By: Jon Finkel
From afar, I must look like a racquetball bouncing around a crate of oranges — a lone Duke Blue Devils shirt in a hurricane of Canes gear jostling my way through the concourse of the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables. If someone didn’t know my name, they might think my parents had put ‘Overrated’ on my birth certificate by how many times I’ve inspired the chant. It’s one of the few repeatable taunts hurled my way. I actually look forward to it at this point.
It’s almost halftime as I make my way to the concession stand and get in line. Two guys in green ‘305’ shirts (University of Miami’s area code) are joking around, giddy about their basketball team being up 20 points on Coach K’s squad. One of them accidentally gets pushed into me and he quickly turns around.
“I’m sorry, dude,” he says.
“It’s cool,” I respond.
He catches sight of my shirt.
“No, I’m not,” he says, suddenly annoyed. “Duke bleeping sucks.”
He then turns around and fist bumps all his buddies, who also tell me Duke sucks. Apology. Retraction. Insult. Such is the life of being a Blue Devils fan on the road.
The assignment was simple: Turn the notion of anti-Duke sentiment on its head. As sure as April showers bring May flowers, when NCAA basketball season begins, so does the yearly output of Duke negativity. Tweets. Facebook posts. Opinion columns. On a near daily basis, someone, somewhere, feels the need to tell the world that they don’t like Duke.
As a person who would put himself in the category of not being a Duke fan, I always wondered what it would be like to exist in the Durham bubble, to live in a world where you worship Coach K, where you slap the floor in a pick-up game like Wojo not to mock him, but to honor him, and where you proudly say that Christian Laettner was, is, and forever will be your favorite player of all time; because, after all, if you strip away everything else, Duke wins. A lot. And Duke fans and alumni seem to have a great time watching it all happen.
I didn’t want to go to a game at Cameron Indoor because it would be a love fest, like wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt to Disneyland. Where’s the challenge in that? On the flip side, wearing a Bobby Hurley jersey to a game in Chapel Hill would also not be the proper strategy. Stepping into one of the biggest rivalries in sports wouldn’t be giving the experience of being a Duke fan a fair shot. Rivalries are irrational and by their very nature antagonistic. I would expect to be treated less-than-human if I was pumping my fist for a Plumlee brother in the Dean Dome.
I thought the best way to get a glimpse into the world of being a Duke fan was to slap on a Duke shirt and hit up a random ACC road game with the intent of cheering on the Blue Devils for the night. I chose the game against the University of Miami for the simplest of reasons: I live close by.
I wanted to do it the right way, and by that I mean I didn’t want to just guess how I should act while rooting for Duke. To get inside information, I went straight to the Duke media relations department and asked if I could get quotes from Coach K and maybe a few players regarding what they liked most about Duke fans. I’m sure the Duke haters will be disappointed, but everyone I dealt with who represented Duke was fantastic. I knew that getting an actual one-on-one interview, even over the phone, in-season wasn’t going to be easy, so I sent in a couple of questions for Coach K and a few players through email, and the media department came through for me.
Specifically, I asked Coach K how much he actually pays attentions to Duke’s crowds during a game, to which he responded, “My complete focus is on my team during a game so I never hear anything other than what’s happening on the court. From time to time after a game, my family or staff members will tell me what may have been going on.”
I asked one of Duke’s players, Alex Murphy, the same thing, and he said, “When you’re at home, especially in Cameron, it’s hard to not notice them. The environment in there is unbelievable, especially for ACC games and big games like that. On the road, it depends. We usually get a very good crowd wherever we go. It’s hard not to notice them, but as the game plays on you get used to them. It’s just something that plays on in the background.”
Those are fairly standard answers for a player and a coach. It would be odd for the man who just led Team USA to an Olympic gold medal to say that he spends most of the game checking out what’s happening on the Kiss Cam. However, Coach K does like specific things about the Duke faithful.
