Reflecting on Twenty Five Years of Being a Duke Fan

The first time I was ever allowed to stay up late was to watch the 1991 NCAA Basketball Championship, when Duke played Kansas. I was 6. My mom and dad both went to Duke, and they are to credit for instilling me with a sense of basketball’s importance in life from an early age. During the game, I remember seeing Bobby Hurley throw an alley-oop pass to Grant Hill, which he caught one-handed and threw down into the hoop. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen in my life. After that, I wanted to play basketball, and I wanted to play for Coach K.

In 1992, I remember watching The Game, and The Shot. Christian Laettner was my hero, and to this day, I’m fairly certain that if I met him, I’d be more excited than meeting any other living human being. I spent countless hours playing basketball from ages 7 to 17 pretending to be Christian Laettner, practicing my buzzer beaters, working on being a perfect shooter the way he was. I watched as we dismantled Indiana and Michigan, and I became further convinced that my goal in life was to play basketball for the only coach in the world in my eyes. I watched the Dream Team that summer mostly to follow Christian Laettner, and became a big NBA fan from then on as well.

I remember the disappointment of 1993, and my intense hatred of Jason Kidd started then and never died off. Bobby Hurley was the kind of player I thought I could be. I ended up inadvertently adapting his ugly style of shooting without knowing it. When I tried out for my 8th grade basketball team years later, the coach said he liked me and wanted me on the team, but I had to change my horrible shot. I was insulted– it went in, didn’t it? If it was good enough for Hurley, it should be good enough for this know-nothing middle-school gym teacher!!

I remember the excitement of watching Grant Hill throw the squad on his back, and the frustration with losing in such a close way to Arkansas. Again, I never forgave Corliss Williamson or Scottie Thurman (there’s a list of players that will never be forgiven). I wanted Grant to end his Duke career on a high note so badly. I maintain that if he hadn’t gotten injured, there’s no way Grant Hill wouldn’t be remembered as one of the greatest to ever play the game.

I remember the pain of 1995, the agony of losing our coach, and the quasi-karma that came with having a good football team that year. Duke never has good football. I spent every year going to Tallahassee for the Duke-FSU game with my mom. A bunch of fellow Floridian Duke fans would take the bus into our state’s capital and watch as Duke (for the most part) won in front of us. That year, we lost for the first time in my trips there. As we left, an FSU fan joked, “What do you expect? They’re a football college!” I remember tasting the bittersweet irony.

1996 and 1997 blur together a bit for me. I remember starting to be realistic about my own abilities as a basketball player, and for that reason, I loved Wojo. Here was a short guy, like me, who all he has was sheer willpower. He was going to play hard defense, and he was going to care more than anyone else out there if we won. We didn’t win as much as I would’ve liked, but there were good players on these squads. Chris Carrawell, Nate James, Jeff Capel, Roshown McLeod, Trajan Langdon. Cherokee Parks. Even other big white guys like Erik Meek and Taymon Domzalski got some tick.

1998 is when heroes started returning in my eyes. Elton Brand, Shane Battier and William Avery came in for Wojo’s senior year, and we finally had a truly great team again. This was the year I played basketball for my middle school, James Weldon Johnson, and we won the championship. I was a role player, but again, I prided myself in playing tough defense and being able to shoot the 3 and free throws. I spent every day after school shooting free throws until I could hit ten in a row, working on my form. Having a good Duke team helped that.

1999 was the year we should have won. Khalid El-Amin, if you’re reading this, and I ever see you, I will punch you in the face for this team. Such was my hatred for you from this tournament. Corey Maggette was so explosive, Elton Brand was so insanely big, and Shane Battier was so skilled. You had Trajan Langdon, you had Chris Carrawell, you had Nate James, you had William Avery. This was one of the best teams ever, and their trophy got denied by Jim Calhoun and those bastards from UConn. If I had to pick one team that comes even within throwing distance of UNC in terms of my hatred for them, it would be UConn. This loss hurt more than any other. This was also the year in which I went to high school, and realized that I didn’t have the athleticism to make it to Duke. I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t long enough, I couldn’t jump high enough. All the kids on my high school team were better than me in these areas– and we had the worst team in the county. I remember not knowing what to do with myself, until Janet Hall, in a moment that changed my life, told me, “You should try out for a play.”

