It’s the last day of March in 2001, and the Duke Blue Devils, led by faultless demigods Shane Battier ’01 and Jason Williams ’03, are hours from facing the hated Maryland Terrapins in the Final Four.

I’m a senior in high school, bound for Duke in less than six months. Victory, I believe, is assured. This team exists beyond the possibility of loss, and I am upstate New York’s foremost ambassador—no, missionary—no, zealot—of the Blue Devil way. I walk among the heathens, aglow with pure belief. I know the promised land awaits.

So, for the first and only time in my life, I decide to paint my chest.

The “paint” is actually a blue magic marker I find in a Ziploc bag, and it’s harder than you might imagine to draw a giant blue “D” on your own chest. I manage, barely, and cover up with a T-shirt. I’m watching with family at home, and the plan is to unveil my masterpiece—to great dramatic effect—when victory is certain.

But I’ve forgotten a few things. First, Maryland is also very good. Second, the male members of the Ryan clan, from my grandfather to my father to my younger brothers—Syracuse fans, curse them—have a shark-like instinct for human frailty.

Duke struggles, and the mockery hits me from all sides, reaching a crescendo as the deficit grows to twenty-two. I am beside myself with rage and despair—the jackals don’t understand my fanaticism and seem to be under the false impression that we’re witnessing a mere basketball game. Or—a darker explanation—they do understand and find my suffering delightful.

They laugh. I storm out.

By the time I arrive at my mother’s house forty-five minutes later—thank goodness for divorced parents, ha-ha—things have changed. The insurmountable lead has been surmounted, Duke is insatiable, and heartbreaking loss gives way to glory. I’m so stunned, so happy, that I forget all about the blue “D” on my chest until I see it in the bathroom mirror later that night. It’s now melted on my torso, like something by Dali if he had dabbled in body art.

Two nights later, Duke wins the national title. Watching the confetti fall, I consider the four years I’ll spend in Durham. We will win at least two titles, I think. Probably three. Four is unlikely—let’s be reasonable— but then again, I can’t rule it out.

You know the upshot: Reality cut me to pieces. By the time I graduated in 2005, with zero titles for Duke instead of four, unfulfilled expectation had rendered me insufferable.

I’m not alone. To be a Duke basketball fan is to be an ingrate—to live in a time of bounty, but to scoff at anything short of the absolute, impossible zenith. To be a Duke basketball fan is to suffer from the disease of expectation and to sulk when reality won’t bend to your deep-rooted delusions.

For me, that 2001 title obliterated all sense of proportion, clouded the sheer difficulty of ever winning a title in the capricious playoff system that is March Madness, and sabotaged my enjoyment of one of the greatest careers in Duke basketball history.

I realize today that there is only one path to true atonement. There is only one way to cleanse myself of the ravenous greed that seized me in its jaws around the turn of the millennium and hasn’t released me since: I need to throw myself at the mercy of the only high priest who can grant me absolution. I need to confess my crime: I didn’t appreciate you like I should have. I need an audience with J.J. Redick himself.

But first, an important question: Was it always this way? I knew just whom to ask.

John Feinstein ’77 is a prolific author who has written the two best-selling sports books ever published, but in February of 1973, he was a high-school senior being recruited by the Yale swim team. His father desperately wanted him to choose the Ivy League path, but while visiting Duke that winter, he saw Gary Melchionni ’73, J.D. ’81 score thirty-nine points as Duke shocked No. 3 Maryland. The students taunted the Terps by singing their victory song, and when Feinstein left Cameron Indoor Stadium that night, he prepared to disappoint his father. “Dad,” he said, “I’m really sorry. But if I get in here, I’m going.”

He got in, and by his sophomore year he was covering the basketball team for The Chronicle. He clearly picked a good time to launch his journalism career, but it was not a high point for the program—in Feinstein’s four years, the Blue Devils finished last or tied for last in the ACC each season and went a pitiful 1-10 against Carolina. A student in those days could walk in twenty minutes before any game and get a seat near midcourt. To further illustrate the difference between eras, Feinstein told me about a game he attended his senior year at Madison Square Garden between Duke and Connecticut, and how those two teams played in the forgotten 7 p.m. undercard. The headliners that night? Fordham and Rutgers.

When I asked him whether he had any expectations about winning national titles while he attended Duke, he just laughed. “God, no. I used to joke that when we talked about the Final Four, we were talking about making the semifinals of the ACC tournament.”

There was a hint of lingering regret in his voice, I think, when he delivered the punchline: “Which, in my four years, they did not.”

But despite the ignominy of the early ’70s, things were changing. New head coach Bill Foster knew his business, and he began to build a team that could compete with the giants of the ACC. By the ’77-78 season, Duke boasted players like Jim Spanarkel ’79 and Mike Gminski ’80, and one morning his senior year, Feinstein got a call from Bob Wenzel, an assistant coach, breaking the news that they had successfully recruited Gene Banks ’81. He’ll never forget Wenzel’s words: “The worm has turned.”

And the worm turned quickly. The next season, Foster’s young Blue Devils would go all the way to the NCAA championship game, and raise the school’s profile in a way that helped make it possible for Mike Kryzyzewski, who took over in 1980, to recruit the team that took him to his first Final Four in 1986.

That ’79 Duke season also brought another curious development. Their success landed them on NBC’s “Game of the Week,” and Feinstein—now working at The Washington Post—saw something new in Cameron: A few of the students, anticipating the cameras, had painted their faces blue and white.

You don’t need a history lesson. You don’t need me to tell you how Coach K transformed the team from ACC also-rans to loveable upstarts to hated juggernauts. How the years passed, how success begat success, how titles rolled in. How expectations grew. How they led to my shameful ingratitude.

But did it persist with those who came after? Those who had reached the mountaintop?

I realized I had to find a younger alum who had experienced what I had not—a precious, precious title. I turned to Connor Southard ’12, a New York-based writer who described his childhood fandom in Wyoming as “a sort of heliocentrism in which Duke was the sun.”

When Southard arrived in Durham in the fall of 2008, his expectations were actually muted—Duke hadn’t made a Final Four since 2004, and it was Carolina that seemed to be on the ascent. He even felt that Coach K had lost his edge. It certainly didn’t help that after spending five “miserable, disillusioning weeks” in a tent for his first Carolina game, he watched Duke fall 101-87 to a Tar Heel team that would go on to win the national championship.

“The horrific thing about washing off Prussian blue and white face paint,” he wrote in an e-mail, “is that, as they combine in the sink, they make Carolina blue.”

The next season, while standing in line for the UNC-Greensboro game in November, he heard the news that Harrison Barnes, the nation’s top-ranked high school player, had chosen UNC over Duke. That day, even the diehards had to concede the point—the Blue Devils had fallen behind. Then, somehow, they won the national title.

Southard’s main memories from the night of triumph include watching a large bearded man scream to the heavens from atop a burning bench while avoiding death and third-degree burns, and a strange meeting with a freshman friend on the quad. “Enjoy this,” he told her. “Oh,” she replied, “it’ll happen again next year.”

And that’s the reality of expectation at Duke—it gets you no matter who you are or when you attend. Success breeds confidence, and confidence breeds the privilege of wanting everything, all the time. Southard came in with very few preconceived notions, but his innocence was lost with the title. Just one year later, he was at the Izod Center in New Jersey when Kyrie Irving ’14 hurt his toe and one of the greatest college teams ever assembled fell to ruin. Did the title soften the blow? Just the opposite.

“College basketball was robbed of something transcendent,” he wrote. “So no, it wasn’t gravy. There was still heartache, frustration, losses.”

Shaker Samman ’17, who writes for The Ringer in Los Angeles, concurred. He spent most of his childhood as a Michigan Wolverines fan, firmly believing in Duke’s inherent evil, but things changed when his cousin sneaked him into a game at Cameron during a high-school trip. Andre Dawkins ’13 buried a slew of deep threes to lead Duke to a win over Virginia, and with Cameron rocking, Samman had one thought: “I have to do whatever it takes to get back here.”

He succeeded—“someone in admissions was drunk and let me in”—and his sophomore year, he scrounged up enough money for a forty-dollar student lottery ticket to the Final Four and plane fare to Indianapolis. He wore his blue body suit, and in the waning moments of the championship game, as Tyus Jones ’18 sealed the victory, he nearly managed to destroy a CBS boom camera with an exuberant punch.

To him, the title came as a relief—he wanted one, he expected one. But he found that it permanently altered how he viewed Duke basketball.

