It’s not just flopping and floor-slapping. It’s not just Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick.
It’s not just spoiled rich nerds sleeping in tents and harassing foes who’d snap them in half if only they could.
It’s not just Dick Vitale treating Mike Krzyzewski like the pope. Or Coach K preaching “leadership” in TV commercials, then berating officials with profanity or, worse, lecturing a victorious opponent on the classy way to celebrate.
It’s not just the hypocrisy of an elite private university embracing one-and-done mercenaries.
No, it’s the little things. Like the slogan on the Blue Devils’ T-shirts, a phrase you might see on the door of a fraternity poker game: “The Brotherhood.”
(Commence eye rolls.)
Tonight Omaha becomes the battlefront in a culture war that’s gripped college basketball for more than a generation. There are two types of hoops fans: those who love Duke and those who loathe Duke. Guess which side the Blue Devils’ rivals occupy:
“I hate ’em,” Clemson guard Anthony Oliver said. “I hate Duke. With a passion.”
Said Kansas guard Devonte Graham, who grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina: “I hated them. I was a UNC fan growing up so it was all Tar Heels. I didn’t like Duke.”
“They always seem full of themselves,” Syracuse forward Patrick Herlihy said. “You always want to see somebody take them down.”
Syracuse gets its chance tonight, but if history is any guide, the Orange will fail just as most teams have during Coach K’s 38 seasons. He owns the most victories of any Division I coach in history. Five national titles. Twelve Final Fours. Thirteen No. 1 seeds. Thirty-four NCAA tournament appearances. You get the picture.
Disdain for Duke is directly related to Duke’s success, which produces unparalleled attention, which boosts Duke’s recruiting platform, which breeds more success. Ask the Blue Devils why they’re so despised and they point to the scoreboard. Who wants to see a program win 30 games every year?
“They’re everywhere,” Oliver said. “Sometimes you just get tired of it.”
But Kansas wins as much as Duke, if not more. The Jayhawks don’t stir nationwide vitriol. North Carolina wins as much as Duke. Roy Williams isn’t the Darth Vader of the ACC. Why Duke?
“That’s a great question,” said Jon Scheyer, Duke assistant and former national champion guard. “It kinda is mind-boggling to me because (Coach K) stands for all the right reasons.”
Perhaps. But he also exudes …what’s the right term … self-righteousness.
Take the 2016 regional semifinal against Oregon, when Krzyzewski confronted Dillon Brooks in the handshake line and told the Oregon star he was too good to showboat in the final moments of a Ducks’ victory. Asked about the exchange afterward, Krzyzewski denied it. He apologized only after CBS released the audio.
Krzyzewski’s critics have no shortage of material, both substantive — like the Duke coach using his USA Basketball position as a recruiting platform — and petty. “Coach K looks like the mascot,” Kansas fan Andy Duewel said.
But the sharpest lightning rod for Duke basketball isn’t Krzyzewski, it’s his players, specifically his best white players.
“I saw the ‘30 for 30’ on Christian Laettner,” Clemson’s Oliver said. “Seeing that put me over the edge. Now I just dislike Duke period. I respect Coach K and all the coaches. But when it comes to the players …”
Said Herlihy of Syracuse: “They always seem to have, I don’t know, the word I’m thinking of is dirty. Just dirty white players. They’ve kind of grown a reputation for it.”
You can draw a line from Laettner to the latest Duke villain, senior Grayson Allen, supposedly misunderstood but repeatedly caught extending his leg (or behind) to topple opponents.
“The tripping incidents,” Oliver said. “Like, c’mon, man. You’re already that good. What’s the point?”
“That’s just the typical white, kind of cocky player,” said Herlihy, who’s also white. “He’s a competitor, but just doing that kind of stuff just makes you hate Duke a little more.”
Krzyzewski has largely looked the other way after Allen’s incidents. “Coach K allowed that,” Clemson forward Malik William said. “I didn’t like that at all.”
Allen may be the most hated Dukie since Laettner — and that’s saying something. Assistant coach Jeff Capel, another former Blue Devil, has never seen an athlete endure more scrutiny and criticism than Allen has. The social media trolls. The hecklers in opposing arenas. College kids aren’t made to have such thick skin.
Allen has made mistakes in the heat of battle, Capel said, but they weren’t crimes.
“He’s one of the best kids that I’ve ever been around,” said Capel, citing Allen’s academic All-American record. “He’s really what you want college basketball to be about. …
“I think a lot of (the criticism) comes because he plays for Duke.”
It’s true. If Allen wore a Drake uniform, he wouldn’t wear a target. He wouldn’t even be famous — or infamous. Has Allen considered how his reputation might be different if he’d chosen another school?
“I’ve definitely thought about that, especially the last two years,” Allen said. “At the same time, though, if I had to go back and choose it again, I would’ve chose Duke. At this point, I don’t think I care that much.”
Immunity to the vitriol. That’s a prerequisite for joining “The Brotherhood.”
On the recruiting trail, Duke coaches tell five-star prospects what’s waiting. Sometimes you’ll be cheered. Sometimes you’ll be booed. But you’ll always get a reaction. And if people are hating you, they’re watching you. The spotlight makes you better.
“Most people want to be able to sing their song on Broadway,” Capel said. “We feel like we’re Broadway.”
Yeah, it’s the little things.
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