well Dickie V, I (with a little help from the Sports Guy) have got your answer baby!

The more regular readers of this blog may have picked up that I am a big fan of ESPN's Bill Simmons (aka the Sports Guy).  As someone who favors a style of writing that is more based on fan opinions and interpretations of sports rather than simply reporting the facts while also making frequent pop culture references, I have to give it up to Simmons as the master of this craft.  It's no coincidence that he was able to make a 700+ page book (not named Harry Potter) in which he exhaustively shared his opinions and observations (albeit very well researched and strongly based opinions and observations) on the NBA a NYT bestseller.

Anyways, as I am wont to do, I was listening to Simmons' podcast, the BS Report a few weeks back, on which pop culture guru (and another very entertaining writer) Chuck Klosterman was the guest (to listen to it in full click here).  After touching on the controversies surrounding Tiger Woods and John Mayer, the topic switched to Duke Basketball and why they are so unanimously hated (specifically whether this was related to race).  As Duke is back in the Final Four, I figured I'd post select quotes from the podcast and give my own input.  I would like to point out that neither are Carolina fans, though Simmons has expressed distaste for Duke in the past and throughout this year's tournament.

After establishing that Duke is unquestionably the most hated team in college basketball Klosterman opens up the discussion:
"You could argue that this is a class based thing... but people don't think the same way about Stanford... Is it that people see Duke as racist... or is it that they seem to be playing basketball in a way that puts them in the past which of course makes them beloved by older people, but is the reason say, young people... don't like Duke so much is because it feels like they are a team of Steve Blakes?"
The question of whether the fact that people hate Duke is related to their disproportionate amount of white stars is not a new one.  Personally I don't think it's necessarily an issue of race as much as it an issue of class.  As I've said before despite my UNC allegiances, Duke is one of the top universities in the country.  Duke has embraced this reputation and has fashioned itself as the Ivy of the South and prides themselves on their selectiveness.  To those who don't attend this can come across as arrogance or entitlement.

Consequently, those who attend other institutions, especially those in the region cast the archetypal Duke student as elitist and perhaps intellectually condescending.  As a result these schemas carry over to the realm of basketball and people look for examples in the play of Duke basketball players that fit into this archetype.  Things like confidence and celebration which are displayed by many players are suddenly cast in the light of arrogance and elitism furthering the hatred.  So in answer to the question of race, I would contend that it is not that caucasian Duke players engender some type of reverse racism but rather that these caucasian players are viewed as elitist, cocky, and entitled by outside fanbases.  Furthermore, though Simmons and Klosterman failed to come up with such examples (and used Grant Hill as an example of how people don't seem to hate African-American Duke players as much), some past Duke players of other ethnic background also came to be despised by outside fans such as Dahntay Jones, Trajan Langdon, Carlos Boozer, Chris Duhon, and Gerald Henderson (well at least by Carolina fans).

The latter argument, that Duke's style of play seems archaic and its lack of modernity contributes to younger people's distaste for the team, does seem to have some merit.  In this current era of NBA stars like LeBron showcasing astronomical levels of athleticisism and talent, Duke's very technically sound style of play stands in direct contrast.  Duke tends to play tenacious defense and work the ball around to hit open threes.   While this is a very effective style of play and, in my opinion, one to be respected, it does not have the flashiness that the breakneck pace of UNC (at least in the past several years) and the dribble drive offense of Kentucky have.  While the ability to shoot the ball as exceptionally well as the Redicks and Scheyers of the world is to be admired, Duke's style of play relies more on cerebral players with a particular skill set, rather than the raw athletes that tend to dominate the SportsCenter top 10.  In this regard, Duke's style of play could understandably lack appeal to the Dunk Contest generations.  Furthermore, Duke unabashedly seems to attempt to tweak the rules in their favor, kicking their legs out while shooting threes to draw foul calls, setting uncalled moving screens, and flopping on defense.

Another extremely important part of what makes Duke dislikable that Simmons and Klosterman do not directly touch on is their prolonged success over the past several decades and the subsequent media attention that has come as a result.  Firstly, no one hates a team that is only marginally successful, only those that achieve success.  Just as the general football audience did not hate the Patriots until their dynasty in the first half of this past decade, Duke's success in the past two decades (3 national championships) along with their high profile rivalry with fellow powerhouse UNC (who at least to some plays the Jacob to Duke's Man in black, more on the rivalry HERE) has been a cause of their high profile and the consequent dislike from the rest of the basketball world.

Lastly, this is only a small point, but you can't discount the fact that the team is called the Blue Devils.  When a team already has several factors aligning against it, the added satinic imagery of their mascot may subconsciously reinforce the role of Duke as the villain.

Now lest you begin to question my own allegiance to the Tar Heels and antagonistic feelings toward their rival 8 miles down the road, I do think there are certainly some things that Duke basketball does to further their role as the antagonist of the College Basketball world.  As Simmons points out, much of this starts and ends with the coach:
"You can't discount Coach K... He's more emotional than the typical coach... he almost seems like he's going to break down every time that they lose... He's almost like a high school teacher with his students, like it's very 1950's"
This is not to say that Coach K is a bad person.  Actually a very well written piece by Andy Katz that appeared recently on ESPN proves quite the opposite.  However, regardless of how good a person he is off the court his on court demeanor, which Simmons highlights, certainly makes him easy to loathe on the basketball court for those outside of Durham.  He curses at his own players and the refs, never too afraid to drop an F-bomb or four.  It is pretty undeniable at this point that he does coach his players to flop (including while shooting 3-pointers, which can be infuriating).  He pretty much gives off a "I'm a great coach, my system works so I can do what I want" vibe.

However, it is not just Coach K.  Over the years the players have certainly helped Duke gain its antagonist status.  Per Simmons:
"You also can't discount the legacy of the types of guys that they've had: Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley [not to mention Wojo].  These were people that nobody liked at the time and that's now become  " Oh yeah, Its Duke, they have these types of guys. Now it's Paulus, Scheyer... Redick"  
It's hard to argue with any of that.  While some players like Singler, Battier, and Shelden Williams were solid players who did little to engender the ire of opposing fans other than wearing a Duke jersey, a select few have seemed to embrace the role of the royal blue villain.  Since Laettner was before my time, and I only remember a bit of Wojo, Redick unquestionably is the largest example of this type of player.  I'll let Simmons briefly take over again.
"Redick  was inherently unlikable... you watch him and there's just something about him... he's like someone you would have cast in a movie from the 1960's where the all white team is playing the all black team."

You can argue the degree to which Redick truly was this way, but it's hard to dispute that this was the way most people not living in Gothic dorms thought of him.  Scheyer, however, is actually a really interesting case as he is less abrasive and plays intelligent and technically sound basketball.  Honestly, the hatred for him is more a product of his predecessor's actions than his own. People see a sharpshooter wearing Royal blue and he is assigned the attributes which have become associated with the others who came before him.  In some cases (Paulus comes to mind) the assumptions prove to be correct, in others (Scheyer, Nolan Smith) they are off base.  Putting it another way, if you were to put Scheyer on a team like Cornell or Butler he would be a likable player.  However if you were to put Redick, Paulus, or Laettner on one of those teams they still would be villains in the college basketball world.  Devendorf of Syracuse last year was perfect proof of this, as it was his own attitude and nothing about the team he was on that made him so dislikable.

So why do we hate Duke basketball?  The answer is that it's a combination of the elite nature of the school (which it blatantly embraces), a legacy of several unlikable players who embraced their role as a villain, and prolonged success.  In the end while there may be nothing innately evil or bad about the players or the program, the aforementioned factors are enough to make Duke the antagonist of the basketball world.

Duke hasn't won a national championship since 2001.  Not many people stopped hating Duke during that time as they still have consistently made it to the NCAA tournament.  However, the Duke hatred should be ratcheted up now that they are returning to the Final Four for the first time since 2004.  A large portion of the people tuning in next weekend will be cheering for Duke to fall short once again.  Will all that Duke hate be completely logical? Maybe not, but it sure is fun.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Every time I think I'm out...

...They pull me back in!*

Already this year I have written at least two posts that I thought would be my last post addressing UNC basketball.  Let's go ahead and admit it right away: This season has been an unmitigated disaster for a team that was ranked #4 in the ESPN Coaches Poll.  The reasons have been discussed and speculated on ad nauseam but it can basically be boiled down to three things: injuries, inexperience, and lack of developed talent. UNC failed to play with any consistency during ACC season and suffered several beatdowns at the hands of ACC opponents, the magnus opum of which was the final game of the season at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  Being the optimist that I am I still hoped they could put together an ACC tournament run and had almost convinced myself they could do so when they held a 10 point lead going into halftime against Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC tournament.  About an hour later UNC was one and done in the ACC tournament and I was finally ready to put UNC's season to rest.

When I found out UNC had gotten a debatably undeserved bid to the NIT tournament, I was not particularly excited until I found out they would be playing the first round game in Carmichael due to not wanting to play in a half-filled stadium renovations to the Dean Dome.  I really wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of watching a team that was so disappointing, the allure of a game played in a throwback stadium seemed well worth the $5 price of a ticket (plus I had written this letter to the editor in the DTH suggesting games be played in Carmichael at the beginning of the semester).

When I arrived at Carmichael at 8:30 last Tuesday night I was not disappointed.  I had only been in the stadium once during my freshman year before renovations, and had never actually watched a game there.  The arena was jam packed by tipoff and due to the smaller size, every seat in the house was a good seat (trust me I had about the worst seats you could get).  As much as I loved the atmosphere, I still was only cautiously optimistic about UNC, hoping that I wasn't putting in jeopardy the fact that the last home game I attended as a student was a win (Miami was the last before then).

Then the game got going and I was instantly swept up into Carolina Basketball in a way I had not been since before ACC play.  The atmosphere was more electric than any game I had been to all season with the possible exceptions of Michigan State and Duke.  William and Mary proved to be a significant challenge (after all they had beaten Maryland and Wake Forest on the road during the season), tossing up a redonkulous 43 three pointers and connecting on 16 of them.  However, UNC looked more composed and hustled harder than I had seen in at least two months.  Leaving Carmichael Auditorium that night I could not think of a better last home game to watch as a student at UNC.

I hoped UNC would be able to build on the momentum from their win on Saturday but I realized they were playing a Mississippi State team that had a legitimate NBA draft pick in Jarvis Varnado and a backcourt that could shoot very well from distance.  Furthermore, the team had struggled on the road all season and didn't have the adrenaline boost of playing in Carmichael.  Once MSU came out draining threes to take a double digit lead in the first several minutes, I decided to go outside and start grilling as felt like I had watched this show at least a dozen times this season.  UNC was letting the opponent go on a big run and would not be able to recover due to a lack of scoring.  Several minutes later I walked back in and the game was neck-and-neck, with UNC actually taking a lead into halftime.  Once again I was cautiously optimistic but not the least bit comfortable with a halftime lead after watching a 10 point lead against GT disappear in a matter of minutes.  The game stayed close all the way to the end and before I knew it UNC had the ball with 8 seconds left.  Larry Drew II, who has come under as much criticism of any player on the team, aggressively drove to the basket and dropped in a left handed layup over the nation's leading shot blocker to ice the game. 

Sunday morning, following a great slate of NCAA tournament games including UNI's earth shaking upset of Kansas, I am watching sportscenter and suddenly I see the highlights of the UNC-MSU game being played.  It basically just summed up what I was thinking about UNC after their win: For the first time in a long time this season, UNC is fun to watch again.

UNC plays its third NIT game tonight in Birmingham against UAB.  The Tar Heels haven't won three games in a row since December.  They will again be playing in hostile territory in front of a sold out crowd.  UAB absolutely decimated NC State, forcing them into 35.8% shooting from the field and 13 turnovers.  The Tar Heels, will have to keep their offensive woes that plagued them in the ACC season behind them if they want to win.  However, UAB is not nearly the three point threat that William and Mary or Mississippi State were and also have a smallish frontcourt that UNC could take advantage of, especially if Zeller is in the lineup.

If UNC does pull off a win they will be headed to Madison Square Garden for the final four of the NIT.  The final four is kind of a dubious honor, and on more than one occasion I have called the tournament the Not Invited Tournament.  Even if UNC cuts down the nets in New York (do they cut down the nets for the NIT), it won't change that this was a disappointing season and it won't mean that they should have been in the NCAA tournament.  What it will mean is that the season can end on a positive note, and hopefully restore some of the damaged confidence of the current freshmen and sophomores who will be looked at to lead this team next year in pursuit of a minor "return to glory."  For me though it will mean that I got to legitimately enjoy the end of my final basketball season as a UNC student.  And the possibility of that is why UNC has once again pulled me back in.

*Yes I realize the original quote from Godfather III was "Just when I thought I was out..." but I took the George Costanza version instead.  Why?  Because George Costanza rules, and the Godfather part III kind of sucked.