I have to tell you something: I like Duke basketball.
I’m prepared to be dragged over the internet coals for this. I already take heat for it every March Madness though, so I might as well just own it publicly. Watching Duke games, I quietly, embarrassingly get excited when one of the blue basketball boys does something good. Everyone — at the bar, office, the people in the pictures in my living room — looks at me sideways and rolls their eyes. “Apologize,” they seem to be saying, “for the terrible choices you’ve made.”
I used to be sorry. My mild Duke fandom felt like a sports stigma, something to be copped to with a wince and an “I know, I know. I’m terrible.” It was like being unironically into the Chainsmokers, or microwaving fish in the office kitchen — something you try to do under the radar and feel ashamed about when you’re exposed.
I’m sure this is different for people who actually went to Duke. If you are a Blue Devil, or someone in your family was, you wear the allegiance proudly. You can be unapologetically pro-Coach K and his team, because you have an excuse. And that excuse is your identity, your history. “I WENT THERE, OK?,” you can yell as you wave your impressive diploma in the faces of haters.
But I did not go to Duke. Not even a little. I had zero chance of getting in. No one in my family attended. I have never visited. So how did I become a supporter of the most hated team in college basketball? Why would I ever opt to swim against such a strong tide of public opinion?
Before we get to that, let’s talk about why Duke is so hated in the first place, because there is no shortage of reasons. The first is that Coach Ksdkljdsglkdjg is just generally insufferable. He has that pointed, calm face that tries to project A Good Guy Who Cares About His Players vibe, but ends up giving off something closer to Slightly Or Maybe A Lot Weasel-y.
The school also always seems to have the most hated guy in the sport. J.J. Reddick used to hold this honor, before he became widely liked in one of the more stunning character reversals of this century. There have been others, too, but let’s skip right to the person everyone thinks about when they think about Bad College Basketball Guys: Grayson Allen.
Not only has this kid repeatedly tripped people, thrown tantrums on the side of the court, and most recently stuck his butt out to hip-check someone, he also looks like Ted Cruz. None of this has done him any favors. He’s the id of basketball. Allen is the guy who gets frustrated by a slow-moving person on the sidewalk and gives in to the base impulse to hip-check them into the sun.
Duke’s characteristics would all just be somewhat annoying if they didn’t always win. But they win a lot. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they’re really good at basketball. Coach K has taken home five National Championships, and they’re always a threat. Good teams always face backlash — Alabama football, the Patriots, UConn women’s basketball (“It’s boring to win all the time!”). Pair Duke’s basketball excellence with the generally bad taste the school leaves in fans’ mouths, and it’s not hard to see why the team is easy to despise.
I was indoctrinated by accident into this fandom. Several of my good friends went to to Duke and had family ties, so in my small high school and college world, it was a good thing. It wasn’t until I became a sportswriter who needed to pay attention to the narratives of the greater sports universe that I realized Duke actually sucks, for all the reasons listed above. Had I known, perhaps I would’ve been wiser about team affiliations. I’m a Patriots fan, though, so adding one more hated team to my roster didn’t seem like the end of the world.
But it was last year, when I covered the ACC tournament, that I came to care about the team on any real level. I spent five days watching them play in the Barclay’s Center, and it was hard not to get invested as I tracked their progress and fell in love with Jayson Tatum’s three-point shot. After they won, I was moved watching Luke Kennard drape pieces of the net around his teammate’s necks, and Amile Jefferson celebrate his win as a senior. I talked to Allen and found a surprisingly quiet kid who can’t control his emotions. His demeanor off the court is not an excuse for his actions on it, but, well ... anyone is more of a human up close. Standing amid the confetti, as those college kids Snapchatted their friends from the court, the bigger picture gave way to the pixels, the moments of joy.
However, the question of whether you hate Duke — if you’re someone whose own team isn’t a rival — goes beyond your personal relationship to the team. This is really about the big, fundamental choice that every sports fan must make, and that’s this: Are you going to hate the team everyone hates? Or are you going to love the team everyone hates? Are you going to join the crowd or be a contrarian? Either way, there’s no original option, and remaining neutral isn’t terribly interesting.
At the end of the day, every plot needs a villain, and the Blue Devils have been as good an antagonist as any. They should be appreciated for that, even if you wish the whole program would fall off a cliff. For me, the final step has been acceptance: learning to love loving what everyone else hates. It’s taken a while, but I’m finally getting there.
Anyway, go Pats.