During last year’s NCAA basketball tournament, fans around the country were treated to something almost as sweet as seeing their own teams win the national championship: watching Duke lose. In its opening game. To Lehigh. My schadenfreude was slightly different from everyone else’s, but it was schadenfreude, and this was new. I’d never been one of those Duke haters. In fact, I’d been a Duke fan for more than two decades, since my first years as a graduate student in Durham, when, despite my many aversions to life in the Gothic Wonderland (e.g., people calling it the Gothic Wonderland), I began to treat the school’s basketball triumphs as my own. But I can’t root for the Blue Devils anymore. When they play John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday, I’ll be rooting for Kentucky, sort of, but I’ll really be rooting against the NCAA. Kentucky is the ugly truth the NCAA wants to hide, and Duke is the hysterical lie they hide it with.
As a Ph.D. student, I did the usual TA stints in giant lecture classes. I graded athletes’ essays, and I knew the unfortunate work I was reading signaled admissions standards bent for the sake of ACC and NCAA championships. My broader suspicions, though, were neutralized by the heroic profile of Coach K. I’d both played and coached high-school basketball, and, for me, the living myth of Mike Krzyzewski was irresistible. A bonus, at a relatively small school like Duke, was the regular chance to run in pickup games with Coach K’s players, who were usually gracious and even generous with the ball, though you could often feel a certain condescension when they passed it to you.
It wasn’t just ex-jocks like me, apprenticing with former students of Allan Bloom in the stodgy political science department. Coach K’s aura filled the most radical graduate lounges. Young Lacanians and Derrideans, honing their hermeneutic chops under Fredric Jameson and Stanley Fish, could be found cheering alongside preppy, heteronormative undergrads at local bars. Coach K made this possible. College basketball was notoriously corrupt, and college sports in general were a problem on several levels, and sharing Final Four ecstasies with those undergrads could make you feel a little funny, if you thought too much about it. But, on Coach K’s authority, we let ourselves join in on the self-celebration. He was a different sort of college coach. The exception. The ideal.