2000: I remember the pain of watching Brand, Avery, and Maggette all decide to leave early. I could sense K’s pain over this too– and to this day, he refuses to retire the jersey of someone who doesn’t graduate. This was the beginning of the Williams-Boozer-Dunleavy era, and I thought they were both sensational. I remember thinking we hadn’t had someone since Grant Hill who could take over the game the way J-Will did, and we hadn’t had someone so gruff in Boozer that I could remember, and Dunleavy was the most skilled white guy we’d had since Laettner. I knew we’d eventually win with these boys.

We won in 2001. It was amazing. As I continued to play basketball in parks and rec leagues, I started shaping my game more and more after Shane Battier. If you want to look for a player that changed the game (maybe for the worse), look at Shane Battier and how he singlehandedly turned taking a charge into an artform. No one could do it like him, with his quickness, with his intelligence. Nowadays, people flop constantly, including some latter-era Dukies, hoping they could take a charge like Battier. I remember knowing going in that we were going to win it all. I remember getting to wear my Duke shirt with pride the next day to school, and the solidarity I felt with other Duke fans as everyone else hated and squirmed.

I remember that as that regime went out, the JJ Redick/Shelden Williams regime came in. JJ seemed to be living my dream– the short unathletic white guy who made a spot on the roster by working hard and shooting the ball well. A few Sweet 16 heartbreaks, but I continued to feel the best was yet to come as I enrolled in Duke to start classes in the fall of 2003.

I met Luol Deng early in 2003. He was friends with my neighbor in the hall, and often would come to my hallway to hang out. I remember being struck by how enormous his shoes were. He took them off to play video games with my neighbor, and I felt like I could sit inside of his shoe. The 2004 squad was special as well, and the loss to UConn, especially after such a great first half against them, was the second most painful loss I’ve ever felt. I’ve never forgiven Emeka Okafor. That was JJ’s best shot at a title, Shelden’s best shot at a title… and they couldn’t get it done. Heartbreaking.

Also heartbreaking was Shaun Livingston’s backing out of his commitment to Duke, and Luol’s early departure. The early departure was understandable but regrettable. Livingston leaving hurt this squad in an enormous way. It left Daniel Ewing to run the point, and while he did an admirable job, this squad never really took off. They overachieved, considering. But it began to sink in that we might not win a title during my years at Duke. This was punctuated with the horror of watching UNC win the title. 2005 was the year, however, of my Duke-UNC game at Cameron. I had beautiful seats, and watched this Duke squad, huge underdogs to an insanely talented UNC roster, win at the last second. I remember running out onto the court and crying my eyes out. I’ve never felt in any sporting event the emotion of Duke-UNC in Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s an amazing thing.

The Greg Paulus/Josh McRoberts class had so much hype that I felt certain that it was the second coming of Hurley and Laettner. I watched them at the McDonald’s All-American Game and couldn’t have been more pleased. I remember sliding flyers under doors for an event, coming to Paulus’ and McRoberts’ room, and saying to the person I was with, “We’re giving a flyer to the boys who will bring us our next championship.” Jesus, was I wrong. Paulus was atrocious as a floor leader, and McRoberts gave up, checking out mentally when the season was winding down because he knew would be leaving for the NBA. JJ Redick left without his ring, Duke’s progress began crawling backwards, and I graduated from Duke not knowing what it feels like to be a student during a championship run.

After the next couple of years, we began slowly building the pieces. I loved Jon Scheyer from day one, as I read all about his high school exploits. This guy was longer and taller and more athletic than JJ, and what’s more, he loved having the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Nolan Smith was also fast and long, an offense-minded combination point guard. Kyle Singler was mean– an outright nasty white guy who loved talking trash and smiling in an opponent’s face. I hadn’t seen a white guy on our team so mean since Laettner, and say what you will, but meanness is important in a basketball team. I loved Gerald Henderson’s meanness too, and even though he left early, his presence was felt and his commitment to defense and penetration I think helped inspire this team to commit to those areas as well. Finally, I loved the height of Zoubek, and I cheered hard for Zoubek from his first game, even as all of my Duke friends mocked me for being a fan of such a giant scrub. He proved me right in the end.

This team was predicted by many to lose in the second round. Then they were roundly predicted to lose to Purdue or Baylor. The stat on ESPN said in people’s brackets, only a little over 6% of ALL BRACKETS had Duke winning it all. When was the last time a #1 seed had such low viewer expectations? Even I thought we’d struggle getting past West Virginia when I saw that matchup a mile away while filling out my bracket. In many of my brackets, I picked WVU to win… but in my bracket at the workplace, which I filled out an hour before the first game, I realized the error of my ways. Go hard for the home team, or go home. I picked Duke to win it all and felt surprisingly great about it.

A student in one of my classes made me a friendship bracelet, Duke blue and white striped. I put it on before the first game and vowed to leave it on until we lost. We never lost. Thank you, Kristen, for the good luck charm. Duke Nation owes you one.

I’d been saying all season long, this Duke team was different than any other in recent memory. We got the rebounds when we needed them. We had big man depth. We executed a containment defense. What’s more, with the game on the line, we were getting it done. Every time my friends or family would be sweating during a game, I’d say, “If Duke is within a possession with 3 minutes left in the game, we will win.” I firmly believed Coach K would get it done. The fact that he only got 1 Coach of the Year vote this year is disgusting, considering that there is no question that he is the best college basketball coach since John Wooden and an absolute lock for being in the Top 3 NCAA coaches of all time. He locked that up last night.

Strangely, although both of Hayward’s shots looked great, I knew they’d miss. I wasn’t feeling a Hoosiers vibe. I was feeling a different story coming together, one where Duke crawled out of their recent slump, and the great Coach K, so doubted for sticking to his meticulous methods of recruiting, bench rotation, and 3-point shooting, would emerge once again victorious. It was fitting that the game was won on a Brian Zoubek rebound. Everything about this team was complete. Great rebounding, great shooting, great defense, great clutchness. Great teamwork.

In 1991, I got Coach K’s autograph. He wrote on it, “TO RUSSELL– ALWAYS TRY YOUR BEST!” I don’t always try my best, I’ll be the first to admit. Last night, I found that autographed picture of the team, framed for posterity, placed away in my closet in my hometown for safekeeping. Looking at it, I got strangely emotional. I felt like Coach K never settled, so why should I? He wouldn’t want me to. He told me not to! The Great Motivator chose to spend two seconds of his busy monumental life to encourage me to try my best. He took a team with no NBA lottery picks to a national title as the third-oldest coach to ever win a championship. If he can do that, I ought to be able to try my best.

I was raised a Duke fan. I’ll die a Duke fan. Four titles in my lifetime is something most people don’t get to experience, and I cherish that fact. If you’re a Duke fan too, I hope you’ve lived through some of these things with me, and that we continue to thrive. If you’re a basketball fan, I hope you understand the kind of journey that a team you love can take you on over a lifetime. And if you’re a Carolina fan… go to hell.

~ by russellhainline on April 6, 2010.

8 Responses to “Reflecting on Twenty Five Years of Being a Duke Fan”

  1. Great post man – the taste of victory is oh, so sweet!!!

  2. I teared up a little reading this, Russell. I’m with you all the way. Some of my earliest memories are being down in Florida on spring break with my family watching March Madness and following Duke. This was a great recap of all those years. D-U-K-E!

  3. Hi Russell — just read your blog post. Our dads were fraternity brothers at Duke (I’m Dick Patterson’s daughter)and like you, I have always appreciated that basketball, and particularly Duke basketball, has been an important part of life since we were kids. I remember that 1991 tournament like it was yesterday — watching Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Thomas Hill play their hearts out — and it was the first time I ever conciously remember being a true fan of any sport and any team and it stuck with me for life.
    I didn’t go to Duke but I will always root for Duke like it is my own alma mater. Duke basketball always comes first. Like you said, ‘I was raised Duke fan and I’ll die a Duke fan.”

    Thanks for your awesome post.

  4. your memories brought back memories of my own. my family did not go to duke. my mother was a nurse who thought duke the only medical school. some of my favorite memories are watching my children and grandchildren watch their first games at cameron.
    i so agree with your feelings about this title. a friend asked me today if duke won. hard to believe. this is the team that won as a team. it has been a great year. i can only say thanks to Coach k and the players for the wonderful memories.

  5. […] When I tried out for my 8th grade basketball team years later, the coach said he liked me and wanted me on the team, but I had to change my horrible shot. I was insulted it went in, didn’t it? If it was good enough for Hurley, … This was one of the best teams ever, and their trophy got denied by Jim Calhoun and those bastards from UConn . If I had to pick one team that comes even within throwing distance of UNC in terms of my hatred for them, it would be UConn . …Page 2 […]

  6. Your family is very proud, Russell, to all be Duke alum and FANS. Thanks for summing it up so nicely.

  7. Russel:
    One of my best friends in life, and, coincidentally your grandfather Steve, would have been as proud of you as he would have been of this team and of having gone to Duke. Bonds formed through these experiences can never be broken, nor can the friendship with family that endures.

  8. …and aren’t you glad you tried out for a play? We watched this game in Atlanta to the bitter end. I like Duke and we went to schools 30 miles from Butler; who would have ever thought?

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