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On the Meaning of the Pandemic Season

Why I’ll always appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of the 2021 Blue Devils, despite the disappointing end

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke Louisville
Duke Blue Devils guard DJ Steward (2) celebrates in the final minute as the Duke Blue Devils defeat the Louisville Cardinals 70-56 in the second round of the 2021 ACC tournament at Greensboro Coliseum.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Monotony and existential dread are not natural companions. Yet this past year they have been inextricably intertwined.

Which one of these feelings has been more dominant for you is dependent on what elements of the COVID-19 pandemic have affected you most. Or, you could be like me, and find yourself bouncing back and forth between the extremes of these states from week to week, and possibly day to day. Regardless, we’ve all felt some combination of the monotony of lockdown life and the existential dread brought about by health fears and economic pressures during this pandemic.

Which is why college basketball was such a blessing this year, even if the end result wasn’t what Duke fans would have liked.

I write this article fully recognizing that the timing is a bit odd. After all, it would have been more appropriate in the immediate aftermath of the positive COVID test that ended Duke’s ACC Tournament and, it turned out, the Blue Devils’ season. But in a way, understanding why it has taken me so long to write it is itself a window into why I am so thankful for college basketball this year.

I count myself amongst the privileged few who have been able to work entirely remotely during the pandemic. Yet, this perk has its own drawbacks, namely the loss of any semblance of a 9-to-5 work day. If one of my bosses messages me with a question about our research, or an interesting paper they found, I feel obliged to answer, knowing that my office is mere steps away. As it happens, the end of Duke’s season corresponded with an especially busy work period for my work, and I could not quite find the space in my mind or my calendar to put pen to paper (or, in today’s world, fingers to keyboard).

Not coincidentally, these past few weeks have been especially hard for me. I have found myself edging closer and closer to the “pandemic burnout” that has been discussed in the news ad nauseam (and, for whatever reason, seems to be especially prevalent in my world of academic research). It took me a little bit to realize why: I had lost my outlet. I had lost Duke Basketball. I had lost having a game to look forward to, to serve as a checkpoint in my week that broke up the monotony of having my entire life constrained to an 800 square foot apartment.

Let’s not beat around the bush: as Duke fans, we’re spoiled rotten. In my four years on campus I saw a National Championship and a generational talent in Kyrie Irving. In the years since I saw another National Title and got to witness the greatness of Zion Williamson first hand during the 2018 Canada Tour. Those who have been around here longer than I experienced the dominance of the 90s, the 2001 title, and JJ Redick’s dominance. I could go on.

So this year we were all shocked when our season started rough. We were nervous when a combination of COVID cancellations and Jalen Johnson’s injury disrupted a young team’s rhythm and development, seeing us fall out of the Top 25 for the first time in years. We panicked when we dropped below the .500 mark and off most projected brackets. And we hurt when the season ended without a tournament appearance for the first time in over two decades. All of that was understandable.

But that is not what I’ll remember the 2020-2021 Blue Devils for.

Instead, I will remember that every game, even the heartbreaking losses or the wins that left us shaking our heads, represented a break in the monotony. They gave me two hours where I could focus my ever wandering mind on something that was not the latest stressor at work. I could also put aside my existential dread about COVID (a chronic health condition leaves me amongst the “at risk” population) for those precious minutes. Then, I could come here to DBR and spend another few hours on my writing and on the boards, focused on nothing but basketball.

See, even when we were panicking about our tournament status, we were focused on basketball. When we were disappointed by Johnson’s decision to opt-out, we were focused on basketball. When we were mapping out any possible scenario that would find us in the tournament, we were focused on basketball. Each of those moments were a gift: precious seconds, minutes, or hours where we were not experiencing monotony, existential dread, or their strange marriage. While these moments were disappointments for us as Duke basketball fans, they were gifts for us as human beings surviving a pandemic.

And, lest we forget, there was joy in the basketball this year. We got to see Matt Hurt blossom into a sometimes dominant offensive force in the ACC. We saw flashes of brilliance from our young guards. We saw Mark Williams evolve into a game-changing beast in a matter of weeks. We saw Jordan Goldwire make as big an impact as a 3* recruit has in recent memory on a Duke team, seemingly by effort and will alone.

That is part of why it took me so long to write this piece. Our victory over Louisville in the ACC Tournament was some light: maybe, just maybe, this team was turning the corner and was going to do something special, and give us more of those precious monotony-breaking moments. But they never got that chance. Just like COVID has upended our lives and given us that monotony and existential dread, it cruelly took from us that chance for something special on the basketball court. We were left with questions we will never answer.

But three weeks later, I have found my peace with that. I can look back thankfully at what Duke basketball gave me in the most difficult year of my young life. I can fully appreciate the fact that these young men, most of them teenagers away from home for the first time, made extreme sacrifices that gave us those precious moments where our focus was away from the pandemic. I found myself grieving similarly after my Michigan Wolverines’ season came to an end in a similarly cruel fashion on Tuesday night. Two days removed though, I find myself focused only on the joys their efforts brought me, and not what could have been.

There are surely brighter days ahead for Duke basketball, perhaps as soon as this coming season. In all likelihood, our absence from the NCAA Tournament this year will be a historical footnote, an aberration brought about by the arguably most tumultuous college basketball season ever. This team will fade from the memories of many Duke fans.

But it will not fade from mine. I will be forever indebted to these young men who broke up my pandemic monotony, and gave me moments where I could put aside the existential dread of COVID and focus on something as inconsequential, yet enjoyable, as basketball. Every game this season, win or lose, was a gift. They were gifts that helped get me through this long winter, and I will never forget them or the team that gave them to me.