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A Reader On Defining Greatness

Richard Ranger, who along with his family followed Trajan Langdon as a high
schooler in Alaska, sent this to a a mailing list. We wish we had written

Dear Friends --

I really can’t improve on the analysis of the season of our Blue Devil
team that came to its end last night at the hands of a talented, quick,
and well-coached Florida team. I know I will remember and treasure for
a long time the image of Coach K and Cwell embracing after Coach K
called him out of the game for a final ovation with seconds to go. I’m
sure there was not a dry eye in the Duke section at the Carrier Dome; I
know there wasn’t at the Ranger house.

After the game, I took our dog Severn for a walk in the darkness through
our quiet neighborhood and found myself whispering prayers of thanks for
each of the players who had made this season the most special of all of
the seasons during which I have followed Duke basketball. Now, that’s a
curious thought. Last season the Rangers concluded what for us had been five
years of the Langdon Era, and as some familiar with our posts will recall, we
had the temerity to claim for ourselves the role of fans-in-chief of last year’s
captain. For a number of years to come,
I’ll be prepared to start friendly cocktail party arguments by
contending that despite losing in the final game, last year’s Duke team
was the most talented ever to play in Cameron.

But there is something more important than talent that draws so many of
us to sport, when sport is at its best. It is called character. This
year, from the head coach who embodies it, to the last player on the
Duke bench who embraces it, we were privileged to follow a team that
expressed character in ways that now seem beyond counting. After last
year’s final buzzer, I felt profound disappointment. After this year’s
final buzzer, I could only feel gratitude.

Earlier yesterday afternoon I met some business friends for a Friday
beer at a blues joint on the Long Beach Promenade. It being both casual
Friday and the day of a Regional semifinal, I was wearing my good luck
Duke long sleeve shirt and my lucky white cap. My friends were people
who are loyal to their schools: UCLA; USC; and UCSB. The latter was
recalling her undergraduate days at Santa Barbara, during the zenith of
the now not-so-Big West, the days when ESPN Big Mondays always ended
with a late game from the Big West. She will go to her grave with the
memory of the Gaucho’s mid-season victory over UNLV the year UNLV waxed
us for the Championship. Then she said something that really struck a
cord with me. “You know”, she said, “you’re lucky to be a Duke fan.
You’re lucky to have a tie to a team like Duke”.

I offer that remark to you as a gift. We’re lucky to be Duke fans.
We’re lucky to feel that we have a connection to a young man who learned
his game on the playgrounds of East Saint Louis, where shards of glass
sparkle on the asphalt, who worked his way through school, through
surgery, through rotation through various team roles, to be the lion on
whom this team depended this year. A young man who on that long journey
remained true to himself, to his aspirations, to his faith, to his
mother, and to his team. If the shouts of acclamation from the student
body do not loosen the bolts at Cameron a half notch or two when Chris Carrawell is introduced there one last time, then I don’t know Duke fans.

We’re lucky to be associated through our fan support and followership
with a young man like Shane Battier, who embodies attributes of faith,
character and leadership that are beyond his years. If we could each
day do a little of what we are given to do with the passion that Shane
brings to every game he plays, think what we could do for the world.
We’re lucky to be associated with a player like Nate James, who has
struggled not only to overcome injuries, but external whisperings that
he would not live up to his McDonald’s All-America potential, and who
has improved himself in skills and in leadership year by year. We’re
lucky to be associated with a group of freshmen and role and practice
players who challenged each other to play at their best throughout this
season, and who demonstrated that unselfishness was a foundation on
which opportunity could be built. We can look forward to next season
with confidence that we will not only see SportsCenter highlight moves
from a healthy Mike Dunleavy, and a seasoned Carlos Boozer, but also
contributions of merit from Casey Sanders, Matt Christiansen and Nick
Horvath. We’re lucky to be associated with a program that by its
commitments to achievement and to teamwork proves to be a magnet for
high school athletes of apparent talent and character like Chris Duhon.

Duke Basketball is at a moment in its history when it not only boasts
the greatest among the active coaches, but where it provides a training
ground for the work and -- can I say it? -- ministry that Mike
Krzyzewski brings to intercollegiate sport, a training ground that is
now sending forth other coaches, some of whom may be destined for
greatness. This morning on CBS, there was a retrospective on the tragic
Seton Hall dorm fire earlier, that as you’ll recall compelled
postponement of a Seton Hall-Syracuse game. When that game was later
held in the Carrier Dome, the visiting Seton Hall team beat the then
undefeated Orangemen. As the buzzer sounded, the Pirate team leaped in
celebration. Coach Tommy Amaker quickly gathered his players, motioned
for them to be quiet for a moment, looked at them intensely, and told
them: “Never forget why it was you played this game.” That is coaching
leadership of rarified quality, and it is Tommy Amaker’s fourth season.
And think, Duke has Johnny Dawkins and Wojo along with Phil Henderson on
the bench next to Coach K.

Something bigger than mere winning is being forged in this second
Krzyzewski era of Duke Basketball. Duke’s team is not only respected
for its capabilities, it is also becoming admired for being a crucible
of character. In a time when spectator sport is increasingly
indistinguishable from the entertainment industry that is making a
banality of our once proud culture, in a time when felons, murderers and
freaks don the uniforms of our professional teams, and when the avarice
of corporate fat cats in their luxury boxes squeezes ordinary American
folk out of the arenas they once flocked to, in a time when our very
President accepts sexual favors in the Oval Office, we have the
privilege to affiliate with a college basketball program that is forging
talented players, and admirable men. And the women’s program that
shares Cameron Indoor Stadium with Duke Mens’ Basketball is now building
a complementary tradition of its own.

For all but
one team in college basketball, each season ends with defeat. This
year’s Duke Men’s basketball team played beyond everyone’s expectations,
perhaps even their own. But through what they showed in teamwork and in
character, they have done something more important. They have raised
the expectations for Duke Basketball teams of years to come, and they
have challenged other colleges’ programs -- and those of us who follow
them -- not just to play well, but to offer what sport does at its best
-- the ability to ennoble and to inspire. If that does not restore to
the word “champion” some of the dimension and luster that that old word
once possessed (and you can check it out in your O.E.D.), then I don’t
know what “champion” means.

I will remember this season’s team for a long time, and I’m thankful I
got to see them play.