I started watching sports regularly in 2009. My dad had season tickets to the Yankees, and that year he started bringing me to games consistently.
It was a magical season. The team won a league-high 103 games in the regular season—including an absurd 17 walk-off victories—and stormed its way to a World Series title. It was one of the best summers of my life, but it also brought one downside: It made me believe that storybook endings were meant to be.
Similar to that 2009 Yankees campaign, this past Duke men’s basketball season seemed to be evolving into the ultimate storybook ending, especially considering how painfully the previous three seasons ended. As I watched the Blue Devils take down Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas on their way to the Final Four, it finally started to sink in: Duke may very well win the national championship, during Coach K’s final season as head coach. It seemed too good to be true.
And it was.
As we all know, the Blue Devils lost the following weekend in excruciating fashion to their biggest rival, North Carolina. With one Caleb Love three, what seemed to be culminating into a storybook ending turned into a Duke fan’s ultimate nightmare.
Now I’ll preface the rest of this column with this: Virtually every single Duke fan would’ve rather Duke had won that game than lost it. I’m not going to pretend like anything I discuss in the next 400 words makes up for that. But there has to be some way to move on, and in the two weeks since that stunning defeat, I’ve latched onto one lesson:
Winning a championship in sports is really hard.
Yes, that seems obvious. But to someone like me whose first real taste of being a true fan was the 2009 Yankees, it’s not that obvious. All year the Blue Devils had arguably the most talented roster in the country, and after knifing through the West Region, they had only two wins standing in their way of one of the best stories in sports history—at that point, I just couldn’t process the fact that it was possible they wouldn’t finish the job.
But if championships were that easy—that the most talented team won every season, or that the team destined to win it all did in fact do so—then they wouldn’t mean as much. Championships are so meaningful precisely because of the difficulty involved as well as the fact that a lot of the times, the team that seems meant to win it all doesn’t get it done, no matter how close they get.
During the spring of 2019, I wrote a speech for my freshman year seminar on sports fandom. I talked about my Yankees fandom, and how I never really was as invested in the team after that initial season (“Maybe that first season had been too perfect, and nothing could top it,” I wrote at the time). Now, I'm not going to pretend like Duke hasn't had its fair share of success over the last four decades. But it's safe to say the team has also undergone its fair share of disappointment in recent years, from Elite Eight heartbreak to a couple of brutal regular-season losses to the Tar Heels, with each defeat bringing more pain than the next.
However, that's just what comes with being a sports fan.
Next year, the Jon Scheyer era will commence at Duke, and based on their recruiting classes it seems like the Blue Devils will once again trot out teams that, on paper, can win a national championship. Will they? Who knows. But that’s what makes being a sports fan so great: the suspense, the uncertainty, the excitement, the doubt and then the ultimate jubilation if your team wins it all.
Sports fans experience all of those emotions on a yearly basis, except the last one. But that’s exactly what makes that last one so special.
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