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Beyond basketball

staff note

Watching Duke’s come-from-behind overtime win over Texas in last week’s PK80 Invitational awakened a familiar feeling in me, one I hadn’t felt in some time. This year, for the second year in a row, Duke men’s basketball had the misfortune of being ranked preseason no. 1. And as I sat in my family’s living room witnessing the young team give up dunk after dunk, digging itself into a 16-point hole midway through the second half, I shook my fist and reflected once more on the fact that to be a Duke basketball fan is to know so much bitter pain and disappointment.

Of course, Duke did what Duke so often does (and what it did, again, two days later), which is pull off the unthinkable, keeping dreams of being undefeated alive for another day. It’s a trick I’ve seen pulled time and time again, and it’s no less maddening today than it was 10 years ago — even though, of late, my connection to the team has been more tenuous.

For 17 or so years, my life practically revolved around Duke basketball. I was raised in a Duke household just nigh on half an hour from campus, and it followed that, from a young age, nearly everything I owned was blue: In middle school I gained a reputation of wearing nothing but Duke paraphernalia — to be sure, it was a rough period in fashion for everyone — and to this day, my childhood bedroom is painted a deep royal. The months between November and March (or, more rarely, April) had a consecrated quality, greeted by season predictions, number-crunching and the hastily purchased cable subscription, the better to watch ESPN. The remainder of the year was mere anticipation. 

I had the fortune of seeing two national championships unfold during this time. But for me, the essence of being a Duke fan always lay in how frustratingly, thrillingly inconsistent the team was. As much as Duke basketball is defined by its evergreen dominance, it’s equally defined by the promise of disappointment, its Mercers and Lehighs, its habit of giving the long-suffering folks at N.C. State their biggest win of the year.

So when I finally came to Duke last year, it was difficult for me to join in the collective murmurs of an undefeated season. (Remember that?) I imagine I fancied myself as the grizzled veteran who’d seen it all, knowing that such hubris would be our downfall. But more realistically, living on campus had had the strange effect of making me less invested in the basketball team — there’s a reason I’m currently editor of Recess and not across the office with Sports.

I can’t point to a definite reason why my ardor for Duke basketball seemed to wane as soon as I set foot on campus. Perhaps those disappointments started to feel like an unworthy price for the occasional celebration, and I was simply sparing myself the emotional labor. Perhaps I’d realized that the players I’d looked up to as godlike figures were now my peers, some even younger than me. Perhaps, still, I’d decided there were more “important” things to worry about than a basketball team. 

Most of all, though, I began to appreciate what the campus could offer beyond basketball. Growing up, Duke the basketball team and Duke the university had been, in my mind, synonymous — and, from the outside, that’s often the way it seems. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I began to appreciate the difference, and it wasn’t until I came to Duke that I actually experienced it. Basketball’s influence is great but hardly inescapable. 

I see now that my experiences as a Duke basketball fan bore little, if any, resemblance to my experiences as a Duke student, to the extent that I sometimes forget the two are connected — when I watch a game like the one against Texas, it is difficult, almost surreal, to unite the Nike-sponsored behemoth that is Duke basketball with the place where I study. (The problems posed by such an arrangement are a conversation for another day.)

But ultimately, moments like Duke’s so-quintessentially-Duke wins in the last week bring out the inner sports fan in this arts and culture editor. I may not prioritize the NCAA basketball season the way I once did, but the devotion is still there, to some extent. I’m honored, too, to share an office with the writers who are on the sidelines producing the live coverage and postgame reports I digested for so many years.

If the first seven games of this season are any indication, it’s shaping up to be a good year to be a Duke fan. And I know better, but I’ll continue to let my emotions get the best of me. Here’s to making it past the Sweet 16.

Will Atkinson is a Trinity sophomore and the Recess editor.


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