White Devils

This article was originally published at AlterantiveRight.com on 27 March 2010, and was revised in 2014.

There is no college basketball team more hated than the Duke University Blue Devils. Books have been written on the subject; websites are devoted to it. Simply mentioning the names “Christian Laettner,” “Bobby Hurley,” “J.J. Redick,” or “Danny Ferry” in the wrong place will evoke sneers, jokes about high shorts, claims by some that they could “take” each of these men in a fight, and crude accusations of homosexuality.

It’s hard to imagine another college team generating multiple Top Ten Most Hated Players lists, or being trashed on the Gawker websites. Even the smarmy groveling politician John Edwards was willing to announce publicly during his first presidential campaign, “I hate Duke Basketball.”

Duke can inspire love, too, the team commands a large fan base, made up mostly of people who have no real connection to the school. (Up until I actually attended grad school at Duke, I was one of these, having been a quiet but sincere fan since watching Christian Laettner sink “The Shot” against Kentucky in the ’92 NCAA regional finals.) ESPN’s generous coverage of the Blue Devils speaks to these vicarious Dukies, but also to the millions who love to hate.

For me, the source of Duke Hate has always been rather obvious … and unmentionable.

Yes, it has a lot to do with the team’s famed “Tobacco Road” rivalry with the formidable North Carolina Tar Heels, whose Chapel Hill stomping grounds is a mere 15-minute drive on 15–501 from Duke’s faux-Gothic campus. While UNC is a genuinely Southern place (or at least used to be), Duke is an institution for transplants, a school mockingly known as the “University of New Jersey at Durham.” And while Chapel Hill is full of wine-and-cheese liberals, Duke undergrads are imaged as an army of mini-Gordon Geekos and Republican jerks … a stereotype that’s not altogether inaccurate. In the only event of its kind I’ve ever heard of, after Duke lost the 1999 Championship Game to Connecticut, tens of thousands of Carolina fans poured out onto Chapel Hill’s Franklin St. to celebrate and get drunk. This rivalry is intense, to be sure, but Duke Hate is much bigger.

Certainly, a lot of Duke Hate derives from Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s success, his three National Titles and winning percentage over .750. Whenever Duke loses a regular season game on the road, more often than not, the opposing fans flood the court as if they’d just won a title. But resentment alone can’t explain the intensity of Duke Hate. Few people truly loathed UNC’s legendary coach Dean Smith, whose exploits equal Krzyzewski’s.

Christian Laettner
Christian Laettner

A lot of Duke Hate comes from a certain “preppiness” associated with its players … a quality that was put into stark relief in the ’92 Championship Game, when clean-cut Duke went up again Michigan’s “Fab Five” freshman, who had pioneered the hip-hop look of bald heads, baggy shorts, black sneakers and socks, and street-ball style. Laettner would latter describe them as “real loosy-goosy.”

But this “preppiness” charge has always seemed to me like a euphemism for what really bothers people about the Blue Devils. During Coach K’s tenure, his teams have been majority White, and with some notable exceptions, like Grant Hill and Johnny Dawkins, Duke’s most beloved/hated players have been Euro-Americans. People love to hate the Dukies because they stand as a flagrant violation of the trajectory of collegiate and professional basketball over the past 30 years. Duke is White, they play White, and they win.

Duke 2009–10 squad is even blancher than usual. Led by All-ACC guard Jon Scheyer, Nordic Superman Kyle Singler, 7’1’’ Slav Brian Zoubek, and the Plumlee bothers, Mason and Miles, Duke’s starting line-up feature three, and sometimes four, White players. Eleven of the 14 slots on Duke’s roster are filled by Caucasians.

This comes in the context of the NCAA Division I being between 60–70 percent African-American (and the NBA, 80 percent so). The top-ranked college programs of 2010 seem, if anything, to exceed the norm. For instance, Kentucky’s starting five—and top 10 scorers—are all Black.[1] The United States’s 2008 Olympic squad, the elite of the elite of American basketball, featured a total of zero White players. (The ’92 “Dream Team” had four, including Laettner.) This trend is evident at the high-school level as well. As Sports Illusrated reported 12 years ago, in the inner cities, White kids have all but given up on playing competitive basketball.

