One day—maybe sooner, but probably later—we might forget about a certain basketball game played last week. We might not remember it was Brian Zoubek who forced Gordon Hayward’s miss and then grabbed the rebound, or that it was Kyle Singler who ran into a glass door in the waning seconds or that it was Nolan Smith who posed on the court where his late father won the same championship in the same city 30 years ago. The intimate details will prove fleeting; they always do. What I will remember, more than anything, is where I was when Duke won its fourth national championship. It’s in this sense of place that memories form, where everlasting bonds are made, where a community is forged.
That Monday—it seems so long ago, already—I chose to stay on campus rather than drive to Indianapolis, having analyzed the benefits and downsides of both situations for entirely too long. I was banking on a beautiful North Carolina spring day, one that would validate my decision to be here, and yet I still would never have expected 80 degrees and sunny, perfect in every way.
Walking to the Armadillo Grill around 4 p.m. to save seats for the 9:21 p.m. tip, I saw a slew of tour groups camped out on Main West quadrangle, the same area where, hopefully, we would blaze the benches later that night. It was Blue Devil Days, of course, and campus never looked better. It was nearly impossible to walk from Alpine to the Bryan Center without spotting someone in a Duke jersey, someone else sporting a Duke shirt, defying the standard that it’s somewhat gauche to be seen in a uniform away from Cameron Indoor Stadium. Friends lounged on the Plaza and drank on the quad, basking in the sunlight. For one day, at least, Duke was everything any wannabe Dukie could have wanted.
At one point, we were all iterations of those pre-froshes on the quad, awed by architecture and struck by the ease with which everyone handled themselves. (Four years later, I still am, sometimes.) When I first visited campus, in the summer before my junior year, our tour group walked around in a torrent of humidity, dripping sweat with each step. We took refuge in the air conditioning of Perkins—the construction of von der Heyden, next door, made it hard to hear our tour guide—and the tour ended on Towerview Road, with Cameron lurking, small and unimpressively, across the street. On the inside, the stadium was awesome and charming, almost enough to make me forget the powerful heat and the ineptitude of the tour guide. It was quiet. Peaceful. It felt like home.
The next year, when I compiled my college list, I was still hesitant about applying to Duke. My tour, after all, had been underwhelming, to the point where the trip to Cameron salvaged it, rather than enhancing it. My mother convinced me with common sense, as is her wont. “You’re not going to apply to Duke?” she asked, rhetorically. “Why wouldn’t you?” There wasn’t really an answer. Even as a New Jersey kid—or maybe, given the demographics of Durham, it’s not so surprising—I had grown up with Mike Krzyzewski on the television, with Duke on the winner’s line my annual NCAA Tournament bracket, with Shane Battier as my imaginary teammate on the driveway basket.
It’s trite for most to claim that they chose Duke because of basketball, but I don’t have any other excuse. Without the ubiquity of Duke Basketball, I wouldn’t be here right now. I was accepted, fortunately, several months later. A few days earlier, Duke had lost in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, and still, I couldn’t shake myself of the idea of attending a university that epitomized the interplay between academics and athletics. The admissions department’s decision filled my computer screen, and right then, I knew: I wanted to spend four years at Duke, and only Duke.
This University, it’s often said, is built on a series of binaries, evident as soon as any prospective student walks up Chapel Drive. Duke is a new campus that looks old, a liberal arts college flourishing within a research university, a cutting-edge global institution in a sleepy Southern city. And while Duke is a world-class university—pat yourself on the back—its global image is fashioned off the success of the basketball team, specifically, and the athletic department as a whole. Duke is a recognizable brand, and not simply because of the intellectual stimulation in a single seminar.
Athletics, in short, bring out the best in this place. That idea isn’t revolutionary, for sure, but it’s worth reiterating after last week, when the University buzzed with an aura unlike anything I had experienced in four long years. I realized, then, that it wasn’t so much basketball that brought me to Duke, but what basketball represented.
Walking through campus felt like wiggling into a photo shoot for the school, and it became even more uncanny by thinking about what those high school seniors must have thought of this big, beautiful place. That night, a bonfire did, indeed, sway till the morning’s wee hours, and the next morning, a rush of students poured into Cameron one last time, and all it did was trigger a thought that no senior ever wants to have. It made me never want to leave.
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