That Championship Season


For some reason—abiding curiosity about the mix between academics and athletics?—I made my way to Perkins Library the night of the basketball championship game. A sign announced that the library would be closing in about a half hour, at nine o’clock, “in preparation for post-game festivities.” A half-dozen students were in avid communication with the online catalogue. A lone reference librarian, asked if reference business was slow, responded, with a forlorn nod, “Very.”

Mike Dunleavy

Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer

Dunleavy's three threes were assisted by good rebounding.

  Walking out of the library, I spotted another sign, asking, “What Is Enlightenment?” The library seemed the perfect enlightenment site—that is, a setting sure to produce transformation. As did the evening’s destination, Cameron Indoor Stadium.
  In Cameron for the championship-game broadcast, the eyes focused on the string of retired jerseys hanging from the rafters, and just in front of that array, the eighteen-by-twenty-four-foot, cinema-sized screen. A student sitting just in front of me, wearing a baseball cap stylishly backward, was reading an issue of The Economist. He was concentrating on a story whose substance I could not make out but whose headline seemed perfect for the evening: “Let the huddled masses in.” The student masses, if not exactly huddled, were flowing onto the floor and into the stands.
  There was something about the Cameron dynamics that night that made it a postmodern spectacle—fluid identities, the breaking down of boundaries, the merging of the real and the unreal, and all that. Just before game time, students clustered around a Cameron camera crew for a live WRAL TV broadcast; the Cameron masses watched themselves on the huge-screen TV and dutifully screamed with enthusiasm at the image of their screaming with enthusiasm.
The Duke Blue Devil

The Blue Devil's in the house

  As the TV broadcast offered its “Prelude to a Championship,” the baseball-cap kid gave up on his Economist and led our section of the stands in bouncing up and down. Maybe the up-and-down motion is a metaphor for approaching and connecting with the basket. Or maybe it’s simply raw excitement expressing itself. The Duke players were introduced, and each got an appropriate cheer from Cameron—a long, appreciative “Boooo” for Carlos Boozer, reverential bows in the direction of Shane Battier. In fact, this was a virtual reality that came close to the Cameron home-game reality. As Duke took to the free-throws line, the crowd hushed and stared at the screen with arms outstretched to show the path to the basket. As the situation reversed, Cameron’s faithful turned energetically obnoxious, arms waving wildly, trying to distract the beamed-in image of an Arizona athlete.
  The Blue Devils found momentum four minutes or so into the second half, and the roar of the crowd seemed intense enough to rattle those hanging jerseys. People leapt up, and largely stayed up. Sitting seemed too effortless in the face of a team effort. As the TV showed a commercial for Enterprise car rentals, enterprising students sparked an all-encompassing crowd “wave.” The wave rippled through the floor, through the stands, and somehow it
traveled the distance to Minneapolis as an unstoppable force.
  At 11:11, the Cameron scoreboard read “2001 National Champions,” and a News & Observer broadsheet with Duke-blue inking and a “National Champs” headline—more enterprise at work—was making its way through Cameron. A student sitting behind me gave an exuberant hug to everyone around him. A Duke colleague, happy if not out of control, found it too huge a hug: It dislodged one of his contact lenses.
  Back in the fall of 1997, one particular student, later a religion major—a fine place, one must think, for exploring issues of enlightenment—had written his eagerness and his anxieties into his freshman-year journal (which was excerpted in the pages of this magazine). “As I stand in the corner of Cameron watching everybody file into the gym, I have so many questions and so many hopes,” he said. And he wondered: “Am I ready? Has my work paid off? Will college basketball be everything it is hyped up to be and possibly more?” Shane Battier, the best player in the nation this season and a three-time academic All-American, now had his answers.

Coach K honors his champions.

