White Devils: The Unbearable Whiteness of Duke Basketball

Richard Spencer, Alternative Right, March 27, 2010

There is no college basketball team more hated and reviled than the Duke University Blue Devils. {snip}

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Duke can inspire love, too, of course, and a large fan base made up mostly of people who have no real connection to the school. {snip} ESPN’s generous coverage of the Blue Devils speaks to these vicarious Dukies, but also to the millions who love to hate.

For me, the source of Duke Hate has always been rather obvious . . . and unmentionable.

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A lot of Duke Hate, no doubt, comes from a certain “preppiness” associated with its players . . . a quality that was put into stark relief in the ’92 Championship Game, when clean-cut Duke went up again Michigan’s “Fab Five” freshman, who had pioneered the hip-hop look of bald heads, baggy shorts, black sneakers and socks, and street-ball style. {snip}

But this “preppiness” charge has always seemed to me like a euphemism for what really bothers people about the Blue Devils–during Coach K’s tenure, his teams have been majority white, and with some notable exceptions like Grant Hill and Johnny Dawkins, Duke’s most beloved/hated players have been Euro-Americans. People love to hate the Dukies because they stand as a flagrant violation of the trajectory of college and professional basketball over the past 30 years. Duke is white, they play white, and they win.

Duke 2009-10 squad is even blancher than usual. Led by All-ACC guard Jon Sheyer, Nordic Superman Kyle Singler, 7’1″ Slav Brian Zoubek, and the Plumlee bothers, Mason and Miles, Duke’s starting line-up feature three, and sometimes even four, white players. Eleven of the 14 slots on Duke’s roster are filled by Caucasians.

This comes in the context of the NCAA Division I being between 60-70 percent African-American (and the NBA, 80 percent so.) The top-ranked college programs of 2010 seem, if anything, to exceed the norm. Kentucky’s starting five–and top 10 scorers–for instance, are all black.1 The United States’s 2008 Olympic squad, the elite of the elite of American basketball, featured a total of zero white players. (The ’92 “Dream Team” had four, including [Christian] Laettner.) This trend is evident at the high-school level as well. As Sports Illusrated reported twelve years ago, in the inner cities, white kids have all but given up on playing competitive basketball.

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Before going into why the Dukies’ whiteness makes them so hated, it’s worth asking how such a state of affairs ever came to pass–for a majority-white team might seem particularly surprising at a place like Duke. The school’s undergraduate body might include many future “IBankers” (less so now, of course), and it’s certainly more “fratty” than the Ivy League, but Duke’s faculty is about as post-Marxist as you can get, exemplified by such pomo luminaries as Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson. While I was rooting on the ’06 and ’07 teams during the heights of the “Duke Lacrosse Hoax,” I didn’t know how Coach K got away with it–or how long the faculty would stand for a starting five that so represented White Privilege and the legacy of slavery.

The credit or blame, as it were, for Duke whiteness must surely lie on the shoulders of Mike Krzyzewski, not only the head coach but the man who signs off on every recruiting decision. Recruiting is, of course, a two-way street; recruits must choose Duke. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Duke gets the pick of the litter each year, and one must conclude that the fact that Coach K and his assistants key in on the best white players in the country is part of a deliberate plan. (And even if it’s somehow unconscious, it’s consistent.)

Krzyzewski is by no means a “racist,” as that term is usually used, nor does his commitment to recruiting quality run skin deep: according to the Encyclopedia of Duke Basketball, “Since 1976, only two players who didn’t transfer or turn pro have failed to graduate.” All of Krzyzewski’s star recruits were, in fact, four-year players until Elton Brand went pro early in 1999.

Put simply, each year, Coach K recruits the “golden boys,” young men who are highly skilled, fresh-faced, often white and handsome, sometimes cocky, and invariably intensely annoying to other fans who wished their players measured up. Duke has produced its share of NBA talent, but it’s no coincidence that its most cherished players were all “college athletes.” Hurley, Laettner, Ferry, Cherokee Parks (who’s white despite claiming some Indian blood), and Redick have all been either journeymen or busts in the pros. Steve Wojciechowski, Duke’s floor-pounding point guard in the late ’90s, was one of the most well-known (and most loathed) players in the country at the time; after graduation, he played a year in Poland and then moved to the coaching bench beside Krzyzewski–proving that his game really was all about guts, brains, and heart.

Duke whiteness just doesn’t work in the NBA–much like its intense, trapping defense and complicated, three-guard weaving patterns can’t be transfered to the more primitive pro game, which has devolved into scenes of eight men standing around watching a man-é-mano matchup between each teams’ two best players.

Duke’s current leader, John Sheyer, is archetypal in this respect. As ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a white Duke grad and former coach, noted while covering a game this season, Sheyer has mastered playing “below the rim.” Doug Gottlieb blogged, “Scheyer is probably not an NBA player, but his Jewish faith allows him to get an Israeli passport and he would be one of the most coveted players EVER for a team like Maccabi Tel Aviv.”

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Duke Haters love to associate the Blue Devils with elitism and class privilege. But what’s so unusual about the team is that its players are precisely those the world assumes can’t compete in big time basketball. Christian Laettners aren’t supposed to be able to even hang with Larry Johnsons.

Carolina’s Dean Smith, Krzyzewski’s arch-nemesis for years, is often credited with leading the drive for racial integration in the state of North Carolina by recruiting black athletes in the ’60s. Coach K has achieved much the opposite in creating a singular program in which Anglo-Saxons and Europeans stand tall once again in the game that James Naismith invented.

Why Coach K’s recruiting sensibility would be so deathly annoying to opposing fans has a lot to do with an asymmetry in American basketball. Simply put, fans are mostly white, players are mostly black. (This has, no doubt, played a large part in the declining fortunes of the NBA, and it’s something no PR genius can fix.)

This asymmetry is, no doubt, experienced on a personal level by most fans. I myself was obsessed with sports as a young person, due in no small part to the fact that I grew up in the age of Sportscenter. But by the time I hit my 20s, this passion had waned considerably, to the point of disinterest. And I certainly hadn’t chosen Duke in hopes of becoming one of the “Cameron Crazy.” {snip}

My interest in basketball had all but disappeared, but when I arrived in Durham, camping out all night in hopes of getting in the grad-student ticket lottery was just something one does. Period. And interestingly, this obligation was shared by my left-wing colleagues, who deconstructed Gender and Race by day and rooted on J.J. Redick by night. I even began playing pick-up basketball twice-a-week in a scrum that included both an ISI scholar and a nationally known liberal blogger.

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I also learned that Coach K keeps a staff of specially selected waterboys, each of whom is required to wear a suit and tie to games, which makes for quite a strange scene when after every few possessions these well-dressed students would sprint onto the court and assiduously wipe sweat off the floor.

During a game against Clemson the full significance of Duke whiteness really hit me. I looked across the arena and observed our doppelgänger–Clemson fans who looked and dressed much like us (save the obvious) and were rooting almost as intensely . . . though not quite. The Clemson all-black starting five, on the other hand, looked nothing like Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts. The Tigers weren’t quite the Running Rebs, but corn-rows and tattoos were in evidence. I realized then that, quite frankly, if I’d gone to Clemson instead of Duke, I wouldn’t have taken the slightest interest in the basketball team.

Much like nationalism, school spirit and winning can overcome quite a lot, but I doubt the Clemson fans could ever quite identify with their team like Dukies do. And I often wonder whether there isn’t something deeply unhealthy about college students passionately rooting on players with whom they have little in common, and, I’d add, with whom they’d never associate were it not for basketball.

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