After last night’s loss to Notre Dame, Duke’s third straight, like a lot of Duke fans we guess, we were a little despondent. But then a couple of related things clicked into place and helped make sense of it.
The first is what Coach K said afterwards about how struggling will ultimately help. He pointed back to several situations - his very early years, 1995, 2000 and 2007 - as teams that struggled and then ultimately benefited from that struggle.
That reminded us of something he said a long time ago about the value of failure, which is a huge difference from his predecessor, Bill Foster, who really struggled to come to terms with failure, much to the cost of his team (after a loss, Foster used to drive around Durham listening to country music, which, despite its many virtues, is not going to do much to alleviate depression over losing).
Simply put, if you pay attention to why you failed, and apply those lessons, your odds of succeeding are much better.
So while Duke fans are gnashing their teeth, Duke’s team is absorbing lessons about character and learning from your mistakes.
The other part is less pleasant, but also, we think, important even though a lot of people won't want to hear it: learning a bit of humility is not the worst thing for Duke fans.
Almost two generations of Blue Devil fans have grown up not knowing a Duke that had to struggle. A lot of Duke fans have no idea of just how difficult 1994-95 was.
For those who didn’t experience it, Coach K had serious health issues relating to his back and his wife, Mickie, told him if he didn’t step away and heal she’d leave him. Contrary to what a lot of trolls said and still say, it was a major health crisis and it took Mrs. K getting serious with her husband for him to fully understand that. He thought he could just bull his way through it.
Our enduring memory of that season was watching a young fan walk out of the Virginia game. Duke had had a huge lead only to watch it erode and to see the Cavaliers, who weren’t that good then, win and celebrate in the jump circle.
The guy contemptuously waved goodbye with that forget you-hand gesture and walked out in disgust.
He didn't learn the right lesson.
The right lesson to learn is that none of what Duke has accomplished was given or happened by accident. It happened because first a group of guys, and a small group of fans believed, and when they showed it could happen others believed. Duke started drawing great players and more and more fans.
We’ve written before about when Duke won its first title in 1991, how a trip to the hotel instantly showed that things had changed. None of those people were familiar and we don't think many of them were there for the long, hard slog up from the bottom. Because that’s where Duke was - at the very bottom. Like getting beaten at home by Wagner bottom.
Scott wrote the other day about a different kind of experience, that of watching a young team develop, and being there for the rough times as it begins to understand its potential.
He really did a good job with that but we’d like to add one more facet to it, and that’s understanding the value of humility.
It’s been easy to pull for Duke for decades. And it’s been fun. Consider who’s been in the Long Blue Line - Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, Billy King, Danny Ferry, Quin Snyder, Robert Brickey, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Daniel Ewing, Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek, all three Plumlees, a pair of Jones brothers, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson.
And that’s a very minor slice of it. It’s an extraordinary legacy.
Right now it’s not as easy and that’s okay. We hope Duke fans are savvy enough to understand that this team is growing even while it struggles and, as Coach K said, it’ll pay off in the long run.
And also that we accept struggle with grace and character and remain positive. We fans can also learn valuable lessons by looking at our counterparts at UNC and Kentucky, where people are losing their minds. UK fans are increasingly trying to run John Calipari off, which is nuts, and have chased players off of social media. And some lunatic apparently made a death threat against UNC’s Armando Bacot for daring to celebrate after UNC’s recent win over Duke in a way that forced the postponement of the UNC-Miami game. He’s a teenager! They’re going to make mistakes.
We think that now Duke fans, as they so often have, can set a standard for others to follow. Now, more than ever, let’s be great fans, not because it’s easy, but, to paraphrase President Kennedy, because it’s not.