During my junior year in college in 1978, our Duke Men's basketball team (which included a number of my friends and classmates) incredibly went from nowhere in the ACC the previous year to the NCAA National Championship final game. Although we lost that game to Kentucky, like many Duke students then (and since), through the journey I became a die-hard Blue Devil basketball fan. In fact, it was during that memorable season that our continuously inventive, spontaneous, highly vocal and unrelenting undergraduate student section at home games caused us to officially be dubbed the "Cameron Crazies".
Thirty-two years later, I'm no less obsessed with Duke basketball. Over the last two days, however, my connection to this legacy deepened in a truly priceless way. And I'm not just talking about the marvelous and gritty narrow win by our team in Monday night's NCAA tournament final game which gave our school - and Coach K - its fourth national title. You see, I got to experience the ultimate father/daughter bonding experience by being in Indianapolis for the National Championship game with my oldest daughter who is now herself a freshman at Duke.
The last time I had been in Indianapolis was in 1991 when Coach K won his first title - and when my oldest (and then-only) daughter was a mere 5 months old. I literally had to beg my wife to let me go just to the semifinal game with my Duke buddies, promising her that I would quickly be back on Sunday to help her with our newborn because Duke was surely going to lose to UNLV, the team that had obliterated us the year before. I still remember feeling a unique combination of exhilaration, trepidation and dread as I called my wife from the pay phone at the Hoosier Dome, right after we miraculously beat UNLV (yes, this was before we all had cell phones) with my friends standing next to me for moral support. I was trying to figure out the best way to break the good news/bad news to her that the team had won, and that as a result I would now (with her blessing of course) not be home until Tuesday since the title game would be Monday night.
Over the years, my wife has accepted my crazy passion for Duke basketball, as it somehow became a part of the regular fabric of our life and home. I developed a core group of Los Angeles Duke alumni from different years who regularly watches games together at each other's houses, fills each other in on breaking news and recruiting rumors, and even sometimes travels together to meet other friends for games in places like Tampa, Florida to catch our beloved Blue Devils in action. When my two now-teenager daughters were little girls, watching Duke basketball games on TV together was a regular ritual in our house from November to March (and sometimes on a good year even in April). Each of my girls had their own favorite players like Shane Battier or Jason Williams, and it even got to the ridiculous point when they were very young that whenever any sport of any type was on TV, be it pro basketball, football, or baseball, they would point at the TV and exclaim, "Daddy, look - Duke basketball is on!"
In 1992, I had to go to my hometown of Philadelphia at the last minute for business meetings. Luckily, my trip coincided with the NCAA East Regional Tournament at the Spectrum where Duke would be playing. So I scrambled and managed to come up with a couple of decent tickets in the upstairs section. As it turns out, one of my best childhood friends, David Sternberg, was an alumnus of Temple University, which also happened to be playing in the same Regional tournament. So we decided to go together to watch the two games in our hometown.
Temple lost and Duke won, and after the Duke victory I dashed down to the very best viewing seats in the house at center court and managed to buy four incredible tickets at a deep discount for the East Regional Final game from some dismayed fans of one of the losing teams. David later called me to tell me that, much to his disappointment, his wife had already made plans so he wouldn't be able to go to the final game with me after all. I immediately called my Dad (with whom I had not attended a basketball game in over 20 years), my brother and my then-brother-in-law to ask them to join me. In that now historic overtime game against Kentucky, with no time left on the game clock, Christian Laettner caught a long in-bounds "Hail-Mary" pass from Grant Hill, turned and hit a shot from the top of the key virtually right in front of us to win the game. It is now considered the greatest college basketball game of all time and I got to share it with my Dad who literally lost his voice for the next day from all the screaming and cheering we did that during the unbelievable game. Duke went on from that game to win its second NCAA National Championship title. And my friend David calls me every time he hears or sees mention of the "Shot Heard Round The World" game because it has become his personal lifetime sports burden that he missed it.
This weekend, most of the same friends who I'd been with in 1991 in Indianapolis returned for this year's NCAA Tournament Championship game in exactly the same town, including Kenny Dennard who had been a star on the Duke basketball team back in 1978 (and who is in the record books as the first college player to do a backwards dunk on national television). It was as if we were all in college again and 19 years hadn't gone by in a flash. But this time, those of us who had had kids who were currently attending or had recently graduated from Duke brought them along, and it was clear that these second generation kids were developing their own special bonds.
Strangely, but wonderfully, I realized that, this time, I was now experiencing everything that was going on not just through my own eyes and ears, but those of my daughter who was absorbing every word and taking in every amusing interaction of our close-knit Duke alumni group. Just before the game started, a man about my age who was sitting with his daughter a few rows ahead of us turned around, spotted us as fellow Duke fans and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up when he saw me with my daughter. His daughter then turned, saw my daughter and, much to the sudden shock of both of us fathers, the girls screamed out in simultaneous recognition. My daughter then excitedly explained that the other girl was a senior and one of her Pi Phi sorority sisters back at school.
Later on in the evening, the victorious and elated team came back to a huge crowd at the hotel where a couple of the players came bounding up to my daughter with huge grins to give her a hearty hug. Although my daughter had already been at Duke for a semester and a half, it was at that moment that I truly understood that the Blue Devil baton had been officially passed to her. These were her friends, this was her team, this was her life and her time, and she was now herself a Blue Devil all of her own making.
I realized that although the Duke basketball team had achieved an amazing victory that night, I had also won a different kind of major championship, one that was years in the making.