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My Mr. Hyde

I’m not much for cheesy farewell columns, but every senior gets a final byline and I didn’t want to miss out.

I’ve had a blast writing for sports—covering Duke football for five days at the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, watching games courtside in Cameron, interviewing an old friend of Michael Jordan’s.

But instead of retelling old stories, I am going to talk about a perspective that few, if any, at Duke share.

I have a split identity—like a 21st century Dr. Jekyll repressing his Mr. Hyde. But secret identities can’t stay hidden forever.

I love University of Kentucky athletics, especially basketball. There, I said it.

It’s not that I don’t also love Duke’s teams, because I do. But I was a Wildcat long before I came to Durham.

I grew up in Lexington, in the heart of Wildcat country. Both my parents went to Kentucky, all 14 of their siblings are diehard fans and the only time I’ve ever heard my grandmother curse, besides when she sets off the smoke detector in the kitchen, is when her Wildcats make a mistake on the basketball court.

My childhood home sits less than two miles from Commonwealth Stadium, where I had my first adult beverage, Jim Beam Bourbon, at a Kentucky football tailgate when I was 14—sorry Mom and Dad. I once met former basketball coach Tubby Smith while wearing a University of Texas T-shirt, and he gave me a playful ribbing that I will never forget. I swapped summer camps for baseball camps led by the Kentucky players I adored and stuffed myself with all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream in the dining hall where the student-athletes ate.

The list goes on and on. It’s in my blood, and I can’t help it. I am a Blue Devil, but there will always be a part of me that belongs to the Wildcats.

When I told my family I would be attending Duke, one uncle jokingly called me a “traitor.” Most Kentucky fans share that sentiment. They loathe the Blue Devils. Christian Laettner turned Duke into the Evil Empire.

I’ve heard my parents tell the story of the 1992 East Regional Final countless times. My older brother just a toddler asleep in his room, me not even born yet, parents sitting on the living room floor quietly celebrating what looked to be another Kentucky trip to the Final Four, until Laettner hit The Shot. He also viciously stomped on Aminu Timberlake’s chest earlier in the game, a most appalling crime committed by the perfect villain.

That’s when the hate started.

Kentucky and Duke have only played four times since their 1992 meeting, but that doesn’t mean much to Wildcats fans. The Bluegrass State has plenty of animosity stored up for Duke. Twenty-plus years have not made Kentuckians more forgiving of Laettner, or his school.

That history has plagued me at times as I have grown to love Duke athletics. When Kentucky won the national basketball championship my freshman year, I celebrated alone on East Campus. And I am not ashamed to say that I openly cheered for the Wildcats when they played Duke in the Champions Classic my sophomore year.

At times, my predicament has felt like a win-win—having two schools to root for every season. But as the Final Four approached this year, I started hearing the question again and again from those who knew my secret.

What will you do if Duke plays Kentucky?

I didn’t know how to answer. I could not in good conscience hope for Kentucky to lose, but a championship during my last year in school would be sweet.

Wisconsin solved that dilemma for me. And as I sat in Indianapolis and watched the Wildcats’ hopes for a ninth national championship slip away, a part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t have to face an unsolvable problem for the title game. And of course, it all worked out in the end.

What I’ve come to learn from the past four years, and especially this year’s NCAA tournament, is that I don’t have to pick anymore. I am a Wildcat by birth and a Blue Devil by choice, and both programs hold a special place in my heart.

Some Kentucky fans will never understand how I could be a Blue Devil, and some Duke fans will always be puzzled by my love for the Wildcats. But I consider myself lucky. I have two programs to support, two national champions, two places that feel like home.

Now that I’ve come to terms with my split identity, I’m at peace. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There, now it’s cheesy.

Correction: The original version of this column misspelled both the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the last name of former Duke basketball player Christian Laettner. It has been updated to reflect those changes. The Chronicle regrets the errors.

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