No Devils’ Advocates
They are generally well spoken, clean-cut, polite to a fault, studious basketball practitioners, led by a Hall of Fame coach who calls voting-age players, “my kids.”
You’d let most of them baby-sit your kids.
They’ve won three national titles since 1991 without the common quid-pro-quo of subsequent NCAA probation -- no easy trick -- and have produced as many model citizens as star forwards.
They are the Duke Blue Devils and, frankly, a lot of people just can’t stand them.
Duke is in town for a West Regional semifinal Thursday against Kansas at the Pond, meaning, if you missed out on heckling the Osmonds years ago, this could be your next-best chance to rail against wholesomeness.
At first- and second-round games last week in Salt Lake City, Duke was derided when it took the court against Colorado State on Thursday and hissed at when players trotted out for warm-ups against Central Michigan on Saturday.
On the weekend jeer-meter, only filmmaker Michael Moore bested the Boo Devils.
The closest thing to a bulletin-board quote that might have provoked this hostility was Coach Mike Krzyzewski saying of Central Michigan, “I’m not sure there’s a greater success story in college basketball than what they’ve done.”
He wasn’t sure?
Duke is a paradox in that it is loathed by many as it sets an exemplary example of basketball behavior.
The contempt for Duke is real even as Art Chansky, a chronicler of North Carolina basketball, calls it a “real mystery.”
Duke used to be lovable.
Once, it was the scrappy dog nipping at the heels of Dean Smith’s North Carolina dynasty.
Once, it was Krzyzewski who complained that North Carolina got the breaks.
Once, it was a young Coach K who seethed when Smith pounded the scorer’s table during a game in Durham, N.C., and inadvertently knocked 20 points onto the Tar Heel point total, a scene symbolic of Smith’s alleged power.
Duke was certainly the White Hat when it upset the rowdy Rebels of Nevada Las Vegas in the 1991 national title game, but at some point since it changed.
Some of it you could blame on the polarizing former Blue Devil star Christian Laettner.
“He personified the dislike of Duke,” Chansky, author of several books on Tar Heel basketball, said.
Some of it was inevitable.
When Smith retired at North Carolina in 1997, Duke filled an enormous vacuum and moved toward becoming the most successful program, really, since UCLA.
“I think it changed when Dean retired,” Chansky said of the Duke dynamic.
The numbers started to pile up to the point of gaudiness.
Duke has won at least 25 games for six straight seasons. Krzyzewski has been to the Final Four nine times since 1986 and is 60-15 in the NCAA tournament.
With Smith no longer the dean of coaches, Krzyzewski became dean.
He is arguably the best coach since John Wooden, with time to get greater.
Over-the-top success comes with a price.
“Hated by many, loved by few, respected by all,” Clipper forward Elton Brand says of his alma mater. “There is a stereotype that the guys are preppy, they’re stuck up, they win all the time. We’re like the Yankees and I hear about all these Laker haters out there.”
Cherokee Parks, another former Duke player and current Clipper, puts it succinctly.
“Everybody hates Duke,” he said. “We’re not flashy. We’re not like that kid from Syracuse [Carmelo Anthony] going through the legs every time. There are a bunch of hypocrites out there.”
The anti-Duke sentiment rekindles anger from a different dynasty.
Former UCLA star Marques Johnson recalls playing a game at Oregon in 1976 and the public-address announcer introducing the Bruins “Descending, I mean, defending national champions!”
As it was at the apex of UCLA, Johnson says there are both benefits and backlash from what he calls “the spoils of greatness.”
Everyone likes a winner -- but not too big.
The Duke backlash reached a crescendo two years ago in a national semifinal against Maryland at the Final Four in Minneapolis.
Maryland had blown a 22-point first-half lead and trailed Duke, 84-79, with three minutes left, when Maryland star Lonny Baxter bumped Duke’s Carlos Boozer in the post.
Both players had four fouls, but the officials called Baxter for the foul.
Maryland Coach Gary Williams jumped off the bench, pounded the official’s table and said words to the effect, “Is this how badly you want Duke to win?”
The antipathy carried over to the national title game against Arizona.
With 9:12 left in the half, Duke star Jason Williams, already saddled with two fouls, landed on the back of Arizona’s Jason Gardner in a scramble for the ball.
The refs let it go.
In the second half, Gardner drove the lane, was knocked to the ground by Shane Battier but, again, no foul was called.
A sustained chorus of boos against Duke filled the Metrodome and took a bit of the gloss off the Blue Devils’ third national title triumph.
Hank Nichols, then the NCAA’s coordinator of men’s officiating, had to ward off calls of favoritism.
He confessed the Final Four games were poorly officiated but said there was no bias.
“They don’t care who wins, I’m telling you,” Nichols said of his officials.
Good coaches, though, do know how to work the referees, not particularly for the call they might have missed but to get the next call.
Is it really beyond the realm to think that officials, as humans, appreciate that Duke players are highly skilled and respectful in the same way baseball umpires appreciated that Ted Williams knew the strike zone?
Johnson, a college basketball color analyst for Fox, says there is no doubt referees give more talented players and teams the benefit of the doubt.
“The reputation is built on success garnered over the years,” Johnson said. “It comes with the territory. Larry Bird had it. Magic Johnson had a signal with the refs, when he yelled it was a foul.”
Johnson remembers closely covering Larry Bird during a game and Bird telling the ref, “Get him off me,” and the ref obliging.
Johnson, in his role as analyst, spends hours talking to referees and he says they all know the score.
“They can tell you the hot team, which team is well coached, they follow the game closely,” he said. “I think they do get caught up in it.”
The rap against Duke is no secret.
During Duke’s first-round win in Salt Lake City last Thursday, Colorado State’s radio broadcast team spent much of the night complaining about calls going against the Rams.
In fact, against Colorado State, Duke ended up with more fouls called against it, 23 to 19, and two Blue Devil players fouled out compared to one Colorado State player.
Duke also had more fouls called in its second-round game against Central Michigan, 18 to 14.
But the perception persists.
“A lot of it is myth,” Chansky admitted. “They play in-your-face defense. Others say it’s like theory of offensive linemen, that if you hold on every play maybe you won’t get called.”
The Blue Devils play hard, don’t talk trash and never celebrate in your face.
Maybe, in the end, that’s the toughest part to take.
Chansky: “They go out, kick butt, shake your hand and walk off the court.”
Times staff writer Elliott Teaford contributed to this report.