Though four years at Duke have afforded Lance Thomas a superior education, one question regarding his college experience will remain a mystery:
“Why do they hate you so much?” “To this day,” he says, “I still don’t know.”
Of course, it’s not Thomas, a bright and personable 6-foot-8 senior, who inspires such hostility. It’s the institution he represents. Unlike any other team in college basketball — no, make that all of college sports — people love to hate Duke.
“It’s blatant,” he says.
“Yes, but why?”
"It has to be our past,” he says. “You know, Christian Laettner making four Final Fours. People got tired of seeing us in the limelight.”
Our. Us. Such a privileged club is Duke. A recollection of the Laettner sneer does not engender much sympathy, either. Still, as Thomas knows full well, that’s not the entire reason, either.
“There’s going to be people out there that just dislike us,” says Kyle Singler, the Blue Devils’ star junior forward. “That’s just how it is.”
I ask what’s the worst he’s heard.
“We’ve heard a lot of things.”
The worst, I ask again.
Sisters and mothers, he says. “People … doing things to your mom … It gets extreme. It just goes way too far.”
If the Dukies seem accustomed to such sickness, perhaps it’s because they’re an away team as soon as they leave their own campus. “We’re down in Carolina country,” says Brian Zoubek, the senior center. “Even in our home state, there’s a hundred times more Carolina fans than Duke fans.”
It’s not just Carolina, I remind him. They hate you all over the country.
“You could point to a 100 different reasons why,” he says. “We try to do everything the right way, we try to have a lot of class. We might not be winning on pure athleticism or pure talent …” But those are reasons to be admired.
“I don’t know,” he says. “There’s a culture of hating Duke.”
To be sure, there are legit reasons to dislike Duke, and though Dickie V comes first to my mind, the best and most personal of them were elegantly set forth four years ago with the publication of Will Blythe’s To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever. Still, Blythe hails from North Carolina; he’s entitled to his antipathy, as it’s authentic and indigenous. But there’s another, more common breed of Duke hater, and he often finds himself reaching. Let me count the ways: Too good. Too smug. Too corporate. Too white. Too elitist. Too whiny.
It doesn’t take a genius to postulate that J.J. Redick — the most hated Dukie since Laettner — would’ve been celebrated at, say, Purdue. By the same token, put a tournament darling like Butler’s Gordon Hayward on Duke, and he’d be hated, too. Tom Izzo, who’s taken Michigan State to six Final Fours in the last 12 years, is revered as the best coach in this tournament. Meanwhile, Mike Krzyzewski — who had Duke in seven Final Fours in nine years and 11 total — wakes up to find an image of himself with devil horns in The Indianapolis Star on Friday.
“It’s very juvenile,” said Coach K. “We have great kids who go to school. They graduate. If we’re going to be despised or hated by anybody because we go to school and want to win, you know what? That’s your problem.”
At this point, with 30 years as Duke’s head coach, Krzyzewski shouldn’t be so easily offended. Still, there’s something to his point: The Blue Devils are damned for their very virtues.
Krzyzewski has been able to implement the precepts of his mentor, Bobby Knight, without embarrassing himself or anybody else. His players are educated well — and without a hint of scandal. But the culture of hating Duke remains alive and well. On Saturday night, Krzyzewski’s team will play West Virginia. It’s worth mentioning that Duke was blessed with a preposterously easy bracket, what with the Robbie Hummell-less Purdue as the No. 4 seed and a badly slumping Villanova as the No. 2 seed. But the inevitable sympathy for West Virginia is even tougher to figure out.
Perhaps only against Duke could a Bob Huggins team find itself cast in the role of the lovable underdog. Huggins had a 28-percent graduation rate in his 16 years at Cincinnati (including one glorious stretch of zero percent), a run that ended 14 months after he pleaded no contest to a DUI. OK, this is West Virginia, not Cincinnati. Just the same, it was West Virginia that established new heights for the haters. Just two years ago, the Moutaineers played Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The game wasn’t as close as the score, which saw the Blue Devils lose, 73-67. More significant than that margin was the rebounding differential. Duke was outrebounded, 47-27 overall and 19-7 on the offensive glass.
West Virginia point guard Joe Mazzulla, who will start Saturday in place of injured Darryl “Truck” Bryant, memorably pounded the floor to mock the Dukies. Forward Joe Alexander, then a junior, screamed in their faces with impunity.
“We knew that coming in that they were just going to stand around and not rebound,” Alexander said after the game.
Two years later, Zoubek — one of Duke’s three senior starters — doesn’t disagree. “We got out-toughed,” he says. “Everyone knew it, and we knew it better than anybody.”
So it’s personal, I ask.
“We’re not going to forget that. Ever.”
Zoubek, like the rest of Krzyzewski’s players, will tell you how much he learned from that game. “We’re not that team anymore,” he says.
Still, it’ll be another couple of days before Zoubek or any of Duke’s seniors really know. There’s another question that needs answering. It’s not why they were hated, but rather, was being hated worth it?