It's good vs. evil, America's darling vs. the team people love to hate

Monday April 5th, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- When I arrived at the Indianapolis airport on Friday, I walked past a newsstand. And as I walked by, I noticed that somebody -- probably the guy who runs the stand -- had drawn awkward pen markings over the sports section's front-page photo of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. There was Coach K with devil horns and goofy eyebrows and a goatee and a target on his forehead. Below, the headline said "Duke" and the rest was crossed out. Somebody had written below it: "Is No Good."

Well, I thought, maybe the guy who runs the stand is a Butler fan. Or maybe he's one of the many people in the world who despise Duke. Or maybe he thought it would drum up business among the many potential customers who, apparently, despise Duke.

Whatever, I didn't think much of it. Until the next day.

And that's when I heard that it was THE NEWSPAPER ITSELF that drew the horns and goatee and target on Mike Krzyzewski. That drawing was in EVERY paper -- that is, until the Indianapolis Star editors realized the horror of it all and judiciously stopped the press run.

"It's very juvenile," Krzyzewski said when asked about it. "We have great kids. They go to school. They graduate. If we're going to be despised or hated because we go to school and we want to win, you know what? That's your problem."


Questions and answers with 33-year-old Butler coach Brad Stevens:

Q: Brad, how often do you get carded?

A: I said this the other day. I don't have any time to go anyplace that cards you.

Q: If this would really happen, what would it do?

A: Well, I don't know. I have no idea how to answer that question.

Q: Do you embrace the whole David and Goliath?

A: You know it makes me feel good. David won.


Yes, the scene is set here in Indianapolis. The storyline is written. You have already read the script. Tonight, Cinderella Butler faces Hated Duke in one of the most tantalizing national championship games in memory. Tonight, America's shining knight Butler takes on the fury of fire-breathing Duke. Tonight, crime-fighter Butler takes on the henchmen of Duke. Tonight Butler tries to become the most unlikely national champion since ... well, frankly, it's hard to find a more unlikely champion than Butler. And tonight, Duke tries to win its fourth national championship in the Reign of Coach K. Oh yes: The scene is set.

Only ... is the scene even real? Is this really David vs. Goliath? Is this really good vs. evil or, anyway, the bright new team vs. the tiresome old one?

Is there really a wide gap between Butler and Duke? They have both been ranked in the top 10 most of the year. They are both relatively small private schools. Their tuitions are both exorbitantly high. Kurt Vonnegut briefly attended Butler. Richard Nixon got his law degree at Duke. Jim Jones -- yes, THAT Jim Jones -- went to Butler. Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates, went to Duke. Butler was a bit of a bit of a power in the 1920s and then, not again for about 75 or 80 years. The feeling is that Duke has been great forever but the Blue Devils, believe it or not, were only sporadically good for much of their history.

In fact, I remember Duke as being a college basketball doormat in the early 1980s. That was when my family had moved us to North Carolina and I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had to (by law) pick an ACC team to cheer on. This team would be my entire identity throughout high school, so I had to choose well. When I arrived, North Carolina had a freshman named Michael Jordan. N.C. State had a coach named Jim Valvano. And Duke had a losing record, a coach with a name like my own and a 6-foot-5 guard named Vince Taylor who could light it up, thus making the Duke beatings seem more palatable.

"You're a Yankee," I was told. "You should pick Duke."

I chose North Carolina, of course. I mean ... they had Michael Jordan, for crying out loud. But the feeling I remember so clearly was how hopeless it seemed at Duke. Yes, they had played in the title game as recently as 1978 -- John Feinstein's Forever's Team -- but they had clearly fallen into third or even fourth place in the state's basketball hierarchy. How could Duke win? Duke had these extreme academic standards -- I would not even have merited a rejection letter from Duke. The coach with the long last name was clearly about to be fired if he kept losing. How the heck were the Blue Devils going to beat Dean Smith's North Carolina machine or Valvano's charisma at North Carolina State or even plucky Wake Forest or the powerhouse they were building up at Virginia with Ralph Sampson. They weren't. Hopeless.

And that's what I thought -- that's what a lot of people thought about Duke -- not so long ago.


