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Duke Basketball in China - Scott Savitt

As March Madness commences, I am moved (by veiled threat from DBR
tech guru James Armstrong, who is much bigger than I am) to document
an unusual history of devotion to Duke basketball. An acquaintance
recently observed that I have a remarkably vivid memory of specific
dates and times in March spanning back almost two decades. I was
embarrassed to admit that it is not due to any special powers of
recall, but rather the remarkable performance of Duke's men's
basketball team in the ACC and NCAA tournaments over the past 18

Since graduating in East Asian Studies in 1985, I have been working
as a foreign correspondent in China. This has presented unique--but
not insurmountable--obstacles in following Duke's steady progress to
dynasty-dom. The single factor that made me question my career choice
was not the threat to life and limb of covering events ranging from
the Tiananmen Square Massacre to the war in Afghanistan, but fear of
missing Duke basketball games in March.

My fan[atic] indoctrination began early. My father and his brother
both graduated from Duke (BA/JD, BS/MD), and my cousins and I (all
who went on to attend) grew up in Duke pajamas, t-shirts,
windbreakers and winter hats. When I finally got to Duke, I was one
of the few students in my section at the games who actually knew the
words to all the fight songs, my father having drilled them into me
like a basic training sergeant by having me sing them at the top of
my lungs while driving around in his convertible throughout my

My mom is a nationally-ranked age-group marathon runner, and wears
Duke shirts in all her races for good luck. She has had people along
courses remark: "There goes one of those fair-weather Duke fans, she
probably doesn't even know what state the school is in." We take
that as a compliment. Perhaps the reason that true blue fans are
secure in our loyalty is that we have abided our share of adversity.
There were a lot of lean seasons between the intermittent glory (and
for the faithful, that doesn't just mean basketball, but everything
from football to field hockey), and present success is all the
sweeter for the years spent enduring the stigma of a program not
living up to its prestigious reputation.

Ironically, Duke basketball has assumed an indirect role in my work
in that a revealing gauge of China's openness has been the technology
available to catch games come each year's March Madness:

1986--Deep in the Chinese countryside, I listen to the semifinal win
over Kansas and heartbreaking final loss to Louisville on a
static-ridden shortwave radio broadcast.

1987--Better radio reception in the capital, Beijing. Hats off to Indiana.

1988--Often referred to as China's golden age of reform, hoops
viewing is no exception. The start of Duke's amazing consecutive
Final Four streak is available via satellite television in the
comfort of fellow sports fanatic Ambassador Winston Lord's living

1989--Back in the States for a conference on China at Duke. After the
Regional Georgetown win, I am tempted to make the trip to Seattle.
Perhaps one more rabid supporter might have prevented the second half
meltdown against Seton Hall. But fortunately for my continued
employment I choose to return to China early, and arrive just in time
to cover the outbreak of student protests and subsequent Tiananmen
Square Massacre.

1990--Fear and suspicion still lingers less than a year after the
military crackdown, and martial law is still in effect in China's
capital. All non-government satellite dishes are disconnected. I fly
to Manila to see [Christian Laettner's] "The Shot" that beats
Connecticut, then return to the Philippines the following weekend and
watch the Final Four at Subic Bay Naval Base with a US Marine who is
a Georgia Tech alumnus. We are both disappointed as our teams go down
in successive defeat to the UNLV juggernaut.

1991--Signs of recovery in China. A few regular season games are
available via international satellite broadcasts, but taking no
risks, I watch the Final Four and the miraculous victory over UNLV
and then Grant Hill dunk-punctuated inaugural championship [over
Kansas] at the US Consul-General's residence in Hong Kong.

1992--More regular-season satellite coverage, but rather than listen
to play-by-play in Japanese, I meet some classmates halfway between
the US and Chinese Mainlands in Hawaii for the repeat championship
win over Michigan.

1993--China's economic reforms are back on track, and so are the Blue
Devils. Satellite television is now so widespread that I watch ESPN
International in a hotel in Mongolia! But CBS is very proprietary
about Final Four broadcasting rights, so I make early travel plans.
Having lived in Asia this long, some of the superstition of the
culture has rubbed off on me and I ponder the comment of a West Point
cadet on an exchange program at the East-West Center in Hawaii: "You
came all the way from China just to watch the Final Four? With
devoted fans like that, Duke deserves to win." I like to think so.

1994-2000--A symbol of China's increasing globalization is that both
the entire ACC and NCAA tournaments are now broadcast on state-run
Chinese television. I am invited by journalist colleagues to do
play-by-play in Mandarin for the largest television audience in the
world, 100 million Chinese viewers.

**In the summer of 2000, Scott Savitt's independent newspaper Beijing
( first private publication in
the PRC--is shut down by China's Ministry of State Security and
Savitt is jailed for 30 days (21 of which he hunger strikes) before
being repatriated to the U.S. He is now safely working at the
University of California, Berkeley, and neither has to take his hard
drive home every night nor travel anywhere to follow Duke basketball.
His devotion remains firmly intact, however, and he did drive to last
year's Regional Semifinal loss to Kansas in Anaheim, California.
Savitt has recently revived his China publication under the new title
China Now ( He can be reached
here, and welcomes feedback from old classmates and fellow
Duke fan[atics] who see some reflection of their own obsession in the
above narrative.