March Madness not the same when Duke exit


SIDELINE CUT:Love them or hate them, and their legendary Coach K – Mike Krzyzewski – US college basketball wouldn’t be the same without those preppy Blue Devils boys

HE DOESN’T have the patrician charisma of John Wooden or the timeless quips of Vince Lombardi and he suffered a crushing experience on the basketball court in the wee hours of Friday morning. Nonetheless, Mike Krzyzewski’s inexorable journey towards a place among the towering forefathers of American sport looks set to continue unabated.

The reason sport is so important in America is it makes an unfathomably vast country manageable in the minds of its citizens. When, for instance, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics resume their enduring basketball rivalry, it forms some kind of connection – albeit antagonistic – between cities that exist in different time zones and, it could be argued, different centuries.

In years to come, it could well be Barack Obama’s enduring line is not “Yes We Can” but the opening sentence of his February ’08 address: “What began as a whisper in Springfield, Illinois, soon carried across the cornfields of Iowa . . .” Most people listening to that speech for the first time – both in America and beyond – would have had one instant thought at the mention of those cornfields: a fresh-faced Ray Liotta stepping from the maize as Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams.

If you drive through any of the Great Plains states, you begin to get a sense of their vastness and understand why basketball has flourished so much in these places and why this inexpensive indoor game formed a latticework of rivalries and local stories that sustained bleak winters and created shooting heroes both destined for bar-stool regrets and glittering careers.

When Larry Bird, who went on to become arguably the greatest pure shooter in the history of basketball, first went to college, he became so lonely he hitch-hiked home to French Lick, Indiana. When he was recruited by the Boston Celtics, he made the immortal declaration: “I’m just a hick from French Lick.”

Just like that, a sports figure had imprinted the Hoosier state on an entire nation. People with no interest in sport can easily become bewildered by the sheer forcefulness with which it imposes itself upon popular culture in American towns and cities.

There are times, such as Super Bowl week or baseball’s World Series, when sport becomes literally inescapable. And right now, America is in thrall to what might be the most heightened and precious example of why sport makes that country work: the March Madness college basketball tournament.

The appeal of the sprawling carnival is easy to see. Two brackets featuring 64 teams which is reduced to 32, then the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four and the championship game. The tournament is played out in regions across the country and lasts throughout March and into early April. With concurrent games, points spreads, teams suddenly getting on hot streaks, it is a gambler’s dream.

The future stars of the NBA – players like Derrick Williams of Arizona and Jimmer Fredette from Brigham Young who will, in June, sign multi-million dollar contracts – play alongside exceptionally gifted team-mates who are just that split second too slow or that half inch too small to attract the professional scouts.

Several coaches on the NCAA collegiate scene are institutions in their own right. Jim Calhoun has been manning the sidelines at Connecticut since Ronald Reagan was president. Jim Boeheim started his coaching career at Syracuse in the mid 1970s. The coach with the most wins in the history of college basketball is Bobby Knight.

One of Knight’s early protégés was Mike Krzyzewski, who became the notoriously demanding Knight’s keenest pupil before embarking on a coaching career of his own. Knight, retired, has 902 wins. Coach K (the surname is a story in itself: pronounced She-Sheff-Ski, his father, conscious of being the son of a Polish immigrant, went by the surname “Kross”), has an even 900.

“That is how he handled racial discrimination. That’s what he felt he had to do to get a job,” his son said after he had gone about ensuring the family name was one of the least readable and most recognised names in the States.

But it has become impossible to conceive of the March Madness tournament without Krzyzewski and Duke University from North Carolina forming a key part of the story. Krzyzewski clawed his way from a working class Chicago upbringing to become the public face of Duke, transforming the Blue Devils team into the one of the most successful – and hated – symbols in American sport.

Hating Duke has become a badge of honour. It isn’t hard to see why. They win a lot. They look rich. They have frat-boy heroes with names like Christian Laettner, like JJ Redick and, most unbelievably, like the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason. Any of these characters could have done convincing walk-ons in The Social Network.

Duke never do anything unsporting – human, that is – like rough an opponent or throw a tantrum. The hatred towards Duke is, it should be said, a sanitised emotion – nothing like the form of hatred Neil Lennon is enduring as coach at Celtic FC. But Duke represents something a lot of their antagonists believe they are not. They are disciplined and superior and tough and extremely good to watch because they are so fundamentally well- coached by old K – who likes his players to be students as well as athletes.

“Goliath Joins Duke Basketball Team in Victory Celebration” ran a headline in The Onion after the team won last year’s tournament.

Duke were, predictably enough, the number one seed going into Friday night’s game against Arizona. But in a rare collapse, they were pulverised in the second half of their match, limping out of the tournament on a 93-77 scoreline.

The manner of Duke’s downfall would have provoked much gloating across the 52 States – few teams have had books written solely about how it feels to dislike them, but To Hate Like This Is To Be Forever Happy, written five years ago by Will Blythe, struck a chord with a lot of people. Still, the widespread happiness at seeing Duke depart – with no sour grapes, of course – will be fleeting.

To begin with, they always come back, even preppier than the last year. When this year’s madness ends, college basketball goes quiet until November, when Duke hold their traditional midnight rally to welcome in the new perfect heroes to usher in another period of glory. Coach K will not have to wait long before he racks up the three wins that will leave him out there on his own.

And for now, Duke’s departure means the climax of this year’s tournament will not feature a match-up between the Blue Devils and their neighbours and fierce rivals North Carolina: at its best, this rivalry matches anything in sport. And when Duke go out, one of the essential points of the tournament seems to leave with them.

You can only see Duke getting beaten once a season and, once they go, the March Madness tournament feels a bit smaller.

“Hating Duke has become a badge of honour. It isn’t hard to see why. They win a lot. They look rich. They have frat-boy heroes with names like Christian Laettner, like JJ Redick and, most unbelievably, like the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason