It’s that time of year again. Selection Sunday, when the NCAA fills out its bracket for the men’s basketball tournament.
And just like you, I’ll be glued to the television as each line is filled by a different school, eagerly anticipating the fate of the Duke Blue Devils.
Duke? Huh? Why would anyone who grew up in Seattle, went to college in California, and works in Everett care about the fate of a much-loathed team located on the opposite end of the country? Surely I must only be interested in tuning in for the next Grayson Allen meltdown, right?
Well, fandom is not something that follows the rules of logic, and I’m exhibit A in demonstrating that. I am, indeed, a fan of Duke.
That wasn’t always the case. Being the proud Pacific Northwesterner that I am, I grew up supporting the local teams. Mariners. Seahawks. Sonics. Huskies. These were the teams written about in the sports section I opened every morning, and these were the teams I watched on television. Who else was I going to support?
But today there are just two teams I remain passionate about, and neither are local. Those teams are Duke basketball and the Arsenal soccer team of the English Premier League, and the reasons why I’m a fan of those teams doesn’t make a lick of sense. The reasons are spontaneous, random and arbitrary, yet those teams have a grip on me tighter than a vine climbing up a trellis, making me living proof that fandom isn’t something we can always control.
The story of how I became an Arsenal fan will have to wait for another time, but with the NCAA tournament upon us it seems appropriate to share the story about why I’ll be waiting for Duke’s name to appear during Sunday’s selection show.
It was 1989, the East Regional final pitting top-seeded Georgetown against No. 2 Duke. I had no skin in this game, it just happened to be the game on TV that afternoon, so with nothing else to do I settled in to watch.
The pregame focus was almost all about Georgetown’s hotshot freshman center, a player named Alonzo Mourning. I remember the color commentator — I think it was Billy Packer — droning on and on about how great this kid was, so much so that I became annoyed at the mere mention of Mourning’s name.
Meanwhile, Duke had a freshman center of its own who wasn’t being talked about at all, someone named Christian Laettner. Laettner didn’t have near the hype of Mourning, but in that game it was Laettner who put up All-American numbers. I wouldn’t necessarily say Laettner outplayed Mourning, but he definitely outproduced him (thanks in large part to his teammates), and the Blue Devils won to advance to the Final Four.
From that moment I was hooked on Duke. Annoyance at Billy Packer may be the flimsiest reason to be a fan of a team in sports history, but it’s stuck for nearly 30 years.
And it’s paid off. I’ve had the fortune to witness the Blue Devils win five national titles, watch coach Mike Krzyzewski surpass 1,000 career wins, marvel in the abilities of the likes of Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Shane Battier and J.J. Redick.
Well, paid off for me, not necessarily for those around me. Especially my Gonzaga-loving family, which still holds a grudge over Duke’s victory over the Bulldogs in the 2015 tournament. I’m well aware that most of the country hates Duke and finds its fans insufferable. I suppose that’s the price of success — and yes, I‘m aware that statement is a prime example of being an insufferable Duke fan myself.
And Duke has been the source of many of my most visceral reactions to sporting events.
I remember repeatedly jumping up in the air and palming the ceiling — no small feat for someone of my slight stature — after Duke upset undefeated behemoth UNLV in the 1991 Final Four.
I remember bursting off a crowded dorm-room couch and screaming when Laettner hit his legendary buzzer-beater to defeat Kentucky in the 1992 regional finals. And I remember being forced to skulk around campus in shame three years later when the Blue Devils went 2-14 in ACC play, having to dodge the barbs from those same couch dwellers who were forced to put up with me in 1992.
I remember doing a face plant after Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot at the end of the 2010 national championship game banked off the backboard and just off the rim, lying in stunned silence on my stomach for a moment after Duke’s victory over Butler before breaking into giggles.
These are the type of reactions that are no longer possible for me with regards to my childhood teams from Seattle. I mentioned things having a price earlier, well this is the price of watching sports for a profession. Having covered teams like the Seahawks and Mariners, I’ve gotten too close to the fray to feel those same emotions. Remaining objective is a requirement for covering those teams accurately and fairly, and that leaves no room for being a fan.
Because of that I’ll be forever grateful that I happened to tune in a little early for a random NCAA tournament game in 1989. Working as a sports writer for 20-plus years, I may no longer feel the same fervor for most sports outcomes the way I did when I was younger. But a team like Duke still gives me that outlet, the kind that keeps sports fans coming back for more.
Even if it makes no sense that I’m a Duke fan.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.