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The 'new Duke' isn't Duke without basketball

Countdown to Craziness. Sophia Palenberg/The Chronicle
Countdown to Craziness. Sophia Palenberg/The Chronicle

On a four-lane road in suburban Atlanta, lined with strip malls and apartment complexes, there is a strip club. It was there that my parents met.

Now that I have your attention, I can tell you that 25 years ago, when it still had windows, it was a restaurant called Theo’s where in late March 1986, a crowd of Duke alumni gathered for nothing more than Mexican food and an evening of Duke basketball.

On March 31, Anne Marshall, Trinity ’78, and Rick Gieryn, Trinity ’79, each came and watched as Pervis Ellison and the Louisville Cardinals beat the Blue Devils in a nail-biter, the first national championship appearance of Mike Krzyzewski’s career. Although they may not have known it at the time, the basketball game would turn out to be far from the most significant event of the evening for them. That night, they were introduced by a mutual friend who had also attended Duke, and 18 months later, my parents were married.

Brought together nearly 25 years ago by Duke basketball of all things, they have sent one of their two children to Duke—as a diehard fan of all things Blue Devil—and hosted fundraisers in Atlanta for the Duke Cancer Center, where my grandmother lost a heroic battle with pancreatic cancer in 1997.

But now, the Duke administration seeks to marginalize a force that has long brought together students and alumni alike and provided a reason for many capable students to choose Duke over other schools of equal academic stature.

Last week, The Chronicle’s editorial board met with President Richard Brodhead and published a piece entitled “The new Duke,” in which they laid out Brodhead’s vision of the next step in Duke’s future. The culture change that Brodhead described will affect student life from top to bottom, but, in particular, the head of the school took a shot at basketball.

“When speaking with us,” the editorial board wrote, “Brodhead put the matter bluntly, calling basketball a ‘foolish’ and ‘disheartening’ reason to pick Duke.”

I understand the reasoning for emphasizing the school’s academic prowess in recruiting new students, but I also struggle to see why such emphasis has to come at the expense of enthusiasm for the school’s storied basketball program. I don’t understand why the school can’t be just as proud of the Cameron Crazies as it is of its new focus on “interdisciplinarity.” I don’t understand why one of the oldest, most lauded and most recognizable institutions of this school is suddenly being pushed aside as a justification for students to come to Duke.

I know I am not alone in saying that I chose Duke because—while I don’t work as hard as some, or play as hard as others—I knew I could find a balanced life where I would be pushed to do both.

I don’t understand why, if Brodhead feels so strongly that basketball is not meant to be one of the core elements of the student experience, Duke spent more than $7 million in 2010 to pay the head coach, or why Krzyzewski was one of the keynote speakers when Duke announced its $3.25 billion capital campaign in September.

I want to be clear that the importance of basketball here actually has very little to do with basketball. There is nothing inherently useful to the school to have 13 particularly tall, athletic students­­—who constitute approximately 0.2 percent of the undergraduate population—dribble a ball up and down a court. The use comes in the sense of community that students can create at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the sort of large-scale unity that can be experienced in few other places on this campus, including—and perhaps especially—classrooms and labs.

According to the editorial board, “The administration proudly cites the fact that prospective students now mention DukeEngage more frequently than basketball as a reason for attending Duke.”

DukeEngage has turned out to be an admirable and wonderful program, and has had a remarkable impact on both the students here and on the world at large. But the basketball experience is crucial because it is precisely opposite in nature. Duke Engage is without a doubt a collaborative process for each student involved. Few endeavors of such profound import can be undertaken alone. But the immersive community service experiences are fundamentally individual, at least with respect to the Duke community. The program allows students to pursue their own passions and make their own mark on the world.

In the fire-code-mocking crush of students in the Cameron Indoor Stadium bleachers, there is no individual. You can—maybe—pick yourself out in the crowd on a television shot if you’re in one of the front rows and happen to find a good freeze frame. You are just 1/1800th of a mass of blue and white and waving arms. And there would be nothing intimidating if everyone cheered individually—we chant together. No one voice stands out. All you hear, whether as a TV audience or an opposing player or Mike Krzyzewski himself, is a single unstoppable thunderous crescendo of “LET’S...GO...DUKE.” It requires all of us, and only together can we reach 120 terrifying decibels of noise.

There’s something to be learned in those rickety bleachers that no academic or community service experience can teach you. There’s something about the way that only basketball can bring together 9,314 fans for a few hours of raucous excitement or a few hundred students for weeks of bonding in freezing tents. Or even just two people, with plenty in common but no existing connection, for a life of showing their son his way in the world, disagreeing over plenty of things but never Sunday Night Hoops.

Trust me, I know.


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