x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Duke are too good for their own good

The networks treat them as some holier-than-thou deity that has risen above the fray of other basketball programmes that win, but do so at the sake of good behaviour.

On Monday, the day after the NCAA men's basketball tournament put out the match-ups of the 65 teams battling for the championship over the next three weeks, a co-worker walked into the office and bellowed the following. "I can't stand Jon Scheyer - I hate Duke." Scheyer is the star guard for the Duke University basketball team. Duke are among the favourites to win the NCAA title this year. My colleague is not alone. Duke are one of those teams you either root for or root against. There is no ambivalence about Duke basketball.

Scheyer is their leader and a brilliant player. For Duke haters, he is the main target for their venom. It was not always this way. Two decades ago, Duke basketball was a solid programme that lived in the shadow of the more powerful University of North Carolina. When Duke upset the favoured University of Nevada Las Vegas team in 1991, a lot of people rooted for them. They had star players we liked, such as Grant Hill.

I think the anti-Duke sentiment began the following season, 1992, when Christian Laettner, the Duke's star forward, stamped on the chest of a fallen University of Kentucky player on national television. The huge Kentucky fan base instantly saw Duke as public enemy No 1 and some basketball fans around the United States followed suit. Laettner became the first in a long line of Duke players fans loved to hate.

Over the next decade, Duke continued to win and put forth a programme that was respectable on and off the court. Their players had good grades, played hard and stayed out of trouble off the court. Mike Krzyzewski, their head coach, became a household name. Duke fans themselves became part of the charm or annoyance of the programme. The Duke student fan section are notorious for berating opposing players with creative but vicious taunts. If you were a Duke fan, you loved every bit of this and the media followed suit.

One of the complaints I often hear is that Duke basketball is the media's favourite team. These people have a point. I worked at ESPN and CBS and have seen the coverage, or over-coverage, that the Duke basketball programme has received since 1990. Duke detractors complain that the networks treat Duke basketball as some holier-than-thou deity that has risen above the fray of other basketball programmes that win, but do so at the sake of grades and good behaviour. They also complain that Duke games are on television too often.

One by-product of the long-term exposure that Duke basketball has received is that their players become well known nationwide faster than most other players. When you add in that many Duke players stay in school for years when many other good players leave for the NBA after one or two years, you can get very used to and even annoyed at seeing one player for too long. Scheyer is the 2010 version of that player, which started with guys like Laettner and the early 1990s point guard Bobby Hurley.

If I threw out names like Steve Wojciechowski, Chris Collins, JJ Redick and Greg Paulus, anti-Duke fans would wince as they picture some of the star Duke guards they detested. While I am not a Duke basketball fan, I think we want and need teams like Duke. Duke are the equivalent of the good-looking kid in the nice shirt and tie who calls you "sir". On the surface he seems likeable, but there is something that just bothers you. We need villains in sport, even if you are not really sure why you dislike them.