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Duke-Kansas 1991: A Memorable Blur

And afterwards was revelatory.

1991 Championship Game: Kansas Jayhawks v Duke Blue Devils
 INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 30: College Basketball: NCAA Final Four, Duke Thomas Hill (12) victorious, cutting down net after winning championship game against Kansas on March 30, 1991 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Photo by Rich Clarkson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

The funny thing about the Duke-Kansas game is how little we actually remember.

That’s no knock of Duke’s first championship team. It’s just that the win over UNLV was so historic, so powerful, that it overwhelmed the championship game. We’re guessing that the same thing happened in 1974 when NC State knocked off UCLA in the semis and Marquette in the finals. Who remembers that Marquette game? Yet, like Duke’s win over Kansas, it was for the championship.

And both were destined to be anticlimactic.

However, in Duke’s case (in both, really), losing in the title game on Monday would have hugely diminished the historic win on Saturday.

Coach K recognized the danger immediately after Duke’s win, which explains the famous image of him walking on the court, dismayed at his team’s reaction and pushing his palms down, urging them to cool it.

Yes, it was a huge win, but it wasn’t a done deal yet. His attention had already shifted to Monday.

He reinforced this on the team bus the next day when he saw some players smirking and some cockily wearing cowboy hats.

He made them get rid of the hats and warned his team that if they kept up like that, they were setting themselves up for failure.

Obviously they listened. The early part of the win over Kansas was dominated by Grant Hill’s phenomenal alley-oop: Bobby Hurley threw a pass too high but Hill went up and somehow controlled it and dunked it. It was an astonishing thing to witness. Our seats were in a perfect location to see the play develop and we were sitting at just about rim height so could see just about everything unfold.

The rest of the game?

A blur. At the end, as Duke was about to close KU out, we started to get a sense of the magnitude of the accomplishment: Duke was about to win its first national championship. The Blue Devils had gone from a strong regional power to the top of the hill. Even better, after doing most of the college basketball world a favor by beating UNLV, Duke had become the white knight of college basketball: everyone loved Duke. What could possibly change that?

After the game, with pride in the Duke program we’d grown up loving warming our hearts, we went by the hotel where the team stayed - and realized immediately that everything had changed.

The room reeked of power and wealth. We didn’t know any of these people.

You have to understand that in the lean years, there was a small group of people who were absolute fans, who gathered after the rare wins and every painful loss. They were there when Steve Gray threw the ball off the rim and when he dribbled it off his foot. They were there when the power teams of the conference - Maryland, NC State and most of all UNC - beat Duke senseless. They commiserated after Virginia and Ralph Sampson just crushed Duke by 43 in the ACC Tournament.

As it turned out, islands of that tight group was there, but there were new people there too, and lots of them.

Where had they come from? They weren’t there when the students turned on Bucky Waters. They weren’t there when Mark Crow was Duke’s power forward or when the Blue Devils ran out of point guard options after Tate Armstrong inured his wrist and Gray flamed out and Duke had to turn to walk-on Bruce Bell to provide at least stability.

There was a lot of pain in those years in other words, and the people who had shared it were swamped, overwhelmed by the high rollers who had jumped on the bandwagon as Duke rose under Coach K.

It only took a glance to understand that something had changed. The intimacy that the program had had since the Bubas era was gone. It had probably been gone for a while even though we didn't realize it and the belated realization, when it came, was bittersweet.

Of course we wanted the success and still do. The reality though was that it came with a price.

As Duke continued its rise to iconic status, that core group was pushed further and further away. And we understood too, even though we didn’t like it, that the change was necessary: in order to build what Duke has since built, donors had to be found and money had to be raised. The base had to be increased and winning did it. Those were the people in the lobby that night, drawn to success and prestige like moths to a flame.

We wouldn’t change anything. The ride has been spectacular. Even so, we didn't stay at the party for long. It was still hard to let go of an older, more personal sort of Duke basketball.