Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Duke v. Butler

As my good friend Tommy put it, "To quote the wise sage Eric Creasman, 'Sometimes Goliath beats the [expletive] out of David.'"

I LOVE college basketball. I grew up in a basketball family, playing basketball, watching my brothers play basketball, it was great. There is no better time of year than March when the madness begins. It's like my Christmas.

I suppose I should get it out there now...I'm a Duke fan. Wait!! Let me explain. I'm not a bandwagon, evil empire loving, self-righteous Duke fan or anything, I just have an affinity for Duke basketball. It all started with a little white point guard named Steve Wojciechowski, or Wojo for the sake of spell check. He played for Duke from '94 to '98 and I loved this guy. I was about 8 years old when I began following the college game religiously. Wojo made an impression on me. Here was a short, nonathletic white guy who could command the team and distribute the ball with the best of them. (This was before I realized white guys can play in college, just not the pros). Naturally, he became an instant role model for me, up there with Steve Kerr, Pistol Pete and Inspector Gadget. I figured, "Hey, I can go on a basketball court and slap the floor chanting DEE-FENSE! Why can't I play for Duke?"

The combination of Wojo and the Duke Head Coach, Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) encompassed everything I loved about basketball. Coach K is not only a basketball guru but a stand up individual. He's a role model, father, philanthropist and teacher. Not to mention he knows a thing or two about winning basketball games, over 800 of them. Not to mention his 11 Final Four appearances, 12 ACC Tournament Championships, 12 ACC Regular Season Championships, and 4 NCAA Tournament Championships. Naturally, I admire him greatly. Naturally, most of the college basketball world despises him and his team.

It's what happens when you win a lot. People find reasons to hate you. Yankees fans understand, Patriots fans understand, Red Wings fans understand. It's what happens.

When I was 10 years old and filling out my NCAA tournament bracket you know who I took to the finals every year? Duke. Do you know how many tourney pools I lost? All of them. I just assumed since this was my favorite team and I like the way they play, and I love their coach and players that they must be contenders every year. Makes sense, right? I learned my lesson quickly.

The past 10 years I have become much more realistic in my expectations of the Blue Devils. I haven't taken them past the Sweet 16 the past couple of tourneys despite their rankings. They just weren't talented enough, didn't have the depth or the star power.

This year was different for me. They had an easy schedule to get to the Final Four, but I still didn't trust them. Is John Scheyer really that good? He looks like puberty is still trying to set in. Nolan Smith? More like Nolan Smurf. Kyle Singler? Sure he's reminiscent of Mike Dunleavey, but he can't lead the team to the finals, right?

Still, this was my team. When the NCAA Bracketologists decides to give you the easiest conference in the tourney you know anything is possible. And as each #1 seed dropped off I really began to believe.

Before I knew it, they were in the Finals against the upstart Butler Bulldogs. Butler was the world's underdogs. The rags to riches story of college basketball. They got by on great defense, passion and teamwork. Their coach is 32 years old and was working at Applebee's in 2000. Yet, on Monday night they had to face off against the juggernaut of college basketball. The Communist Regime, the Russians, the Empire, the Duke Blue Devils.

For the first time in my sports fandom I was rooting for the over budgeted, over hyped Goliath and against the lowly underdogs trying to chase history. I couldn't have been happier.

Butler is a great story. I'm so glad they made it to the finals and they have had a tremendous impact on college basketball. But this Duke team impressed me so much.

As a kid I rooted for the Duke teams that were loaded with first round draft picks to be. They enjoyed nearly undefeated seasons and trounced anyone in their path. This was the first Duke team that wasn't bloated with talent and star power. They were hard working, dedicated, grunt work players who did everything to get it done. Senior leadership led the way.

Sure. I get it. You still think I'm a bandwagoner. You still think I'm a phony and that Duke is worse than a Yankees/Voldemort sandwich. That's fine, I get it.

But Monday night was torture for me. Duke was supposed to blow Butler out, win by 20 and call it a day. Butler just kept hanging around. They made Duke work for every basket, and gave them no open looks. They fought hard on offense and got points from their bench. They just wouldn't go away!

At 10:09pm, when the game broke for halftime, I planned to go to bed (No, not cause I'm on a bandwagon but because I wake up at 5am). I laid down for 20 minutes trying to sleep. I couldn't do it. It was only a 1 point game! Butler could still pull it off! I couldn't sleep. I sat back up in bed and figured I'd watch a little more until Duke pulls away and when the game is firmly in hand I'll go to bed. That moment never came. When Gordon Haywood missed his baseline fall-away jumper to give Butler the lead I almost pooped the bed. Then with a two point lead Zoubek intentionally misses his last free throw and Haywood again heaves one from half court that hits the square on the backboard, bounces straight down in the front of rim then ricochets out, I couldn't believe it. Duke actually did it. This wasn't an Elite Eight game...this was the title match-up. It took a minute to set in.

Nothing, not even Jack Bauer on the Lost island hanging with Jim and Dwight, could keep me up all night like this game did. I was nervously awaiting each shot, each moment, each opportunity. I knew Butler wasn't going to give up, Duke had to earn it. They did. Call me bandwagon, whatever.
Duke has returned to college basketball royalty and taken the throne for another year. I couldn't be happier.

Unless the Redskins traded for a hated rival quarterback and said, "This is your future for the next 3-5 years. Suck it."

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