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Duke men's basketball alumni reflect on national championship seasons in virtual fireside chat

Lance Thomas (far left) and teammates right after the Blue Devils' 2010 national championship victory.
Lance Thomas (far left) and teammates right after the Blue Devils' 2010 national championship victory.

April 6 was circled on the calendars of Duke students, fans and alumni around the world. The day brings back memories, namely being the date of both the 1992 and 2015 Blue Devil national championships. It also marked the date of this year’s national championship, before the world as we know it changed.

Although head coach Mike Krzyzewski was not standing atop the podium in Atlanta this past Monday as the confetti fell from the ceiling, that did not mean the Duke community stopped thinking about its program’s history.

Nowadays, the five national championship banners idle inside Cameron Indoor Stadium as the Durham campus sits quiet. But inside hundreds of homes Monday night, talk about national championships consisted of more than just what could have been. Instead, more than 1,000 Duke alumni and family members tuned into Zoom to gain insight from five former Blue Devils who experienced a national championship donning the blue and white.

The Duke Alumni Association New York Regional Board created and facilitated the Monday evening conversation with five players from the Blue Devils' five championships: Thomas Hill (1991, 1992), Cherokee Parks (1992), Mike Dunleavy (2001), Lance Thomas (2010) and Justise Winslow (2015).

The night was kicked off with the quintet discussing recruiting and their first time putting on the Blue Devil uniform.

“For me, as a skinny kid from Portland, Oregon coming in, I’m sure the first time people saw me, they were wondering what this middle schooler was doing on the court,” Dunleavy said about first playing in the Blue-White scrimmage. 

Fast forward to the 2002 NBA Draft and that skinny kid was selected third overall.

When Thomas enrolled in the fall of 2006, Duke was already an established powerhouse, with games on television night after night. But that increased exposure came with intensified pressure.

“Before I leave here, I want to put something up there,” Thomas remembers saying after looking up at the three banners inside Cameron Indoor Stadium at the time. “When I wore that jersey, it was time to win.”

While the results of everyone's championship seasons ended the same, expectations were widely different. The 1990-91 squad, dubbed the “Young Guns,” played with a chip on their shoulder and “had something to prove,” according to Hill. 

Parks came to Durham the following year and now touts the leadership on both the coaching and player fronts during that historic 1991-92 campaign. For Parks, and many others, that season can be summed up with one game and one of the most famous shots in March Madness history: Christian Laettner’s turnaround game-winning jump shot in the Elite Eight.

“Watching that game was what I felt like all season. When you break that game down, the way we’re switching pick and rolls, our defensive positioning, how we’re getting up and down the floor,” Parks said. “It’s an incredibly well-played game and that’s how we played the whole season.”

Two weeks ago, CBS replayed that memorable game, which gave Parks another look into that moment and what transpired immediately after the jump shot hit the bottom of the net.

“I have so many images of watching the game from the view of the camera,” Parks said. “I have to backpedal to have my view from the bench and seeing Tony Lang fall on the ground while Laettner hit the shot. I’m running down onto the floor and all of us jumping on each other.”

Hill added that being a year older allowed him to appreciate that second championship more so than his first, and that winning two in a row made it even more special. But it wasn't just that win against the Wildcats or cutting down the nets that brought the team together.

“The secret sauce was that Chubb Rock [cassette] tape in the locker room that had one song on it that we played over and over and over,” Parks said, noting the bonding and camaraderie that made that 1991-92 team so unique.

Dunleavy echoed similar sentiments, saying that his 2001 championship group remains in touch through a WhatsApp group chat, where they can look back and laugh about moments almost two decades removed from that season. But in the moment, he said the team was focused and resilient in its quest to bring home championship number three.

In the Final Four against Maryland, Duke trailed by 22 in the first half. But the team would come all the way back, eventually winning 95-84. Two days later, Dunleavy’s 21 points in the national championship game against Arizona secured the title.

The 2010 national title team differed from those of the past. While they did not have a go-to scorer who could put the team on its shoulders, Thomas said that everyone knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses extremely well. Outside of hoisting the trophy in April, there was another memory that stood out for the former Blue Devil: the regular season finale against North Carolina, a contest in which Duke won by 32.

“A lot of the people who really kept us motivated and kept us going were our walk-ons,” Thomas said. “They’re the unsung heroes that don’t get recognition for anything when it comes to winning, when it comes to how we train.... We got to watch our walk-ons get into the game.”

That victory set the tone for winning three games in the ACC tournament and then six more in the NCAA tournament en route to both ACC and NCAA championships. However, the path to the program’s fourth banner wasn’t smooth.

“Everybody had us losing that game,”  Thomas said of the team’s matchup with Baylor in the Elite Eight. “They had guys who could touch the top of the backboard. We had guys who were hitting the rubber when we were laying the ball up.”

Senior leadership led the way in that 2010 season. Besides Thomas, center Brian Zoubek and current Duke associate head coach Jon Scheyer made up the senior core of the roster, with guard Nolan Smith, the current director of operations & player development, and forward Kyle Singler as the notable juniors.

“We went through so much together that it was to the point that we weren’t going to let anyone down no matter what can happen,” Thomas said. “If Jon or somebody on the team called me at four in the morning, ‘Hey Lance, I need you to be here.’ It wasn’t like, 'Man, you sure you need me to be there?' It was like, 'Where you at?' And that translated to the court.”

Winslow spoke about the similarities between Duke's two most recent championships. For him, the unity of that 2014-15 team off the hardwood was very strong as well, allowing them to rebound after adversity hit in the middle of the season, resulting in a shorter bench going into the postseason. But the eight-man rotation would eventually come together, raising the program's most recent banner.

The players went on to to discuss their relationship with Krzyzewski and what each former player learned from the Hall of Fame head coach. To close the evening out, the players reflected on what their time at Duke meant not only while they were playing and attending classes, but also in the differing years removed from their college playing careers.

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