  As the crowd made its way to the bonfire, I spotted a former student intern. He was reveling in the victory, and in the news that he had received a summer congressional internship. Success has many faces. Two young women hailed a TV crew from Channel 12. “Sir, we’re Duke students, do you want to talk to us?” they inquired earnestly. One of them pronounced the night “so awesome.” A student streaker wielding a branch—pagans at play, indeed—struck an insouciant pose by a dorm door as he waited for someone to let him in with a DukeCard. 
  Some professors were also taking in the post-game festivities. I met two new faculty members for whom this was a Duke initiation of sorts; their interest in post-colonial studies somehow squared neatly with this neo-pagan ritual. Reportedly a computer was sacrificed to the flames—another fantasy playing itself out that evening. Reportedly, too, University Librarian David Ferriero sacrificed a “book”; the book, really a project by artist Xu Bing, was meant to be consumed by tobacco worms in a kind of installation-art project. The tobacco worms never quite did the trick, but the flames did.

Coach K gets a big hug from assistant coach Johnny Dawkins '86.

  Leaving the quad, I was startled to see a dorm bench being dragged down Chapel Drive, obviously to be sacrificed to the consuming flames. As the dozen or so students stopped to take a photo of themselves—pictures had made the night come alive, after all—I asked if the bench had really made a long-distance journey from East Campus. I received a look that signaled “stupid question” in response. And they dragged onward, to the frustration of an approaching East Campus-West Campus bus driver whose honking conveyed a different kind of signal, about roadway etiquette.
  Early the next morning, I sleepily made my way back to the quad. There was an unidentified burned object remaining from the fire, perhaps a steel bed frame. I asked a camera-bearing (of course) student if she could figure out what it was; aiming the camera, she said, “It’s scary to imagine.” One of the quad-attending groundskeepers declared this a more “civilized” celebration than in 1991 and 1992, the past championship years; he recalled the aftermath of those celebrations as being defined by “layers and layers” of debris.

Jason Williams, Chris Duhon, and Shane Battier talk to Billy Packer.

  Continuing to the Bryan Center store, I ran into Jim Wilkerson, director of stores operations. Wilkerson said that about 150 people were lined up before the eight o’clock opening time. That day, just after the championship game, he expected to sell eighteen to twenty thousand T-shirts. The twenty-eight designs had been selected—though kept secret and, of course, contingent on a Duke win—two weeks ago. One woman was asking no one in particular, “Should I get two for myself and one for my Mom?” A man was disappointed in his search for infant articles with a championship tie-in; he was told to wait until later in the week. A clerk, marking her first half-hour on the job as a temporary employee, confessed to me that her boyfriend is a Tarheel friend and he would “kill me” if he saw her wearing the “Duke NCAA National Champions” T-shirt. A cashier told me that in the first half-hour of business, she had had a $200 sale. 
  Beyond the generic “Duke 2001 National Champions,” T-shirt-wearers could proclaim “And Then There Was One,” “They Just Keep Coming, We Just Keep Winning,” “Only the Strong Survive,” and, of course, “I Was on the Quad April 2, 2001.” Having been faithful both to Cameron and the quad the previous night, I went for three of latter variety. Post-purchases, I was told that my image had briefly appeared on a local station’s celebration coverage. With that knowledge and my three new T-shirts, I felt doubly—quadruply?—recognized as a witness to history.
  There’s power and meaning in shared space, shared rituals, and shared celebration. But Duke basketball, which just keeps on winning, is not just about being part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s about the notion that hard work can bring rewarding results. And isn’t that a validation of education? 

Blue Devils share their win with the crowd.

  Quoted in The New York Times after the championship game, men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski talked about Battier, his star pupil. “When you have an exceptional student that makes your class fun to go to, it helps you,” he said. “You prepare just a little bit more because you know that kid is going to be in your class while the class is going on. That kid makes the whole class rise to a higher level.” 
  Would the more traditional classes be cancelled the day after the game? Provost Peter Lange fielded lots of questions to that effect. He said it would hardly be a fitting tribute to a basketball program that sees itself as an expression of the work ethic. Classes went on as usual, though one suspects some melting of numbers on Tuesday. Tuesday was the welcome-back ceremony for the team, whose coach made it clear that any proper celebration required the presence of “the sixth man.” Or as Jason Williams put it, “I’m just glad we brought the championship back where it needs to be.”
  Basketball may close down Perkins Library for a few hours, but it doesn’t overwhelm Duke. It does help define Duke, though, as a place of exuberance and accomplishment. Loyalty to The Economist and loyalty to basketball can coexist. They may both be pursuits on the path to enlightenment.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor