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.


  1. And ugly girls. Never forget the 19 year old soccer moms cheering proudly in Cameron Indoor.

  2. Great post.

    I do think that race as much as class plays a large part of this. If you noticed at the end of the game, when Scheyer was calling the timeout and then Acie got called for a tech, it was Blacks vs. Whites. The White team that gets the calls (Zoubek charge?) and the team with money, etc. The liberal media has promoted hatred toward anything non-third world. It's kind of sad. I think that

    Our country has created a culture where success is hated. Yankees, Cowboys, Duke etc. I don't think that Reddick or Scheyer play(ed) villain anymore than some players on other teams, but because their white and part of the elite school they're hated. It's come to the point where people will have more sympathy for a dying oaktree in some random forest than an affluent White Anglo Saxon Protestant.

    There's a lot to this and I find it quite intriguing. I think you did a nice job of summarizing it. But I really think it's race grafted on the class. Just think how come nobody has ever hated a BLACK Duke player. Boozer was arrogant so was J Williams, nobody hated them. It's something to think about.

    Also, this is probably a tough question but I wonder what Nolan Smith feels about his white teammates. I bet you he feels they are overrated and resents them but who knows???

  3. "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."
    Its really hard to bash Coach K. for this when every coach in the country teaches the same thing. This should not be a reason to dislike Duke, this is called trying to win.

  4. So basically you make the point that people that dislike Duke are either jealous of their success, upset that they play quality team basketball, or are unconsciously racist towards white players because of the similiarity of the student body, which is funny since athletes should not be identified with the student body as a whole. I've lived in Durham my whole life and been an avid Duke fan while disliking much of the types of people who attend Duke. However, I guess I'm smart enough to separate the two and appreciate the Duke basketball program along with its Coach and players without judging them based on the student body. Also, I read Simmons and enjoy most of his stuff but he is quite the hipocrite when it comes to Duke. For a guy who is a devoted fan to the Celts and Pats he doesn't like Duke because of their success and head coach. Really??? I'm pretty sure the Pats coach is 5 times more of an asshole and a cheater yet Simmons respects him as a coach, while Coach K is a nice guy with a clean record and he can't stand him. Make decisions for yourself, not just by what Simmons thinks.

  5. K teaches deceptive tactics. Scheyer uses them. Battier used them. K harasses the Refs. Whether he gets something out of it, it looks like poor sportsmanship. White or black, we've seen outbursts and poor sportsmanship on several occasions a year. Whether singler is knocking the ball out of an opposing players hands at the last second of a loss, elbows that contact other's nose, raking pushoffs thatclaw at others, shouting at opposing players from the bench, the poor behavior is there. It can be inferred that K teaches the "us against the world" mentality. This is a tactic that produces immediate results, but leaves the individuals mentally handicapped for the long term.

  6. I think those of you who don't think this is about race are trying to avoid it, because if there's one thing in this country worse than being a Duke fan, it's being labeled a racist. Bill Simmons named 7 hated players in the quotation you listed, and all of them were white.

    You haven't watched Duke for a very long time, so you don't know that the plodding, three-point shooting offense that the Duke program is now famous for has only existed for the last 6 years, with Paulus and Scheyer as Duke's primary ballhandlers. For 20 years before that, Duke was as explosive as any team, and routinely scored in the 90s, with athletes like Duhon, Jason Williams, William Avery, Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley handling the ball. And for all you racists, Bobby Hurley was as fast with the ball as any of the others.

    Like many other blogs or message board posts I have read on this topic, this one gives very vague reasons for why Duke players are such villains, and the only concrete reason used, their behavior on the court, could be used to criticize players on ANY team. It's not that Redick or Scheyer celebrates after a big 3 pointer...lots of players do that. It's that he's white and plays for Duke, that's why it drives you crazy. And guess what that makes you? Yep, you guessed it: a racist.