“My favorite Duke fan tradition is acting as one in order to win,” he wrote me. “For instance, when we are at home in Cameron Indoor Stadium, we want everyone in that building to leave feeling as if, ‘We won.’ Those are the best games — when a crowd and a team are working as one to keep momentum and passion elevated and ultimately, to win a game. The other thing I love about our crowd is that they’re original. There are no gimmicks. Their enthusiasm is not orchestrated, and they’re very spontaneous. That is very unique in sports today.”
I received this answer a day before the Duke/Miami game, and it gave me direction. I was going to act as one with the top-ranked college basketball team in the nation. On paper, that sounded great and I looked forward to it. When you’re No. 1, you’re confident and you expect to win. I’d approach the game the way Seth Curry approaches a three, expecting success. What I’d soon find out, though, is that walking through an opposing university’s campus representing a team with a No. 1 ranking is the surest way to be treated like No. 2.
Having played high school sports and worn jerseys of my favorite teams in opposing stadiums plenty of times, I had been booed before, but not by college girls, and certainly not by this many. I’d only been out of the parking structure for a few seconds when the coeds started their half chant/half giggle. The sound, of course, drew some attention, and having spent less than a minute on Miami’s campus in my Duke gear, I soon became the focus of an impressively timed and surprisingly harmonized d*****bag chant, the chorus of which carried me to within 100 yards of the arena. All I could do was smile.
While the a cappella d-bag chant rained down on me, I thought about the advice that I had received three days before from a man who has been the object of more Duke scorn than almost anyone on earth, Orlando Magic guard and ex-Duke superstar, J.J. Redick. I reached out to him about a week before the game because during his time at Duke, he was alternately the best player in the country and the most jeered player in the country at the same time. Duke fans adored him; non-Duke fans abhorred him.
I asked Redick if he had any advice for a Duke hoops fan rooting for the Blue Devils on the road, and the man who could write a thesis on what it’s like to be a villain in an opposing arena gave me the simplest of responses: “Stay quiet.”
When f-bombs started to ruin the harmony of the d-bag chant, I decided to take Redick’s advice for the moment, keep my mouth shut and just keep walking.
At the front of the arena I ran into a few other Duke fans, each of them nodding to me as if we were brothers in arms; soldiers who somehow snuck behind enemy lines, now just trying to stay alive.
As I said, I chose this game out of convenience. Had I done it any other year, Duke would most likely walk into a 60 percent sold-out arena, mop the floor with the Hurricanes, and be back on a plane for North Carolina with barely a mention in the national media — just another day at the office for Coach K’s boys. Not this year.
This year, Miami is good. Really good. Heading into the game, the Canes were undefeated in ACC play and had just cracked the top 25. Duke, for its part, was Duke, ranked No. 1 and expected to win. But here in Miami, something was happening. The local basketball team, which has existed in the shadow of the football and baseball programs almost since its inception, suddenly felt legitimate. A win against Duke would prove they belonged among the top teams in the nation — and no less than Miami Herald columnist and Miami native Dan LeBatard said on his radio show that it was probably the most important home game in the team’s history. Thus, the game was sold out. Students waited in line for 24 hours to get tickets.
All of this is to say that I picked a hell of a time, and a hell of a place, to write a column about rooting for Duke for one night.
Entering the arena, I saw more Duke fans than you’d expect and I was happy to be able to spread some of the hatred I was feeling amongst my fellow Dukies. I’d say the amount of times I was told I sucked had decreased by a factor of at least three.
If walking through campus was a death march of sorts, sitting in the arena was more like being on trial, with Miami fans listing exhibit after exhibit of why my team (for one night), in the words of a fan next to me, “was everything wrong with basketball.”
I tried to keep Coach K’s words in mind as I listened to everyone air their grievances about Duke: “Act as one.” J.J. Redick’s advice also popped up: “Stay quiet.” And then, another piece of advice I had received before the game floated to the surface of my mind.
