Last year, at the Basketball Celebration, after a particular presentation,
the lights went down. When they came back up, Coach K was standing, on crutches,
at the microphone. It was a very moving moment: the wounded warrior,
wreckage all around him, still standing.
He spoke about the season and the things that had happened afterwards - the
NBA defections actual and then just rumored, and the likely defection of Chris
Burgess. Things happen, he said, but things always happen. He said
"we're going to have a pretty good team next year. In fact, we're going to
have a damn good team."
It sounded great, but it's fair to say that most of the people in Cameron
didn't buy it at that time. Maybe only K, Chris Carrawell, Shane Battier,
and Nate James. The rest of us sat there and watched the various awards
and commemorations. At various points, people in the audience called out for
Avery or Maggette to stay. Though it was a celebration, no one felt much like
celebrating. The wheels, it seemed, were coming off.
Later in the summer, Chris Carrawell was in the World University Games, and
he said that his teammates were saying that Duke was done for, that they would
be horrible this year. Carrawell said he wasn't going to let that happen, that
he knew that he had a young team, but that he thought he could lead some skinny
Then in preseason we saw those skinny freshmen and we realized that three of
them were good to go immediately - Jason Williams had serious talent, and
Dunleavy was obviously off the chart. Boozer was huge, though his foot was
broken and we didn't see him play. But we had seen him before.
Then on to New York, and what seemed like a catastrophic weekend, losing to
Stanford and UConn and starting the season 0-2. Then gelling, and running
away with the ACC again, developing a tough team with heart and character.
Though most Duke fans didn't want to admit it, when Dunleavy got sick, that
marked the end of the season. Dunleavy was a three man bench, in essence,
and after his illness, Duke never really got a new rotation developed, and
Battier and Carrawell, and later Williams played with passion, but clearly they
were running out of gas. The final sputters came against an impressive Florida
team, but really, Duke had run out some time ago, and though they still had the
desire of champions, the legs weren't there.
Florida was almost tailor-made to knock off Duke this year, with their
presssure and their depth, but what we didn't anticipate was that Jason Williams
would have a second bad game in a row, though he never gave up.
Does it hurt to lose? Yes. Is it disappointing? Not really.
Here's how we see it: this team was not expected to be anywhere near where
they were, and Shane, Nate, and Chris Carrawell stepped their games up
dramatically, and Coach K took at team with almost no margin for error almost to
the Elite Eight. It's a huge accomplishment, completely unexpected, and
aside from all that, this team has done so much to heal the wounds last year's
team left that it's hard to imagine now the bad feelings that were floating
around last spring.
Coach K said, "this has been as gratifying of a year as I've ever had. The loss to Florida isn't going to change that. If you expect me to feel bad, you're crazy. What a journey my kids have given me this year."
It's hard to argue with that, and it's also rewarding to look at what kind of
kids he's talking about. There are no malcontents, no gloryhounds, no thugs, and
no one has been arrested. They've given everything they had, they
rejuvenated their coach, they rejuvenated the fans, and they wrote a very
special place in the history of Duke basketball. There are a lot of Duke
teams over the years we've really fallen in love with - the '78 team was the
funkiest and the most fun, the '86 team was pure grit, and we had enormous
admiration for what the team did in Carrawell's freshman year. But this
team is neck and neck in our book with the '78 team. It took enormous heart to
achieve what they achieved, and when the end came, they fought every step of the
way. There was a celebration of the Duke Basketball tradition last spring,
but this spring, we should celebrate this team, because, more than perhaps any
team in Duke history, they embody what we all love about Duke basketball.
A few other notes - there are some people who are suggesting that Duke
didn't develop depth well and this cost them. Well yes and no. Before
Dunleavy went out, things worked pretty well. But Packer, for one, kept
harping on Horvath and Sanders not playing. This reminds us vaguely of the
criticisms of two years ago when Coach K left Wojo in against Kentucky though he
was repeatedly burned and people kept saying Avery should have come in.
Avery, though, was reckless and not well grounded and would have just as
willingly jacked up a 30 footer as to actually guard someone. There was a guy on
Duke's team who could have had that role, but he didn't take it, and that guy
was Ricky Price. At 6-6 and lightning quick, he could have been the stopper that
team needed, but he didn't step up.
It's not entirely analagous - there's no one deep on the bench like that -
but in the case of Horvath and Sanders, they are both very skinny and not ready
for prime time. After they lift all summer and gain mass, maybe. But
Horvath at this point is a 6-9 perimeter player. We're not sure how that would
have helped replace Boozer. Sanders is dramatically improved, but that
takes into consideration where he was last fall, which was well below college
level. Not ACC level, college level. He could run, he could jump, but he really
couldn't shoot, and in no way could he assert himself offensively. We watched
him in pickup and he was clearly unsure about shooting under the basket; he
looked around waiting for someone to smack it into the cheap seats.
By next season, Sanders could be a force, and Horvath too. But at this point
they are specialists, and their roles are specialized. They weren't in a
position to help much today, but their time will come soon enough. Put
25-30 pounds on either of them and they are potential All-ACC if not
As for young Williams, he has had an up and down year, but if anyone still
doubts his talent they don't understand basketball. Jason is jumping about
3 levels and playing a new position, and at times he's been stunning. At times
he's been a bonehead. But the kid has never, ever lacked heart. He's
going to be a great player, and he's one of the reasons we're so excited about
next year already.
We're also thrilled that Battier decided to return. He's a rare man, and
having him around one more year is wonderful, just like it is to have Nate
around again. These are the kinds of guys we want to claim as our
own. It's also thrilling to look forward to Dunleavy continuing to expand
his game and his chest size, and we're glad that Christensen and Buckner are
back, too. At various times these guys have been interesting and provocative
personalities, and they've also given their all.
We're only sad that Chris Carrawell won't be back. It's like in that
scene from Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she'll miss him the
most. That's how it is with Cwell. You don't see people like
him come through too often, so when you do you treasure them, and when it's time
to leave, you want them to linger, like the last guest at a party. Chris
has grown tremendously at Duke, and his lack of fear is remarkable. He's had
more difficult problems in life than most of us, of course, and that has a lot
to do with it. But so have a lot of other people. Not too many of them
have his candor, his wit, and his innate decency. We miss Trajan, and we
miss Taymon, who was a really good kid, and we miss Wojo as a player, and always
Bobby Hurley, Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard. But of all the Duke players we've
seen, we're not sure we'd miss anyone more than this kid. He's been a joy.
We put the picture of the scoreboard from his senior day on the front page as a
tribute to Chris. Had it been Clemson, as it often is, we would have still
put it up. It had nothing to do with Carolina and everything to do with a
remarkable kid. It very quickly drew this response:
You lose Heels win and you have a pic showing a a dook UNC final score
that doesn't matter at this point...can you say obsession??????....We are
and will always be your superbowl....Hey Chris we were'nt pulling for you
So we decided to replace it with the second picture. The letter-writer
is a pinhead, but we meant to celebrate Chris Carrawell's career, not just
another victory over UNC. The second picture is a much better way to do
that. It shows Cameron at a wonderful moment with Chris morphing with the crowd.
He's in there, you just have to look carefully.
After the first Vegas game, in 90, Coach K said he was the kind of a guy who
would get up the next day and put on a Duke sweatshirt and wear it around. We
liked that a lot. We would encourage everyone who is proud of this team, who
feels a connection to this team, to wear a Duke shirt today. We're as
proud to be Duke fans as we have ever been, and that's saying something.