“Any other school, a trip to the Elite 8 and a loss to a blueblood like Kansas, and you’re saying ‘great season, great job,’ ” he told me, describing Duke’s 2018 run. “It took me a month to get to that point. At the time, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Grayson Allen couldn’t hit that shot?’ It changes your expectations in a kind of sick way. You’re never satisfied unless a season ends in a banner.”

The story is the same in 2019. This year’s seniors are the rare class that will graduate without ever having seen a Final Four, much less a title. The presence of Zion Williamson filled them with hope that the curse would end at the eleventh hour, but for all the moments of transcendence, this team, too, fell short of the promised land.

Steve Hassey, one of those seniors, was the head line monitor of K-Ville. He came to Duke terrified of this exact fate—his boss at a high-school job graduated with the doomed Class of 2014, sandwiched by titles but with none of their own. “It inspired the fear of God in me,” he said in early March, before Duke had been eliminated. He was staring down the same barrel of the same gun, and two weeks later he watched his team fall to Michigan State just one game shy of the Final Four.

As head line monitor, he has seen the dark side of the school’s collective basketball obsession and how expectation leads to entitlement. He once received a long, angry, and very personal e-mail about the allocation of “spirit points” during tenting season. (When I asked my friend Ariana Eily, a graduate student who serves as an usher inside Cameron, for her most bracing memory of ugly fandom, she described one student who delivered a wild threat to an usher upon being asked to move: “I know who you are, and I’m going to write you a bad Yelp review.”)

But Hassey took pains to note that this is the exception and not the rule. His optimism shone through, and even though he won’t graduate until May, he already views his time in K-Ville with something like nostalgia. “Duke basketball is embodied in K-Ville,” he said. “It’s very hard to get more than 1,000 Duke students together for anything, and I think it’s something that is unbelievably unique in college athletics.”

Samman agreed about the Duke fan experience. “A lot of the social culture at Duke is very exclusive,” he said, “with one exception: Cameron and K-Ville. It’s Duke’s last monoculture.” Ultimately, for Hassey and Samman, it’s this collective experience that resonates more than any disappointment.

I had discovered, I think, that expectation was inevitable and a little bit corrosive, but ultimately worth enduring. Only one task remained: To beg forgiveness at the feet of J.J. Redick ’06.

I reached him by phone after a Philadelphia 76ers practice, and rather than beat around the bush, I confessed my crimes and asked a simple question: “How annoying were students like me?” To my surprise, he laughed.

“I don’t find it annoying,” he said. “The interesting thing, at least with my class, is that we thought we’d win multiple championships. We’d all talk about it on our official visits, and at the McDonald’s games. Coming into Duke, I probably had the same unrealistic vision of how the four years would turn out.”

And it eats at him, to this day, that he never won. It eats at Coach K, too—he’s told Redick multiple times how much he regrets that they couldn’t bring home a title together. “It’s one of the great disappointments of my life,” Redick said. “It bothered me. It bothered me a lot. I know this sounds weird, but I wish that I could have been part of the national championship team to give back to the Duke community.”

Nevertheless, he has nothing but fond memories of his fellow students. If they had crushing expectations, they never crushed him. Maybe it was because his career came just before social media hit its stride—the worst it ever got was his dad phoning him in a panic because he read on a Duke message board that his son had been arrested for underage drinking (not true)—but he was no stranger to pressure.

When I asked him what advice he’d offer to a theoretical J.J. Redick entering Duke today, he had a quick answer ready: “Don’t waste your freshman and sophomore years partying.” A pause. “No, I’m kidding.” A second pause. “Sort of.”

A third pause. “I would say, Coach is going to demand a lot, he’s going to expect a lot, the fan base is going to expect a lot, and Coach is recruiting guys for the most part that expect a lot of themselves, so there’s just this cycle of expectation that I think is sort of unavoidable.”

But amid the fatalism, Redick echoed what I’d heard over and over again—the love of the experience, and the sense that even if you can’t beat the expectations, you can exist alongside them without being engulfed in their shadow. “I can say now that even knowing I had huge expectations, and knowing that some of them were unfulfilled and I have to live with that, I still look back and say, ‘wow, what a great period in my life.’ ”

And though we suffer beneath the weight of our impossible dreams, most of us ingrates would say the same.

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