Mike Krzyzewski has never really known how to answer the "Why do so many people hate you and your team" question. Maybe this is because he has never really seemed entirely clear on why people hate Duke in the first place. Is it because Duke has been so good? Is it because of Christian Laettner? Is it because there seems to be arrogance oozing at Duke where the kids are all "special" and they do things "the right way?" Is it because announcers never stop singing their praises, and referees tend to call the charge a lot, and the Duke students, those Cameron Crazies, are praised relentlessly -- like they just discovered the secrets of perpetual motion -- every time they come up with a semi-clever chant? Is that it?

And do people REALLY even hate Duke? Sure, some people do. But a lot of people, all over the country, love Duke even though they have no special connection to the school. Duke is generally one of the top 25 sellers of school merchandise despite an enrollment of about 6,000. Duke draws good enough ratings that more than one person suggested that the NCAA gave them the easiest route to the Final Four*.

*Considering that Kansas lost to Northern Iowa, Syracuse lost to Butler, and Kentucky lost to a beat-up West Virginia team, I'm not sure this has turned out to be a particularly viable argument. But the point stands: The fact anyone THINKS that the NCAA and the television networks wants Duke in the Final Four tells you that SOMEBODY must like Duke.

In any case, Krzyzewski has no great answer for those people who continuously ask why his team is despised. On Sunday, he was asked again about it, and he tried a new line:

"I just think it's really easy to talk about not liking us because we're a private school," he said. "We're not a state. We don't have a state press. You know, people wouldn't take the shots at us that they do if we were a state school because the people of that state wouldn't like it, and there would be a filter there. And there's no filter for us, a Notre Dame."

That doesn't really seem to go deep enough -- people despise plenty of state schools. But there is a point here. Duke doesn't really have a big home base. Duke won't set car horns blaring and fireworks spiraling into the air in many places if it wins the game tonight.

Instead, Duke's support is spread around the country among its alumni, the people who want to be a part of their success and those who connect because they believe, they know, that Duke does things the right way.


Q&A with Butler coach Brad Stevens.

Q: Have you allowed yourself a moment to appreciate what you've accomplished?

A: I did go back to my hotel room last night. My wife stayed in there ... she was just kind of staring at the wall when I walked in. She kind of stared at me like, "You guys are playing for the national championship." I said, "Yeah, but we're playing Duke."

Q: Twenty years ago Vegas beat Duke. In that game everybody loved Duke ... do you find it ironic now that people want Duke to lose?

A: What I remember more was for Duke to beat (UNLV) here in Indianapolis the next year. Just like everybody else, I enjoyed the underdog. I was rooting for the underdog.

Q: When you look at Duke ... do you see anything there specifically that you want to be like?

A: Well, everybody wants to be like Duke.


When you think about it, no, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to hate Duke. If you think about how Krzyzewski took a dwindling program, built it up a little bit, built it up some more, took Duke to Final Four after Final Four, coached the Blue Devils to victory over unbeatable UNLV, led them to championships and now has them back in the final in a whole new era ... yes, it's absolutely remarkable.

And, yes, they have graduated their players. And they have had classy players -- Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Danny Ferry, Johnny Dawkins, J.J. Redick, and the players on this team and on and on and on. True, lots of programs have great and classy players, and it's always annoying whenever a basketball coach suggests that somehow his program has a monopoly on them. But, yeah, they do seem to have done a lot of things right at Duke.

Stevens has it right. Every program wants to be like Duke. Every program would love to win all the time and have a great academic record and have fans that everyone considers witty. Everybody program would love to have a coach like Krzyzewski and players like Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.

And yet, if you are like Duke for too long ... people will turn. Butler is a wonderful story now because Butler is new. But if Butler would win tonight and then make it back to the Final Four next year, and the year after that, and the year after that ... suddenly the story would lose a lot of its charm for people. Suddenly, you would find a lot of people wearing crude T-shirts ripping Butler. Suddenly, you would hear people muttering about how much they hate Butler.

But nobody really expects that to happen. That's because stories like Butler tend to be fleeting. That's because nobody really expects Butler to be a dominant and sophisticated and academically prominent program for the next 25 years like Duke has been the last 25. It's an almost impossible feat to do what Duke has done, if you really think about it.

And that's why, if you want to follow the script, if you want to despise Duke, if you want to root wildly for Butler to beat the odds, if you want to root wildly for the Blue Devils to taste bitter defeat, hey, knock yourself out. Enjoy it. That's part of the beauty of this matchup. You can hate Duke without guilt. Duke has earned the right to be hated. And that might be just about the best thing you can say about a college basketball team.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.