If you see me today, you’ll notice that I look a tad bit beaten down. This is partly because I am sick. But it is also because last night’s NCAA championship game was, in a word, stressful. For two hours, the Duke University Blue Devils battled it out with the Butler Bulldogs. Duke was the #1 seed, the team overdetermined to win it all. Butler, however, was hot off a 25-game winning streak and amped after pulling off some stunning upsets in the tournament. The fact that their campus was less than five miles from the arena where the championship game was held only seemed to light their fire even more. While Duke kept eeking out small leads throughout the game, they were clearly thrown off their game and the momentum clearly seemed to be on Butler’s side. Until the last moment, as Butler’s final shot ricocheted off the rim and Duke won by a mere two points, the game was a true nail biter. Seriously, yesterday afternoon, my nails were long. Now they are gross nubs.
See, I am a huge, colossal, royal-blue loving, devil horn-wearing Duke fan. I know this is a hugely unpopular thing to admit in public. But I assure you that it isn’t my fault. I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, the daughter of a Duke English professor. I went to my first basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium circa age 8, when my dad’s friend who had season tickets was out of town and passed his seats to us. I was instantly hooked. For the next few years, anytime my dad scored tickets—always two—I’d find creative ways to convince my sister that she didn’t want to go anyway. It usually worked. I painted my face blue to match the rest of the Cameron Crazies.
I started playing basketball and went to Mike Krzyzewski’s basketball camp for two summers in a row. On days of Duke/UNC games (UNC is located just 10 minutes away, and this is one of the fiercest rivalries in college basketball), my entire school could be divided into two camps—those wearing light blue and those wearing royal blue. I went so far as to paste Duke decals on my cheek.
At this point in time, Duke was not the reviled team it is today. Back then, the Blue Devils were regarded as a top-notch basketball team that recruited players who actually semi-cared about their studies and graduated rather than going pro the first chance they got. While the team had made it to the Final Four a remarkable number of times, they’d never won a National Championship. Until I was 11, in 1991. The next year, I cried as Christian Laettner managed to fire off a perfect shot at the buzzer, offing Kansas and sending Duke to the Final Four. They brought the championship home for the second year in a row.
And that is, I believe, when the Duke hate started. And things only got worse as the years went by and Duke racked up another championship in 2001. In 2005, the Duke loathing seemed to reach a fever pitch. That year during the NCAA tournament, I watched in horror as ESPN aired a segment of Duke star J.J. Redick (one of the most hated players in the country because he was (a) a pretty boy and (b) really good) reading his poetry. It was bad. And let’s just say that the segment managed to make him even more detestable among non-Duke fans.
Last night, the Duke disdain was on full display. It felt like the whole country was rooting for Butler, even if they’d never so much as heard of the Indianapolis school. Nearly every sportscaster and sports writer in the country framed the game as a battle between David and Goliath, casting Butler—a small school with no National Championships rings to its name—as the determined David and Duke as the big, bad, overly confident Goliath. Every friend and family member I texted with throughout the night said that they were in a location—be it a bar or a friend’s house—where everyone was rooting for the Bulldogs. By coincidence, the championship game took place pretty much in Butler’s backyard, meaning that a huge number of fans were in the arena. But I’d say the breakdown in Lucas Oil Stadium was 90 percent for Butler, 10 percent for Duke—anyone without an allegiance to either team was rooting against the Blue Devils. The crowd’s roar in Butler’s favor was disconcerting. Sure it is human nature to want the underdog to win—I do the same all the time. But when your favorite team happens to be the overdog, it’s a little, uh, grating.
Don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely thrilled that Duke won the National Championship last night—their fourth. I jumped up and down, and called my family instantly—everyone was going nuts. I will of course buy and proudly wear to the gym a championship t-shirt. But I do have to admit that the popular opinion of the game has taken away a little of the thrill of victory. And that kind of sucks.
I only hate to see how bad the Duke repulsion gets next year when they make it all the way to the championship again. Sorry—I had to.