Like I said, I wasn’t out to antagonize opposing fans, merely to root for Duke. To not be the stereotypical Duke fan that everyone would automatically feed off of, I enlisted the help of a man who has forgotten more about Duke hatred than most people know, Reed Tucker, author of Duke Sucks: A Completely Evenhanded, Unbiased Investigation into the Most Evil Team on Planet Earth. Tucker went to the University of North Carolina and, as you can guess, would rather punch himself in the groin than say a nice thing about the team from Durham. I contacted him and asked him the exact same question that I had asked Redick: “What advice would you have for a fan rooting for Duke on the road?”
“Don’t wear a Speedo. Don’t paint yourself blue. Don’t use a cheer sheet. And above all, don’t begin to think that you’re more clever and special than other fans. I guarantee you that right now, there’s someone in Kansas or Kentucky or Bloomington or Chapel Hill who is just as hardcore as you. Only they don’t care who knows it.”
Tucker could fill a book (and did, as I mentioned) with all of the problems he has against Duke. Following his advice on how to act, I asked him what he finds most irritating about Duke fans. Once again, his answer gets right to the point.
“Former Carolina players told me Duke fans tend to be a bit more smug and holier-than-thou than other fans,” Tucker says. “And despite what Dick Vitale would have you believe, the legend of the Cameron Crazies is more hype than anything else. … The fans at Cameron are very aware of appearances. What other arena do you know of where students talk about a “TV side” and a “non-TV side?” The side of Cameron not shown on TV cameras is usually less rowdy. Sometimes it’s not even full.”
Having been given advice on how to act as a Duke fan from both inside the program and from inside their anti-fan club, I was finally ready for the showdown.
The game started off as I expected. Duke hit a quick three and Mason Plumlee was showing dominance in the low post. Miami fans reacted to every Duke miss like they just won a national championship, and they cheered every Canes bucket like it cured the flu. The fans were ready to storm the court about four seconds after tip-off.
I cheered the Duke three-pointer and I threw out a “Nice!” when Plumlee got off to a fast start with a solid move in the paint. Both acts drew stink eyes from the home fans around me. While the goal of the piece was to be a Duke fan for a night, I was determined to be a Duke fan the way I was a fan for my own teams; to cheer without being obnoxious, to get excited without being irritating.
Despite my attempts at being a civil Duke fan, the crowd and the scoreboard were against me. Remember how I mentioned that I’d cheer with the confidence of Seth Curry shooting a three? He missed all ten of his shots. About halfway through the first half, Duke was down five points. With five minutes left in the half, they were down 14. By halftime, the lead was up to 23 and Duke had just completed an eight-minute stretch without scoring as the Canes went on a 25-1 run. Miami’s Durand Scott and Kenny Kadji seemed to be scoring at will.
Every time Duke missed a shot, the surrounding fans treated it like a repudiation of everything I, as a Duke fan, believed in.
After a Plumlee brick: “See, he sucks.”
After a Curry miss: “Told you he can’t shoot!”
After a turnover: “I thought Coach K could coach?”
And on and on it went. Scott kept draining. Kadji kept draining. Shane Larkin, the son of MLB great Barry Larkin, caught fire. Duke could not find the basket. The lead was up to 30 in the middle of the second half and the rout was on. Soon, the ire directed at me had disappeared into elation: Miami was about to get the biggest win in school history against the biggest bully on the block. As a Duke fan for a night, there was absolutely nothing to cheer about the entire second half.
Finally, time ran out and the fans, deservedly, rushed the court. With the clock at 0:00, I considered my assignment over and I took the whole scene in. It was the third largest margin of victory over a No. 1 ranked team ever and I was glad I was there … though it would have been much more fun wearing a Hurricanes shirt.
I showed up in Coral Gables ready to go. Too bad the Duke team didn’t. Maybe I’ll have to take that trip up to Durham after all.
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