Everyone who has graduated from Duke University since 1986—a span of more than 20 years—has something remarkable in common: they have all gotten to witness at least one trip to the Final Four by the men's basketball team before they left campus. Everyone, that is, except members of the class of 1998. My graduating class. I picked the wrong four years—the only wrong four years—to be at Duke in the last quarter-century. My Blue Devils played in the national title game three months before I arrived in the fall of 1994 (we lost to Arkansas), and we made it back the year after I left, in 1999 (we lost to Connecticut; we always lose to Connecticut). In between? Let's see. My freshman year we stank. Coach Mike Krzyzewski hurt his back and left the team in midseason to have surgery, and we missed the NCAA tournament entirely, finishing with a 13-18 record. My sophomore year we lost in the first round. My junior year, the second round. But during my senior year we were a national power again, and we steamrolled all the way to the NCAA tourney's Elite 8, where we ran up a 17-point lead on Kentucky with just over nine minutes to go, putting us a few heartbeats away from total redemption. I was the editor of Duke's daily newspaper at the time, and—in a feat of forehead-slapping hubris that I will regret for the rest of my natural life—I had already laid out the next day's triumphant front page.
I don't remember much about the last nine minutes of that Kentucky game, other than their point guard, Wayne Turner, repeatedly driving through our defense as if we were a bunch of orange cones on the floor. I do remember that I didn't shed a tear as the last few seconds of the last game of my Duke career slipped away, if only because I'd already ripped out my eyeballs and thrown them at the television. I definitely don't remember the final score. It might've been 86-84, Kentucky. But don't ask me. I've blocked it out.
If you've read this far you're probably snickering by now. This is how it is to be a Duke fan: you—all of you—hate us. There's a writer named Will Blythe, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, our sworn enemy, who hates Duke so much that he wrote an entire book about it called "To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever," and it was a best-seller. He spun his bile for a bunch of college students into serious money. And you know what? We get it. We're fine with it. Our pain is your joy. Our tears are your sweet tea. Whenever we lose, an angel gets its wings.
The reasons for this hatred are legion, and rife with irony. You hate our team for many of the same reasons we love it: because Duke runs a relentlessly excellent, squeaky-clean program filled with good kids who play hard, go to class, never get in trouble and flop big-time as soon as they reach the NBA. (By the way, that last point comes up a lot, and you need to understand: we don't care. Sure, we want our players to do well after they get drafted, but if they do it's a bonus. Duke is our NBA. Everything after that is just a job.) I've heard people say they hate Duke because our games are always on TV, and isn't that so unfair? Actually, no, it's just good business. All of our games are on TV because our fans watch every game. If your fans were as dedicated to your team as we are to ours, your team would get just as much TV time as Duke does, because your school, and your alumni base, is much bigger than ours.
It must also be said that some people have racially queasy reasons for hating Duke. We always seem to have the most despised player in the country, and it's always a white guy: Christian Laettner, Steve Wojciechowski, Chris Collins, J. J. Redick and, this year, our junior point guard Greg Paulus. (Incidentally, if any of those guys were on your team he'd be among your favorite players. Except for Collins. We think he's kind of a jerk too.) The other sticky reason for Duke hatred is class-based: you think we're all a bunch of rich, spoiled brats. Leaving aside the fact that that's not entirely (or even largely) true, I don't have a great answer on this one. Duke kids already have so much, and they get a great basketball team, too? You're right. It's annoying. I give—as long as you also root against Georgetown, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and Gonzaga.
But the chief reason that Duke, and Duke fans, are so despised is the perception that we are too arrogant about our winning ways. And you're right. We are. But so what? This is college basketball, not international diplomacy. Did we hurt your feelings? Are you maybe taking this a little too seriously? Because we don't hate you back. (OK, Maryland fans, we do hate you, but that's only because of that time at Cole Field House when you beaned Carlos Boozer's mother in the head with a water bottle. So you deserve it. Oh, and best of luck at the NIT next week!) Most of us don't even hate North Carolina; we feel as though we have a samurai-respect kinda thing going on with them. Though obviously author Blythe, the Happy Hater, disagrees.
But, look, if you want arrogance, you got it. One of the lessons I learned from that Kentucky disaster 10 years ago is not to take our tournament defeats so hard, and the reason is simple: we'll be back. Your team probably won't be. That's the nice thing about being a Duke fan. Our "wait till next year" performances are your dream seasons. A year after the Kentucky loss we reached the national title game. (Although, to be candid, I took that loss even harder. Until 9/11 happened about 100 blocks from my apartment, I used to say that the UConn game was the worst day of my life. Now it's a very, very distant second.) In 2000 I was stuck at work on a Friday night, so I watched from my desk as we lost to Florida in the Sweet 16. When it ended I was so irate I walked out of the building and just circled the block for 20 minutes. The next year? We won the national title. Now the losses barely faze me. Last year, when our team of freshmen and sophomores got upset in the first round by Virginia Commonwealth, I actually had a smile on my face at the end. It was a fun game.
I mention all this for two reasons. First, my graduating class might soon have company. If we don't win four tourney games this season, the Class of 2008 will also have gone Final Fourless during its time on campus. And second (forgive me, Coach K), I have a feeling that's exactly what's going to happen. Duke fans love our team this year. After a down season in 2007, we're back in big way. We've been a top-10 fixture for months. We're fast, deep, tough-minded and high-scoring—a classic Duke team. However, we're also small (no starter over 6-foot-8) and young (only one senior plays significant minutes). At some point in the tournament, hopefully later rather than sooner, we'll have a cold-shooting game and we'll probably lose.
But next year? We'll be even better, and you'll hate us even more. Everybody wins!