Sometimes, you take a vacation and find yourself immeasurably removed from the pertinent events of your everyday world. Other times, you take a trip and end up right into the belly of the biggest story in sports. Or, as it turned out, the biggest non-story of the summer (at least until Shaq isn’t traded).
Who ever said July was a slow month for sports?
I’m writing this from Raleigh, North Carolina, in the last day of a four-day golf vacation to my former stomping grounds. Many of you are unaware that I spent a year living here in the Triangle, the capital city of the Tar Heel State, a city which embodies the culture clash of old-world Southern agricultural genteel charm and new-world Yankee capitalism and urban sprawl. It’s a great place to live, as long as you commit yourself to the understanding that when someone fires up the pig smoker after tearing up the lawn from doing doughnuts in a pickup truck, this is considered normal behavior, especially at a Wolfpack football tailgate.
The vacation started off in an ominous manner. Sunday morning, while hiking through Umstead State Park with my former Raleigh roommate and high-school buddy, Borden, and my fellow road-tripping Massachusetts homeboy, Mess, I took what can only be described as a nasty fall onto a crag of jagged rocks. The next fifteen to twenty minutes are mostly a blur of fuzzy images: dry-heaving from near-dehydration, trying to discern whether my shoulder, hip, or head hurt the most, and attempting to pinpoint the exact source of the mysterious blood that ended up on my hand after running my fingers through my sweaty hair. Honolulu or South Beach, this was not.
Having been traveling for a couple of days and without Internet access at Nate’s new apartment, I was hopelessly out of the loop of news in general, and sports news specifically. Wait, Spider-Man 2 came out? When are the All-Star rosters going to be released? Are the Sox playing tonight? I was in a parallel universe of informational emptiness to begin with, and now I just got whacked on the head. Not good times here in the 919 area code.
But in a pre-cookout recovery couch session on Sunday afternoon, I really thought I was losing my mind, or at least had suffered a nasty concussion and was hallucinating. The Raleigh News and Observer, ESPN, every local Ron Burgundy wannabe in the newsroom, all had the same top story: KRYSZEWSKI TO LAKERS?
This can’t be true, I told myself. This can’t be the same man who, a mere week or two earlier, had so eloquently and passionately defended his game, college basketball, from detractors who are eager and willing to declare it dead and passé. On the night of the NBA draft, Coach K strongly advocated for college basketball as being a great product and sport in itself, regardless of whether Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Shaun Livingston, Lebron James, etc., had said, “Thanks for the scholarship offer, but with my new shoe contract, in one month my posse will be able to spend the equivalent of that in one night in Vegas.” He championed the rivalries, the history, the intensity, the adrenaline, the Vitale-esque enthusiasm for the sport itself: in short, everything that Coach K himself exemplifies.
Say what you will about Duke; they certainly have more than their share of loathers. It’s easy to hate them, with their inarguable success, their confidence that borders on arrogance, their legion of annoying, face-painting undergrads, and their penchant for having walk-on soccer players sit at the end of the bench, waving towels and heckling the opposition. Duke is right there with Notre Dame, the Yankees, the Lakers, Microsoft, and U.S. Steel in the list of all-time hated entities. Duke-hating is as much a part of Southern culture as barbecue and indistinct gene pools.
There certainly isn’t a lot of love for Duke in Raleigh. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle is an area dominated by its colleges, and fueled by the athletic rivalries among the three schools. Any time Carolina, NC State, or Duke play each other, the contest instantly becomes bigger than the game itself. It becomes a class struggle, between the privileged bookworms in Chapel Hill and the agriculture/textile-oriented Wolfpack supporters. It becomes a mini-Civil War redux, with the Yankee-dominated Blue Devil student body, infested with their smug, elitist, Northern superiority complex, taking on their baby blue, Tar Heel, Southern-by-the-grace-of-God rivals from UNC.
The week of the Carolina-State football game is madness at both campuses. At NC State, there is what’s known as the “Free Expression Tunnel,” where students can graffiti anything they want on the walls, a spectacular celebration of the First Amendment (oft-forgotten in the South, in favor of the more popular Second). In 2002, one artistically-inclined Pack fan covered one entire side of the tunnel with the inscription, “God might have made the sky Carolina blue… but on Saturday the Heels will be bleeding Wolfpack red.” It is a rivalry that can perhaps only be appreciated and fully understood by those who grew up in and understand the social dynamics of the New South.
Which brings me back to Coach K. I’m sitting on the couch, icepack on my hip and ace bandage on my head, in disbelief that he might leave Duke to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps the closest incarnation of Satan this side of the New York Yankees in the ephemeral world. Did he not mean what he said a week earlier? Was he just posturing his words, trying to save his own butt and get a blue-chip recruit to come to Durham for a year or two? Was he really willing to sell his soul for the hubris of being the highest-paid coach in America? Was he going to walk away from a lifetime contract amidst the gentlemanly, hard-working, good-old-boy charm of North Carolina for the vacuous glitz and pompous haughtiness of Southern California?
Whether you love Duke or hate them, Coach K has always been the kind of person that you want to believe in, a person whose words and actions appear to be genuine, someone who comes across as a true embodiment of all the good things about college basketball that he articulated so well the night of the NBA Draft. It was hard for me as a fan and somewhat of an idealist to accept that sometimes money and prestige might trump ideals and values. For my own sanity, I vacillated between hoping he stayed at Duke for the sake of the college game, and realizing that the Lakers’ offer was probably too good for anyone to pass up.
I kept thinking about the graffiti artist in the tunnel. Isn’t that what sports, especially college sports, are all about? Isn’t it about the intensity, the fan experience, the overall caring about something, that makes it worthwhile? Isn’t that why we pride ourselves as Red Sox fans, that even though we haven’t won in 86 years, at the very least we CARE, enough even to drive grown men to tears? I just pictured Coach K coming home from back-to-back road games in Memphis and New Orleans, tired, burned out, bored, and wishing he were walking into the Dean Smith Center instead, with 20,000 screaming Tar Heel fans ready to gang up on him and his team, and walking out of the gym victorious, hugging J.J. Redick, an ear-to-ear grin stretched across his face and a feeling of complete self-satisfaction in his stomach. I pictured him realizing he made a big mistake.
Surprisingly (or not surprisingly, depending on your perspective), Coach K is staying in Durham, where he is loved, revered, held to near-sainthood not only by the community and university, but (more importantly) by the players whom he treats as members of his extended family. The Duke tradition lives on: the summer pick-up games where old-timers like Christian Laettner and Mark Alarie bang bodies with newer alums such as Shane Battier and Mike Dunleavy, the three loyal Coach K disciples (Dawkins, Collins, and Wojo) who sit on the bench as assistant coaches, the legions of Cameron Crazies, and unabashed Duke-haters across the country.
Coach K is right where he belongs. He belongs in North Carolina, teaching character above basketball, establishing family-like bonds with his teams, serving as one of the last remaining icons of the coach who is identified with his institution. He needs to stay here.
But, since he’s staying in the Triangle and my hip feels better (albeit very black-and-blue), I’m packing up the golf clubs and going back to Boston, where at least the lead local news stories are about (god forbid) events that actually happened.
By Ryan McGowan 2004