The independent news organization of Duke University


Return to glory

Midnight. Bonfire. National champions. 61-59.

It’s unbelievable, fantastic, incredible—whether or not anyone wants to admit it, this is a storybook ending. Five short months ago, when Mike Krzyzewski was washed up as a coach, and this team had no perimeter depth, and the big men were unathletic stiffs, and the question was not whether Duke could win a championship this year but if the program would compete for a title again in the foreseeable future—five short months ago, no one saw this coming.

Duke Blue Devils, national champions.

That’s why I wrote most of this column a little after 9 a.m. Monday, 12 hours before Duke played for the national championship, rather than after the game. It’s because I wanted to be fair. Win or lose tonight, I envisioned myself sitting down at the computer and writing in an impassioned fury. But that would not be fair. Win or lose, boiling a basketball season—a 40-game basketball season filled to overflowing with triumph, despair, effort, hustle, made jumpers, missed jumpers, foul trouble, hard screens, key rebounds, celebratory hugs, fist-pumps, chest-bumps and, above all, an us-against-the-world, we-don’t-care-what-you-think, tough-as-nails attitude—into 1000 words written in 45 minutes while crying tears of joy or disappointment just isn’t fair.  

Because this season mattered. It mattered too much to let one game, no matter how important, define how we feel about it.

It mattered to us, obviously, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It mattered to the players. Every time they stepped out onto the court, you could see how much it mattered. For three players—Duke’s senior trio of Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek—it mattered in a way that a season could never matter to any other player at any other program in the country.

It mattered because they went 22-11 as freshmen and lost to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It mattered because of the beatdown that West Virginia handed to them in the second round of the Tournament their sophomore season and the way the Mountaineers laughed afterwards. It mattered because, at the start of the season, they hadn’t beaten North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium in three years, hadn’t seen a celebratory bonfire. It mattered because four players transferred away during their four years, and they stuck around. It mattered because each one of them came to Durham as a superstar recruit, but bounced into and out of the starting lineup, and changed roles whenever the team needed it. It mattered because they showed up at Duke at a time when the basketball team handed freshmen a Final Four guarantee along with their East Campus dorm assignment, and because their first three teams didn’t even sniff the Final Four. It mattered because whenever anyone wrote or talked about the Duke mystique being gone, they were the guys who lost it.

But it wouldn’t be fair to say it mattered only to the three scholarship seniors. It wouldn’t be fair to ascribe prior suffering only to them. Each of the players on this team suffered, some of them very personally, but all of them as members of a basketball program that everyone said used to be great, but that no one believed in anymore. Even if they knew, like anyone should have known, that all that “loss of the Duke mystique” stuff wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, the criticism had to sting.  

Until Saturday, they never said it mattered for any of those reasons. Before beating West Virginia in the national semifinal, Scheyer said, “It’s not about payback or anything like that.” That theme was representative of about a thousand quotes this season from head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his team: It’s not about payback, it’s not about the past. It’s about living in the moment. And it worked. They lived in the moment all the way to the national championship game.

But that’s too simple, too easy. As the author William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And as Zoubek said, after beating the Mountaineers, of his chance to play for the title, “[This game] is everything…. To have a shot at the championship my senior year, after everything that we have been through, is a dream come true.”

Just look at their faces. Look at any photo of Duke’s players celebrating the win over West Virginia. They’re giddy. Irrepressibly, impossibly giddy. That’s not the type of happiness that comes from having everything always go your way. It’s happiness born of suffering, of questioning, of finally coming through in the end.

In Judaism, we have a concept called Dayenu, which translated from Hebrew to English means, “It would have been enough for us.” It’s a way of counting blessings, of recognizing how fortunate one is for all the things that one has. And as I write this column, the morning before the national title game, Dayenu is what comes to mind.

If these 14 basketball players had merely shown up on campus this year, given their all in practice and in the classroom, comported themselves with dignity and pride, and not appeared to enjoy playing with each other so much, it would have been enough for us.

If they had appeared to enjoy playing with each other so much, and had not won even a single game this season, it would have been enough for us.

If they had won a single game, but not won the ACC regular season title, it would have been enough for us.  

If they had won the ACC regular season title, but had not beaten UNC twice in doing so, it would have been enough for us.

If they had beaten UNC twice, but had not won the ACC Tournament, it would have been enough for us.

If they had won the ACC Tournament, but not reached the Final Four, it would have been enough for us.

If they had reached the Final Four, but not beaten West Virginia thoroughly and decisively to avenge the loss from two years ago, it would have been enough for us.

But they did do all those things: They showed up on campus, gave their all in class and on the court, comported themselves with dignity and pride, enjoyed playing with each other, won the ACC regular season championship, beat UNC twice, won the ACC Tournament, reached the Final Four and then beat West Virginia thoroughly and decisively once they got there.  

And tonight, win or lose against Butler, whether we’re hanging a National Championship banner or “just” a Final Four banner next season, it will have been enough for us.

Dayenu, and thanks for the memories.


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