WTF is a Hoosier?!?: Growing up as a Duke Fan in Basketball-Crazy Indiana

Growing up as a basketball fan in Indiana, it was all about the Hoosiers in the ’90s. Purdue had some strong teams, particularly with Glenn Robinson, but seeing as their only “championship” was awarded retroactively to John Wooden’s team in 1932 when the leather belt was still a standard part of the uniform, no one took them very seriously. There was a well-known joke among Indiana fans that went: “Why does Gene Keady only play 14 holes of golf?.. Because he can’t find the Final Four!” (Rimshot!) IU was the team who could claim the last undefeated season with Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner and Scott May. IU was the team who rode Isiah Thomas to victory over Dean Smith’s Tar Heels in 1981. IU had Steve Alford and “The Shot” by Keith Smart in 1987 to beat Syracuse. Bobby Knight could do no wrong. (I guess you could say that he is still given impunity. In fact, people here still resent Neil Reed for having the audacity to report that the man choked him.)This was everyone’s team.

After some fielding excellent squads in the early 1990’s led by Calbert Cheaney, Damon Bailey, Alan Henderson and Brian Evans, the relative failures of the teams that followed seemed to suggest that IU basketball was on the decline. Year after year they were losing to higher seeds in the NCAA tournament; and year after year Indiana’s best high school players were leaving the state so that they wouldn’t have to play for the demanding Knight. I always liked IU. I watched the games with my dad and wanted them to succeed, but I never fully connected with the team. I was gravitating towards the exciting group in blue and white that was always playing on ESPN.

I honestly don’t remember when or why I started loving Duke Basketball. I had a professor in college who got his Ph.D. from UNC. One day he noticed the Duke shirt that I wore to class. He approached me and asked with all seriousness: “How on earth could an intelligent person root for that team? And how does a kid from Indiana become a Duke fan? “I made up a story. I told a romantic tale of how my first basketball memory was the Laettner shot and that I have bled blue and white ever since. I wasn’t even 5 years old when number 32 caught the full-court pass from Grant Hill, took one dribble, turned and then sank the most memorable shot in the history of the NCAA tournament. I don’t know when I saw that shot for the first time. It would be nice to believe that I saw it as a young child, somehow internalized the greatness of the moment, and was subconsciously drawn to the team as I grew older. For whatever reason I just knew that this was the team that I loved. As a kid I always loved staying up late to watch early-season invitational games in Alaska and Maui. There wasn’t a single year in grade school where I didn’t pick them to win the NCAA tournament in my bracket. As a 12 year old I remember crying in 1999 when Brand, Avery and Langdon lost to a UCONN squad led by Richard Hamilton and the portly point guard Khalid El-Amin. I rejoiced in 2001 when Battier willed the team to a dramatic comeback win over Maryland and then a relatively easy victory in the finals over Lute Olson’s Wildcats. Up until this point there hadn’t been a real conflict of interest for me in my home state. IU fans left me alone and I never bothered them because our teams never really played each other. (I realize that the two met in the 1992 Final Four, but remember that I was just shy of five years old)

Cut to 2002. I thought it was wrong the way that IU pushed Knight out the door after all that he had brought to the school; and I thought that his replacement, Mike Davis, was simply a bad basketball coach. It was the opposite of watching a Knight-coached team, they played with no discipline, they missed their free throws and their general strategy was questionable at best. Davis is a good person and deserved to be a head coach somewhere, but did not deserve that job. At that point I wanted IU to lose every game they played. If they bottomed out then Davis would be gone and the school could rebuild behind someone who could return the program to greatness.  Of course when Duke and IU met in the NCAA tournament I wanted to crush them.

March 21st, 2002 – I was travelling with my middle school basketball team to a national tournament in Valparaiso. We didn’t have the game on in the van that I was riding in, but I heard earlier that Duke was winning handily. As we arrived in Valpo and pulled into our hotel, the whole team ran over to me, pointing and laughing, they said that IU was going to win. I couldn’t believe it. We ran over to a parent’s car who had the game on the radio. Duke is down by four, Williams has the ball, shoots a three, and it’s Good!! He was fouled! What was Dane Fife thinking!? At this point I am quietly confident. Our best player is on the line and was a fluky 0-5 at that point. There is no way he misses this one… Brick. I was crushed. My teammates were jumping up and down. They seemed happier about my loss than about IU’s win. How could a team with Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer lose to a group of Knight’s leftovers with an incompetent coach? Then they only have to get by the mighty Kent State Golden Flashes to make the Final Four? What a joke. I was quietly ecstatic when Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and bitter rival Maryland, easily dispatched the Hoosiers in the finals. Ultimately you should be too, Hoosier fans. Sure it would be nice to have banner number six hanging from the rafters, but think about how much harder it would have been to get rid of Davis had he added a championship to his resume.

2009-2010 was my senior year at Wabash College. It was a special experience for me as a fan for a number of reasons. It was the first Duke team in the modern internet era to play for a championship. That meant that it was the first time that a team full of players that I had tracked through the recruiting process and followed since their high school days, had a chance to play for a title. I also happened to be 45 minutes away from the Final Four in Indianapolis.  I left after class and arrived in time to watch Michigan State and Duke practice. The Spartans’ practice literally included a dunk contest. They didn’t seem too worried about playing the hometown heroes, the Butler Bulldogs, the next day.  It’s no wonder that Butler managed to upset them with the support of 65,000 screaming bandwagoners that Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Seeing Duke practice for the first time was nice. My takeaways were that Curry and Dawkins are really good shooters, Kyle Singler is much taller than he looks on TV, and the poor, nameless, Caucasian walk-ons have an unpleasant job to do. In this practice, their only task was to stand under the basket with their hands up while Zoubek, Thomas and a pair of Plumlees threw shoulders into them play after play in order to finish under the basket after contact. After practice I was left with a very tough decision: Do I try to buy a ticket?

