Duke wasn’t always the NCAA’s most polarizing program

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WASHINGTON — There are times Jim Spanarkel talks to his old teammates and the memories flow like beer from a tap, and the nostalgia piles up like nachos on a plate, and they all get lost in the happiest days of their athletic lives.

“We like to say,” Spanarkel says, “that we were a starting point, a building block.”

Then he pauses, and laughs.

“We like to think that, anyway,” he says.

Spanarkel was a junior at Duke that remarkable March of 1978. He’d picked Duke out of Hudson Catholic in Jersey City despite the fact the Blue Devils had been down for the better part of a decade, and his first two years he played for teams that finished last in the ACC. But in 1978, Spanarkel, Mike Gminski, Gene Banks and a band of highly likeable players finished second in the league, won the ACC Tournament, made the Final Four.

That joyride wouldn’t end until the national championship game at St. Louis’ Checkerdome, a 94-88 loss to Kentucky. The Wildcats themselves dubbed that championship run “Season Without Joy,” and the Duke kids offered a marvelous contrast to that: They genuinely seemed to like the game, and each other, and the whole NCAA experience, and they were instant hits.

Jim Spanarkel
Jim SpanarkelE. H. Wallop/YES

“We like to say that maybe Johnny Dawkins was a kid in Washington, D.C., in the spring of ’78 and watching us, and maybe that put the idea of playing for Duke in his head,” Spanarkel says, and he laughs again.

“We like to think that anyway.”

Dawkins was the player who rescued Mike Krzyzewski’s early turbulent career at Duke a few years after Spanarkel and Company’s run, and once he and Mark Alarie and Tommy Amaker and Jay Bilas learned to win, and win big, they became an awfully well-liked team, too, even beyond the borders of campus and of Durham, N.C.

Duke’s unchecked popularity peaked in the early evening of March 31, 1991, when the Blue Devils stunned unbeaten and heretofore unbeatable UNLV 79-77, avenging a loss in the title game a year earlier, setting the stage for their first-ever national title two nights later.

After that?

Put it this way: In the same way it’s all but impossible to convince fans of a certain age that the Patriots were once anonymous afterthoughts in the NFL, or that the Warriors were hapless, perennial basketball butchers, it is equally difficult to sell the notion that Duke was once a school most of the country could rally behind.

“Now, Duke is like the Yankees,” Spanarkel says. “You’re one or the other. You either love them. Or you love to hate them. And one group is always going to be larger than the other.”

Christian Laettner is the usual fall guy for this, since he was both superb and — his words — “something of an [a–]hole,” and he ushered in a litany of players America could love to loathe, from J.J. Redick to Grayson Allen, and dozens in between. And, of course, if you win too much, people will turn on you until you stop. But Spanarkel thinks it’s something else.

“When I was a senior, the year after the NCAA run, we went to the ACC Championship Game the next year,” he says. “It was our 29th game of the season. And it was the first time we were on national TV. First time! And we had everyone back from a team that was six points away from a championship.”

Zion Williamson
Zion WilliamsonAP

That was 1979, the year ESPN was born, and we know what came after. This year there hasn’t been a second of Duke’s 36 games that hasn’t been available to anyone in the world with a TV, a laptop and a WiFi signal. A funny thing has happened, though, and Spanarkel isn’t the only one who’s felt it.

The hate has abated. At least a little.

At least for now.

“Every eyeball wants to watch Zion,” Spanarkel says. “He’s the rare player everyone makes a point of wanting to see, of having to see. He’s like a rock star.”

Zion Williamson and his teammates will play ACC rival Virginia Tech Friday night, a week after surviving a harsh test from Dawkins’ Central Florida Knights. Spanarkel will be in Kansas City, Mo., where he and longtime broadcast partner Ian Eagle will call the Midwest Region for CBS. But he IS Duke ’79. He may not be able to watch. But he’ll follow. He remembers what last place looked like, back in the day, what it was like for Duke basketball to be all but invisible.

“I think anyone associated with Duke will tell you,” he says, laughing, “this is better.”

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