There is some introspection required for a man as he closes in on his 72nd birthday, which will occur for me in the middle of October. One question I’ve been pondering recently is this:
“What is the source of my preoccupation with and intense dislike for Duke men’s basketball?’’
I mean, a lot of people don’t like Duke because it wins so often and is haughty about it, but how many inspect the 68-team bracket on that Sunday evening of revelation with only one thought:
Who can beat Duke before it gets to the Final Four?
OK, there’s also a second thought:
Who do you need to get to the Final Four that will have the best chance to beat Duke if it does get there?
I know the original seed of my anti-Duke sentiments was planted way back in 1986, when Coach K (for Krybaby) reached his first Final Four at Reunion Arena in Dallas.
The Devils arrived at 36-2 and with the No. 1 rating in the polls. They were playing Kansas in the semifinals, and Louisville had LSU.
There are practices for the four teams and media interviews on Friday. That’s when I started hearing from sports writing peers about how wonderful were these Devils, so thoughtful, well-spoken and quick with the quip.
Duke defeated Kansas 71-67 and Louisville tore up LSU 88-77 to reach Monday night’s championship game.
The NCAA provides wonderful media access to the finalists on Sunday. There has been a 45-minute general session with each team, and then another 45 minutes to go to anterooms to ask questions of individual players.
This is when the gushing about the wonderfulness of the Duke players really got out of hand. Nothing against Jay Bilas, but he grew up down the block from Tracy Austin, the teenage tennis star, in Rolling Hills, Calif.
To me, the Dookies came off as talented basketball players who were privileged. Not all of them, of course, but enough to provide a huge contrast to Louisville. For instance: Two of the Cardinals stars, Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson, came from low income backgrounds in Camden, N.J.
I’m always going to root for guys who worked their way out of Camden over those who worked their way out of Rolling Hills.
Wagner and Thompson – along with freshman Never Nervous Pervis Ellison -- defeated Duke 71-67, making for a fine visit to Dallas.
Duke then went to five Final Fours in a row from 1988 to 1992, winning its first two with Coach K in 1991 and 1992. The idea the Devils were haughty and privileged only increased during that run, although I did really like Grant Hill.
Even as a freshman, that kid was a hoot, willing to make fun of older teammates, particularly Christian Laettner.
The heavy dose of Duke adulation – whether from fellow sports writers or from the ESPN sycophants – during that five-year run of Final Fours caused that seed of dislike planted in 1986 to flower.
But, somewhere, it got worse, and the good news in this introspection of being a golden ager is that I believe the source has been found:
I was looking up Dream Team articles for the always-popular Sunday feature on page 2 of Star Tribune sports (not Sid, Patrick Plus) and ran across a column that was published on June 25, 1992.
Laettner was the lone collegiate player with the Dream Team (confirming all my worst notions of Duke privilege). He had been drafted the previous night by the Timberwolves with the third selection.
This was Example A of the Wolves’ bad lottery luck, since they had the worst record but fell to third, allowing Orlando to select Shaquille O’Neal and Charlotte to take Alonzo Mourning.
Laettner had a brief media session after a Dream Team practice in San Diego before the draft. A TV reporter put a microphone near him and said:
“This must be an exciting time for you … knowing you are about to get drafted and become an NBA player?’’
Laettner stared at the TV guy impassively and said:
“If there was a question about me getting drafted, I might be more excited. I know I’m going to get drafted and that it figures to be Minnesota, and that’s fine with me.’’
The man with the microphone tried again, saying: “Most basketball players would call this the dream of a lifetime.’’
Again, Laettner stared, waited and then said: “That’s why I didn’t say it.’’
One observation I made in that column was this: When you ask a Laettner a question, you get an expression that has three parts – smirk, sneer and sleepy-eyed.
I think running across that column was what was required to solve the mystery of my anti-Duke obsession. I think I’m like most Duke “haters.’’ It can be traced to Laettner.
Meaning, there’s no mystery at all … there’s even a 30-for-30 on the subject