Even after watching the Blue Devils roll West Virginia and being treated to two very uncomfortable minutes of watching just how much Bob Huggins loves his players (image above), I decided that I was not going to watch the championship live. Before you question my allegiance to the dookies, please take a minute to consider the circumstances. First of all, I was a broke college student, graduating into a recession and had not found a job yet. Those seats would have cost a lot of money that I didn’t have and would have been so bad that the game would look better in HD at home anyway. Secondly, and most importantly, please consider that this was way more than a home game for Butler. They play in little Hinkle Fieldhouse, which is about the size of Cameron Indoor. That means that there is no way that this team could ever play in front of more than 10,000 fans. With the added floor seats, Lucas Oil was set up to hold about 70,000 people. Almost all of those seats were going to be full of Bandwagon Bulldogs, cheering their hearts out for their hometown Cinderella to slay the Evil Elitist Blue Devil Dragon. (Let me go on the record and say that I don’t blame these nice people in the least. Butler has always had really good fans, but it’s a small school and there just weren’t many of them until 2010. However, if Butler had been playing North Carolina in the same situation, I might have gotten a bulldog tattooed on my face.) There just wasn’t much upside to being there. If Duke wins, they are the richer and more talented team. They are supposed to win. If Butler wins; however, they are shutting down the streets, and I will have to get around all of that celebrating to drive 60 miles back home so that I can drown myself in Maker’s Mark (OK, let’s be honest, it probably would have been Old Crow at the time) all while every Duke-hating trash talker comes out of the woodwork to wish me well. I couldn’t do it, and I stand by my decision. The optimist in me has always said that there will be another opportunity later in life, when I have more money, to watch Duke cut down the nets.

After recovering from the near heart attack that Gordon Heyward gave me, I felt happy for that team. I was happy for Zoubek, who could never get healthy and finally found his place as an effective contributor. I was happy for Lance Thomas who, after being a McDonald’s All-American and de-committing from his home-state school of Rutgers to come to Duke, had a less than glamorous career as a role-player. I was happy for Jon Scheyer, who despite being one of the most consistent players I have ever watched, never developed into a star like Redick did. I was happy for Nolan Smith who came to Duke because of his relationship with father-figure Johnny Dawkins. Nolan stuck around after a disappointing start to his career and Johnny’s departure for Stanford; and he won a championship for his deceased father while transforming himself into an All-American. I was happy for Coach K who proved that he still had it, after the Nelson/Paulus/McRoberts years led some to doubt him. This was surely not a “great” team, but a very good and likable group who was easy to get behind. Although somehow I think that my friends at Butler would disagree with the previous sentence.

The Indiana connection reared its ugly head again in 2010-2011 when Duke played the rematch with those scrappy Butler Bulldogs. With the game comfortably in hand, Kyrie Irving crossed over his defender in the corner. He came up limping but it didn’t look too serious and he left the court under his own power. Little did we know that this harmless-looking moment completely derailed a season which, with a healthy team, I am convinced would have ended with a repeat National Championship. That team was unstoppable with Kyrie at the point and the chemistry was totally thrown off when he came back and they had to move Smith off the ball. A friend, and Butler alumna, told me that she was sad that they lost but “happy that we hurt that kid’s foot”. I was outraged! He is a good kid! Look at how he cheers for his teammates! I was still bitter as I watched them get another shot in the National Championship “game” against UCONN. Woof. Kemba Walker wouldn’t have been able to beat a healthy Irving, Smith, Singler and company.

That is my story of how I grew up a Duke fan amidst Hoosier Hysteria. I hope you can see that my passion for Duke Basketball runs deep; and that you will find my contributions to this site to be thoughtful and entertaining. I hate North Carolina, but have a deep respect for the program and what it has accomplished. (Except for Harrison Barnes: I hope that those two years of general undergraduate business courses prove to be the foundation of your future entrepreneurial ventures! What a joke.) (In case you’ve forgotten, the reason that Mr. Barnes gave for choosing Chapel Hill over Durham was that UNC offered a business major while Duke did not.) Though I may be geographically separated from those of you on Tobacco Road, the magical internet will surely keep me close to all things Duke. I try to keep a self-deprecating perspective when it comes to being a Blue Devils fan. I’ll occasionally use the common misspelling that equates our team’s name to fecal matter. I realize that there are many things that people find objectionable about the program and the school that it represents. I have a feeling that this year’s team is going to give me plenty to write about since they seem to be capable of both winning and losing against any team in the country. This may prove to mean good news for all of the Duke-haters here in Indiana, and down on Tobacco Road; but most of all for the fine folks at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, who make the Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey that tends to be my drink of choice after a tough defeat.

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4 Responses to WTF is a Hoosier?!?: Growing up as a Duke Fan in Basketball-Crazy Indiana

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  1. Mitch Harrison says:

    I felt the need to comment on this article because our paths are so similar. I bleed Duke Blue despite being born and raised in Evansville, IN and a current IU student. I found myself in the same situation in 2010, but ultimately decided the opportunity to watch my team play for a title just 45 minutes away could not be passed up. Every time my allegiance to Duke as an IU student is questioned, I proudly bring up that I have seen more games in Cameron than I have in Assembly Hall. I did not attend IU for the sports teams (thank God) and have no allegiance to the Hoosiers (although I respect Crean a great deal). Just thought I’d share my similar situation. I found it very interesting to read about another Blue Devil stuck in Hoosier country.

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