It’s that time of year again, when the entirety of my attention turns to college basketball and the never-actually-dormant UK fan in me comes bursting forth to the front and center of my life: March Madness. I love March Madness: it’s one of my absolute favorite times of the year. I love the ups and downs, the last second buzzer beaters, the Cinderella stories. I love watching my team defy or live up to the expectations (depending on where the expectations lie). I love brackets that get busted. I love an underdog story. And I love it when Duke loses.
The second round of the NCAA Tournament wrapped up on Sunday night, and in the final game, Duke lost. This might not seem important to some of you, but if that’s the case, it’s likely you didn’t grow up in Kentucky or North Carolina (…or perhaps a select few other states, but those two are the big ones). Nothing brings people together like a common enemy.
Friend-of-the-blog Sarah is a UNC fan. She comes by it honestly, as she actually went to UNC Chapel Hill, whereas I was just born into my love of the UK Wildcats. Initially, I thought this might be a hindrance to our friendship but was willing to try to make it work. When you’re friends with a whole lotta nerds, you take sports fans where you can get ’em (though I maintain that being a sports fan is just being a nerd about sports). Then, when I was helping move her and also-friend-of-the-blog Jason into their last apartment, I stumbled upon this book:
With that, I knew our friendship was cemented. Now objectively, I know that hate on a real visceral level really isn’t okay. But I hate — like, really hate — Duke. Now I don’t know anyone who loves college basketball who feels ambivalent about the Blue Devils (and let’s be honest: very few of those feelings are of a positive nature). Maybe there are people out there who would disagree on that, but I don’t know them. And then there’s probably a portion of people reading this who have no idea what I’m talking about. Feel free to stop reading now, or continue in a sports-talk-induced haze, if you dare.
As a Kentucky fan, I can trace my hatred for Duke back to 1992 (okay, so, technically I don’t actually remember the East Regional Final of 1992, but I know that’s where my hatred of Duke started). It’s mostly Christian Laettner’s fault. He’s the one who scored a lucky, overtime, buzzer beater shot that dashed Kentucky’s chances at glory, in a year that was supposed to be our year. The UK team that season was called the Unforgettables, known for the four Kentucky-native seniors who had been with the team through a two-year probation from the tournament, punishment for an old teammate’s mistakes. Those guys stuck it out, waited to get their shot at the title. And then at the last second, Laettner took it all away with a shot he shouldn’t even have been able to take (having committed a foul that should have had him ejected from the game earlier in the second half). That stupid last-ditch effort gets played over and over again every March, in every montage, on every channel. It even has its own Wikipedia page.
Now I’m not alone in my antipathy toward Laettner. He’s one of the most reviled players in college basketball history; ESPN even made a documentary about it. And he’s got company. Duke’s an easy team to hate, the spoiled rich kids of college basketball, and every season there’s one who seems more annoying and entitled than the rest. When I was in high school it was JJ Redick. This year, it’s Grayson Allen. Notice how Duke has its own category in this info-bracket from the now-defunct Grantland :
So this year, as I readied myself for another month of March Madness, I was sad to see that Duke was a likely favorite to win the whole tournament. They were ranked #2, and the East Region, historically the toughest quadrant of the bracket, was the weakest it had been in years. By all appearances, they had a pretty straight shot to the Final Four if they just kept being f***ing Duke. They wouldn’t even need to try that hard. I organized a bracket pool this year, so I took mine very seriously — weighing records and stats instead of just which teams I like, watching as many games as possible. I’m in it to win it. And so I reluctantly placed Duke in the Final Four, hoping I could get at least some money out of it in the end.
So imagine my (pleasant) surprise when the SEC’s own South Carolina, to whom I hadn’t given much credit, held on to oust the Blue Devils from the tournament this past Sunday night. And my favorite part of Duke losing? The camaraderie between all the basketball fans on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, regardless of affiliation. I saw UNC and South Carolina fans celebrating side by side. I was reminded that this website exists. It was beautiful to see that no matter how much Louisville and UK fans fight about their respective teams, we can all agree that “Duke is unequivocally the worst” (direct quote from noted University of Louisville fan, Zelda). A Duke loss is a powerful thing. It can turn enemies into friends. It can unite the Carolinas.
BREAKING NEWS: The Carolinas have reunited over a unifying hatred of Duke pic.twitter.com/d6B6YVkdx4
— UNC-Barstool (@UNCBarstool) March 20, 2017
So if by some act of the March Madness gods UNC and UK play each other in the South Regional Final, no matter how uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing watching that game will be for Sarah and me, I love that we can at least find solace in the fact that Duke can’t win the 2017 NCAA Tournament. I guess what I’m saying is that in these trying times, when nothing else makes sense, we should focus on the things we have common, the things that bring us together — like hating Duke.