The dust has settled, bonfires long extinguished.
After months of agonizing, doubting, questioning, screaming and hoping, Duke is coming home to Durham with its fifth national championship in tow. And the Blue Devils' 68-63 title game victory against Wisconsin was the battle that every college basketball fan dreamed it would be.
The buildup. The excitement. The eyes of the sporting world shift to one stage, where everything is on the line.
But somehow, despite the drama and magnitude of the moments, championship games—even one featuring a thrilling comeback by my own school—have always seemed somewhat anticlimactic.
Days, sometimes weeks, are spent dissecting every angle of the big game. Every possible matchup. Every key injury. Every intriguing backstory over which we can scrutinize and fantasize. We analyze the teams' last matchup as though they played each other last week, even if they haven't seen each other for four months. We break down the team's last game as though it is the way they played the entire season, even if they're just getting hot at the right time.
And by the time we're done with all this, we blink a couple times and the beginning of the second half is ticking down. For a fleeting second, we wish that the entire season did not have to be decided by one, arbitrary game and that the moment wasn't passing us by so quickly.
This is why I couldn't wait until after Duke and Wisconsin went to war to put pen to paper and reflect on the Blue Devils' magical season. Instead, I wrote the majority of these words the morning of the national championship game, hours before tipoff in Indianapolis. Because one game does not do an entire season justice, and neither does a column written at the apex of an emotional roller coaster—the hour directly following the game when I was guaranteed to be either brimming with joy or angrily sulking in the depths of 301 Flowers.
That isn't to say that 40 minutes in Indianapolis doesn't change anything. Last night's game determined whether or not the West Campus benches would go up in flames or sit idly on the quad in hopes of next year. Whether they would have to make room in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium for a fifth national championship banner. Whether this year's Duke national championship T-shirts would be adorned by smiling Blue Devil fans across this nation or smiling children in a third-world country, joining the immortal wardrobe of almost-champs alongside the 2007 New England Patriots and about a dozen different teams Kentucky fans thought would go undefeated.
Throughout this year's NCAA tournament, Duke players young and old have reiterated that from the first day of practice, the team's goal was to win a national championship. But the day before the biggest game of his basketball career, senior captain Quinn Cook slightly changed his tune.
"It's motivation for us to be special," he said.
Long before the Blue Devils took scissors to the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium, this season was already special.
Special because of Jahlil Okafor's mind-numbingly nimble post moves that make him look like a 7-foot ballerina; Justise Winslow's killer instinct and jaw-dropping athleticism; Tyus Jones' uncanny ability to rise to the occasion; Grayson Allen's spring-loaded legs; Matt Jones' emergence as a late-game assassin; Amile Jefferson's intensity and willingness to accept a reduced role; Marshall Plumlee's primal scream; Nick Pagliuca's dry sense of humor; Sean Kelly's opportunity to live every Duke student's dream.
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And, of course, Cook's four years of growth from a loud-mouthed boy into a calm and confident man, during which he raised his game every step of the way and led a Blue Devil team that started the year with 10 scholarship players and ended it with eight to the pinnacle of the college basketball world.
This team has just as strong of a connection with its peers as it does with its legendary head coach. Every student at this University knows that from the opening game of this season, the Blue Devils have been playing for each of them. There's an undeniable joy in the way they play, a pervading happiness that you can see in their eyes on the court—that, along with the team's toughness, has helped forge this connection. The fact that I misspelled originally the word "justice" a few paragraphs ago and instead wrote Justise, as in Winslow, serves as a living testament.
Prior to this year, Duke seniors like myself had yet to see the Blue Devils earn an ACC regular season or tournament title or Final Four appearance, including two gut-wrenching opening-round exits in the NCAA tournament. This team has paid us back by taking us on the ride of our lives.
Throughout this season, head coach Mike Krzyzewski has taken time during his postgame press conferences to remind the media that he loves his team. In recent years, Krzyzewski has undoubtedly had deep love for certain players on his teams. This is different. Top to bottom, he loves every player on this team like a son. He loves how unselfish they are and how quick they are to seize the moment. He loves them when they lose, and he loves them win they win.
You could see that from start to finish Monday night—from Allen's ferocious second-half drives to Tyus Jones' dagger 3-pointer to the tear-jerking sight of Cook hoisting the championship trophy. This is what made this team truly special, and this is why they will be remembered—the banner is simply a reminder.
The story had already been written. This was just the ending.