Sports of The Times
Once the Underdog, Duke Is Now the Villain
Published: April 4, 2010
Ed Reinke/Associated Press
Very Public Affair for Private Colleges in Tournament (April 5, 2010)
Butler Star Has a Changed Role (April 5, 2010)
On Monday night, Duke, with its storied basketball program and legendary coach, will face Butler for the N.C.A.A. Division I men’s basketball championship.
This is the most eagerly awaited championship game in years. A Butler victory would be the greatest tournament accomplishment since Loyola, a small commuter school in Chicago, upset the two-time defending champion Cincinnati in 1963.
Duke is not only the favorite, but it has been cast as the villain of this fairy tale, the thief who would steal a great story line.
Duke has an established program and plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Blue Devils have reached the Final Four 11 times under Krzyzewski; Butler, from the Horizon League, has never played in the national championship game.
But although Krzyzewski bristles when the inevitable subject is raised (“I know a lot of people who like us,” he said), Duke players revel in the role of the disliked heavy.
Nolan Smith, a Blue Devils guard, said that he was used to it — and he liked it. “Nine times out of 10, when I meet somebody and tell them where I go to school or that I play for Duke, it’s ‘I hate Duke,’ ” he said.
On the other hand, Krzyzewski is old enough to know that perceptions come and go.
Twenty years ago, Duke was preparing to take on Nevada Las Vegas for the national championship. Krzyzewski was looking to win his first national championship, while U.N.L.V.’s Jerry Tarkanian had become legendary for his great teams and his epic battles with the N.C.A.A.
In the days leading to the game, Duke was portrayed as the good guys, a team of choirboys, and U.N.L.V. was portrayed as a home in the desert for players looking for a second chance.
The Runnin’ Rebels beat Duke by 30 points.
Twenty years and three national championships later, Duke has evolved into the heavy. The Blue Devils will be the bullies again when they play Butler.
What a remarkable evolution: one generation’s sympathetic underdog is another generation’s villain.
How do these things happen?
“It feels good to be the one that’s done it before,” Krzyzewski said. “You’d rather be that than trying to do it the first time. I just think it’s really easy to talk about not liking us because we’re a private school. We’re not a state. We don’t have a state press. That’s just the way it is, and I’m O.K. with it. I think it helps us keep our edge.”
The idea of assigning good and evil to these games is part of the entertainment. But we can go too far, and often do.
Greg Anthony was a point guard on that U.N.L.V. team. Now a commentator and studio analyst for CBS and Yahoo Sports, Anthony vividly remembers all the talk leading to the 1990 championship game.
“A lot of that has to do with the fact that one team is perceived as the underdog, and the other is considered a favorite,” he said. “Anytime you have that element, it just kind of fits the script that one has to be evil and one has to be good. We kind of got that.”
There are a number of differences between the talk surrounding the Duke-Butler game and that Duke-U.N.L.V. game.
“Part of the difference, whether people want to acknowledge it or not, was that there was a little bit of a racial undertone,” Anthony said. U.N.L.V.’s team was predominately African-American; Duke and Butler use many white players.
“You’re not going to have that element when you look at these two teams,” Anthony said. “I’ve even had Duke fans tell me that they were actually in their hearts still kind of pulling for Butler because of the story.”
Each of us has a sports villain. We have good guys and bad guys who define our sports universe. For Duke’s Jon Scheyer, from suburban Chicago, the Green Bay Packers are the Evil Empire. For his teammate Kyle Singler, the villain was his big high school rival in Oregon.
Nolan Smith didn’t hesitate: “For me, U.K. was the villain.”
Smith’s father, Derek, was a star forward for the Louisville team that won the 1980 national championship. His father died when Smith was 8, but Nolan Smith’s passion for Louisville and hatred of Kentucky never subsided. “With the Duke-Carolina rivalry, I kind of signed my way into it,” he said. “With the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry, I was born into it.”
What a difference two decades makes. In 1990, Krzyzewski watched his underdog Blue Devils — the good guys — get routed by the bad guys from U.N.L.V. Today, Duke is the bad guy looking to crush Butler’s dreams.
On Sunday, Krzyzewski warned Butler Coach Brad Stevens to brace himself for a transformation. “I said, ‘You’ll be shocked at how much your school will change as a result of what you and your kids have done,’ ” he said.
Perception, reality; reality, perception. One day soon, Butler, may be playing the role of the heavy.