Those misfortunes, of course, mean it has also been a rare year of schadenfreude for many outside Duke.
But perhaps there is something to be said for what Duke offers its fans. At a time when entire segments of the country have retreated into private echo chambers of elation or fear, sports is not a terrible place to try to put oneself in another’s shoes. Call it sympathy for the Blue Devils.
“Imagine how you’d feel if you’d gone to school there or if you played there,” said Jay Bilas, an ESPN commentator who played for Duke in the 1980s and later was an assistant coach for the Blue Devils. “Like, it’s a blast.”
It is true that other fan bases — almost all of them, actually — are more in need of a pick-me-up. Since 1985 — the year the N.C.A.A. tournament expanded to 64 teams and college basketball began its climb to the status of national spectacle — Duke has been the country’s most successful program, with 12 Final Four appearances and five national titles. In recent years, at least, it has also been the most popular, according to the Harris Poll.
Other polarizing teams’ pitches to casual fans are aggressively inclusive; witness the Yankees’ rechristening as America’s team after the Sept. 11 attacks or the Dallas Cowboys’ gargantuan Xanadu, AT&T Stadium. But Duke, a tidy private university ranked eighth in U.S. News & World Report’s list of America’s top colleges, with a team led by a coach who moralizes about the realities of college basketball even as he benefits from them, seems to revel in its superiority. (One student’s sign at Monday night’s game read, “North Carolina State is the North Carolina State of basketball.”)
The student section at Duke frequently serves as the university’s puffed-out chest to a national audience. The Cameron Crazies, filling up the risers on the western side of the arena, are aggressive in trying to knock opposing players off-kilter.
Sometimes, as when they chant, “You let the whole team down,” after poor plays, they are fair and funny; other times, they have pushed the envelope, even crossed lines. When a sign targeted a North Carolina player with the words “J. R. Can’t Reid” in 1988, Tar Heels Coach Dean Smith argued the taunt had racial undertones. When Duke hosted Michigan State this season, one sign mocked the continuing public-health crisis in Flint, Mich.: “The water tastes better in North Carolina.” (A Duke basketball spokesman condemned that sign.)
Duke students also continue to produce cheer sheets for games that, on one side, contain so-called dirt — opposition research. Monday night’s dirt sheet included the email address of one Wolfpack player, a past criminal charge against another and the suggestion that a third could be taunted for his first name.
Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke spokesman, said the university would not “hesitate to criticize things that legitimately deserve criticism,” but he insisted that college students were roughly the same at all colleges and that anti-Duke vitriol was a response to the university’s athletic and academic accomplishments.
“The people who are supporters of Duke and like Duke understand what this university is and can do,” Schoenfeld said, “and that will inevitably create some friction or backlash. So be it.”
The Duke dynamic has been magnified this season with the blossoming of Allen, the team’s most compelling villain in nearly three decades. His infamy outside Durham is equaled only by that of a player so despised that he became the subject of an ESPN documentary titled “I Hate Christian Laettner.”
Allen is a junior whom some pegged as a strong contender for player of the year. But he has provoked public ire by tripping opponents at least three times in the past two seasons. The most recent incident, against Elon on Dec. 21, prompted a one-game suspension, the loss of his captaincy and a news media firestorm that longtime Duke observers labeled unprecedented.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Bilas said. “It feels different.”
Yet to walk past the student-run tent city of Krzyzewskiville and into the preposterously tiny Cameron on a January evening is to understand why Duke inspires passion not only among its detractors.
“Because Duke is a relatively small school, you feel like you are personally invested in it, because when you see the players around campus, they really feel like classmates,” said Tara Bansal, the student government president.
The fact that students will put down stakes — up to 100 tents — for several weeks for a chance at prime seating inside Cameron (particularly for games against North Carolina) is an indisputable testament to the students’ zeal. One must be zealous — and drunk on one’s youth (and perhaps other things) — to spend dozens of nights in an unheated tent for the sake of a good view.
And although one might scoff at the tent city — which, given Duke’s demographics, is sort of like an Occupy Wall Street for, rather than against, the 1 percent — tent life is rough.
According to byzantine rules, tents must be occupied at all times and are subject to spot-checks by line monitors. The only bathrooms are in an adjacent gym. On Monday night, the ground near the tents was muddy. Many of the pop-up city’s denizens could be seen huddled in their canvas shelters reading thick textbooks.
“We’ve got Wi-Fi,” said Evi Alexopoulos, a freshman whose tent’s rules require her to spend several nights there every week. “Outlets are hard to find.”
Among the rewards, though, are the prime seats in Cameron, which, with an official capacity of 9,314, is half the size of North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center and significantly smaller than the home arenas of nearly every other college program of Duke’s pedigree and popularity.
“There isn’t a bad seat,” said Herb Neubauer, who is known as Crazy Towel Guy for his practice of waving a towel to rile the crowd from his seat in the upper deck.
“I have good friends at Syracuse, so I get bullied,” said Kit Devine, a freshman. “Grayson has been a pretty big deal.”
The season is hardly lost. Duke is 15-5 and still in the top 25, although it needs to get healthy, both on the court and on the sideline. Allen needs to return to the attacking style that made him a second-team all-American. Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles, the heralded freshmen who missed time with injuries, need to develop a better feel for the college game.
But even the prospect of a disappointing season — more drama; questions about the longevity of Krzyzewski, who turns 70 next month; a lackluster postseason performance despite lofty preseason expectations — is unlikely to bring the Cameron Crazies back to sanity.
“I get what they’re saying,” Alexopoulos, the tent-dwelling freshman, said of the haters. But, she added, “I wouldn’t question my passion.”