The character of the Duke program is so striking that it’s hard for the literary sportswriter not to view it as something more than just a team—something closer to a representation of an era or way of life. As Will Blythe writes in his enjoyable book To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever:

[T]he Eighties were Duke’s decade. They were America’s team. Back then, the Blue Devils were like boy bands: squeaky-clean, cute, irrepressible, mostly White (with an occasional black guy like the point guard Johnny Dawkins singing lead). They played hard, they played together, and they had the added advantage of being the underdog, the team on the rise. They were the perfect embodiment of the Reagan years: led by a conservative [Coach K is a known Republican], cranking out the P.R., representing an institution peopled by those unapologetically in pursuit of personal success.

They were the Danny Ferry years. And for Blythe, Duke’s rise eventuated in a racial drama:

The Duke of that era finally engaged in its epochal confrontation with the forces of darkness (i.e. a predominantly black team) in 1990 and 1991 when they took on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the Final Four.

Much like the Fab Five of ’92, The UNLV “forces of darkness” seemed like a novelty at the time, but in retrospect, the team anticipated exactly what basketball would come to look like. Led by Larry Johnson—an Anti-Christian Laettner if there ever was one—the Rebs were trash-talking, undisciplined, and gone from campus before graduation. All that was missing were sleeves of tattoos.

The White Dynsty
The White Dynsty

In the first match-up, the pretty boys got slaughtered by the thugs, 103–73. The second match-up in ’91, however, turned into one of the great upsets of all time, with a three-pointer by Bobby Hurley and two clutch free-throws from Laettner in the final minutes. As Blythe narrates, this was the moment that the underdog became the overdog and the country turned on the erstwhile “cute” Blue Devils.

Blythe claims that the Duke Hate centered around perceived double standards in refereeing (Coach K’s players have been notoriously eager to take the charge). But this is minor. Far more significant was the fact that, from the ’90s on, Duke Hate was about hating the rich, evil, soulless White guys.

Before going into why the Dukies’ Whiteness makes them so hated, it’s worth asking how such a state of affairs ever came to pass—for a majority-White team might seem particularly surprising at a place like Duke. The school’s undergraduate body might include many future stock brokers and it’s certainly more “fratty” than any in the Ivy League, but Duke’s faculty is famously (post-)Marxist, exemplified by such pomo luminaries as Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson. While I was rooting on the ’06 and ’07 teams during the heights of the “Duke Lacrosse Hoax,” I didn’t know how Coach K got away with it—or how long the faculty would stand for a starting five that represented “White Privilege” and the “legacy of slavery.”

The credit (or blame) for Duke Whiteness must surely lie on the shoulders of Mike Krzyzewski, not only the head coach but the man who approves every recruiting decision. Recruiting is, of course, a two-way street; recruits must choose Duke[2]. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Duke gets the pick of the litter each year, and one must conclude that the fact that Coach K and his assistants key in on the best White players in the country is part of a deliberate plan. (And even if it’s unconscious, it’s consistent.)

Krzyzewski is by no means a “racist,” as that term is usually used, nor is skin color the only criteria in recruiting: according to the Encyclopedia of Duke Basketball, “Since 1976, only two players who didn’t transfer or turn pro have failed to graduate.” All of Krzyzewski’s star recruits were, in fact, four-year players until Elton Brand went pro early in 1999.

Put simply, each year, Coach K recruits the “golden boys,” young men who are highly skilled, fresh-faced, often White and handsome, sometimes cocky, and invariably intensely annoying to other fans who wished their players measured up. Duke has produced its share of NBA talent, but it’s no coincidence that its most cherished players were all “college athletes.” Hurley, Laettner, Ferry, Cherokee Parks (who’s White despite claiming some Indian blood), and Redick have all been either journeymen or busts in the pros. Steve Wojciechowski, Duke’s floor-pounding point guard in the late ’90s, was one of the most well-known (and most loathed) players in the country at the time; after graduation, he played a year in Poland and then moved to the coaching bench beside Krzyzewski, proving that his game really was all about guts, brains, and heart.

Coach K and Wojo
Coach K and Wojo

Duke’s style of basketball—a trapping defense and complicated three-guard weaving patterns on offense—is foreign to the NBA, which features a much more primitive game, based on static formations and one-on-one match-ups. Duke’s current leader, John Scheyer, is archetypal in this respect. As ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a White Duke grad and former coach, noted while covering a game this season, Sheyer has mastered playing “below the rim.” Doug Gottlieb blogged, “Scheyer is probably not an NBA player, but his Jewish faith allows him to get an Israeli passport and he would be one of the most coveted players EVER for a team like Maccabi Tel Aviv.”

How has Coach K been able to buck recruiting groupthink? Will Blythe claims that he was better able to understand cagey Coach K’s psyche once he recognized that Krzyzewski was really not the slick, evil CEO he’s made out to be; he’s more the consummate outsider and underdog (a striking admission coming from a life-long Carolina fan). Krzyzewski had grown up far from wealth and privilege in a Polish neighborhood in inner-city Chicago; he’s a devout Catholic in a Protestant state and at a formerly Methodist institution. In Blythe’s words, “At Duke, Krzyzewski had managed to go as far afield from the South Side of Chicago as he could go, while at the same time creating for himself the sense of being embattled on the block, embedded in hostile territory, surrounded.”

“With North Carolina and North Carolina State around, we’re a minority, ”[Kryzyewski] said. “But growing up in Chicago prepared me for that. It wasn’t so much race there—black-White—it was nationality. I was Polish and I was a minority. And I think that’s one reason I’ve done so well here. Because we’re still a minority.”

Duke Haters love to associate the Blue Devils with elitism and class privilege. But what’s so unusual about the team is that its players are precisely those the world assumes can’t compete in big time basketball. Christian Laettners aren’t supposed to be able to even hang with Larry Johnsons.

Carolina’s Dean Smith, Krzyzewski’s arch-nemesis for years, is often credited with leading the drive for racial integration in the state of North Carolina by recruiting Black athletes in the ’60s. Coach K has achieved much the opposite in creating a singular program in which Anglo-Saxons and Europeans stand tall once again in the game that James Naismith invented.

Why Coach K’s recruiting sensibility would be so deathly annoying to opposing fans has a lot to do with an asymmetry in American basketball. Simply put, fans are mostly White, players are mostly Black. (This has, no doubt, been a major factor in the declining fortunes of the NBA, and something no PR genius can fix.)

Cameron Crazies
Cameron Crazies

This asymmetry is, no doubt, experienced on a personal level by most fans. I myself was obsessed with sports as a young person, due in no small part to the fact that I grew up in the age of Sportscenter. But by the time I hit my 20s, this passion had waned considerably, to the point of disinterest. I certainly hadn’t chosen to attend Duke graduate school in hopes of becoming one of the “Cameron Crazies,” the dedicated fans in the student section who specialize in obnoxious taunting. (Blythe describes being “alternately envious of Duke’s Nuremburg-rally cheers and appalled at the smug mockery that nincompoops like Dick Vitale claimed as evidence of high SATs and a predictor of future success.”) But when I arrived in Durham, camping out all night in hopes of getting in the grad-student ticket lottery was just something one does. And this obligation was shared by my left-wing colleagues, who deconstructed Gender and Race by day and rooted on J.J. Redick by night.

Once actually inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, I learned how genuinely spontaneous (and mean) the Crazies really are. In a memorable moment, the rumor passed through my section of the stands that a regular in the front row, who always wore a Bobby Hurley #11 jersey, had learned that a Georgia Tech player had been dumped by his girlfriend the night before. When that unfortunate player went to the free-throw line, the Crazy leader began calling her name, and within seconds all the students, much like birds in a flock, had heard the signal and began chanting in unison “Brit-ney, Brit-ney” (or whatever the girl’s name was). The Georgia Tech guy missed.

I also learned that Coach K keeps a staff of specially selected waterboys, each of whom is required to wear a suit and tie to games, which makes for quite a strange scene when after every few possessions these well-dressed students sprint onto the court and assiduously wipe sweat off the floor.

During a game against Clemson, the full significance of Duke Whiteness hit me. I looked across the arena and observed our doppelgänger—Clemson fans who looked and dressed much like us (save the obvious) and were rooting almost as intensely … though not quite. The Clemson all-Black starting five, on the other hand, looked nothing like Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts. The Tigers weren’t quite the Running Rebs, but corn-rows and tattoos were in evidence. I realized then that, quite frankly, if I’d gone to Clemson instead of Duke, I wouldn’t have taken the slightest interest in the basketball team.

Much like nationalism, school spirit and winning can overcome quite a lot, but I doubt the Clemson fans could ever quite identify with their team like Dukies do. And I often wonder whether there isn’t something deeply unhealthy about college students passionately rooting on players with whom they have little in common, and, I’d add, with whom they’d never associate were it not for basketball.

In the end, Duke Hate probably boils down to this. When opposing fans look at the Blue Devils, they wish in their hearts that their home team were like that.

  1. Interestingly, Disney’s not-so-historical made-for-cable drama, Glory Road depicted the Kentucky program as the evil bastion of WASP supremacy, the foil to Texas Western’s plucky all-black squad.  ↩

  2. Even “The Truth About Duke” website struggles to find evidence of Duke paying players.  ↩