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A Carolina Guy's Response To Why Chuck Klosterman Roots For Duke

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Streeter Lecka

Several weeks ago, in his column for Grantland, Chuck Klosterman outlined his argument for why college basketball fans should root for Duke.

Klosterman is one of the most insightful and entertaining writers around, and is often in the vanguard (if not in advance of the vanguard) of social thinkers when it comes to penetrating the swirl of pop culture and pegging the individual's place amidst it.

Which made it all the more disheartening to watch him rationalize being a Duke fan by falling victim to one of the all-time great Duke basketball myths.

As a Heels fan, I'll obviously take issue with any article that incites otherwise decent, God-fearing, red-blooded American basketball fans to pull for Duke--and this article, in particular, provided many opportunities to do so.

But nevermind the implicit argument the article also makes (which I, of course, support) that "liking Duke" is consistent with "embrac[ing] a position that runs counter to something obvious and undeniable."

Or the article's characterization of Duke as the curator and custodian of "the enduring qualities (and the arcane strategies) of non-pro basketball." Arcane strategies like flopping, kicking a leg out on threes, sweeping defenders' arms on jumpshots, and all of the other soccer-style, foul-producing manipulations that make Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker regret not having played in Durham. (Pros are paid to find ways to win on technicalities.) I also won't delve into Duke's characteristic reliance on the three-ball, a distinctly "pro" innovation (notwithstanding early experiments at the collegiate and high school levels).

Or that Klosterman's line of reasoning is often predicated on tacit praise for the program's coach rather than the program itself, which is an amalgam of coaches, players, and tradition. The result being that Klosterman seems to define Duke by what Krzyzewski has done with Duke, and is thus pulling more for how Duke is coached rather than Duke per se. (The conflation, here, of program and coach is not only one that is, consciously or unconsciously, requisite for being a Duke fan; it is also one that seems particularly contradictory in this article, where the author's position praises the amateurism of a sport while simultaneously elevating the professionals of that industry [i.e. coaches] over the amateurs themselves.)

Or that Klosterman's entire premise and rationale for pulling for Duke seems born more out of the author's own intrinsic predilection toward iconoclasm and nonconformism than from any core love or respect for Duke itself.

Forget all of that.

The aspect of the article I take greatest issue with is the pervasive notion that Duke achieves so much success with so little talent. This argument is usually made in contrast to North Carolina, a program that--as the story goes--has accomplished comparatively little for the preponderance of talent it's been historically given. The great fallacy of the talent argument, of course, is it's failure to distinguish between the talent going in to a program and the talent coming out of it.

After all, Michael Jordan wasn't a Hall of Famer when he was getting cut from his varsity team at Laney High. James Worthy didn't have 3 NBA Championship rings sitting on his bedroom dresser in Gastonia, NC. Vince Carter wasn't an 8-time NBA All-Star eating cereal in his mother and stepfather's Daytona Beach kitchen.

Klosterman hypothesizes a game between the 12 best Duke players at their professional peaks versus the 12 best UNC players at the same apex. I think we can all agree this would be a rout. But the better comparison would be for Klosterman to pit the 12 best Duke players during their senior year of high school versus the 12 best UNC players at the same age. I think he'd then find the talent disparity not all that disparate.

There's no perfect assessor, but perhaps the most accurate barometer of both actual and potential talent at the high school level is the McDonald's All-American identifier. In the 35 years that this distinction has been awarded (including 2013 recruits), Duke is second in the nation (and by a pretty healthy margin) with 56 McAA recruits, hardly reflecting a disadvantage in the talent department. (North Carolina is first with 67.)

Over the past 25 years, to use Klosterman's time frame, Duke has seen 46 McDonald's All-Americans to UNC's 47. (Of those 46, by the way, only 26 have ever played in a Final Four, compared to 33 for UNC. So, who's underperforming with the talent they've been given?)

In the 15 years that the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI) has been in existence, Duke has taken 32 McDonald's All-Americans, with an average national ranking of 17th. UNC has taken 29 McDonald's All-Americans over that span, with an average national ranking of 16th. Where's the talent discrepancy there?

I'm not saying that, by and large, the better players haven't chosen Chapel Hill--they have. Just that Coach K isn't exactly stuck picking from Durham Academy's JV squad.

In fact, to insinuate that K won his championships with minimal talent is simply fallacious. Both his '91 and '10 championship teams included 6 McDonald's All-Americans, and the '01 team had 7. The '92 team had only 4, but was arguably better than the '91 squad. (Dean Smith's two championship teams included 6 McAAs each. The 2005 Heels had 5, and the 2009 Heels had 8.)

These teams saw big-time recruits like Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, and Carlos Boozer. They included Mr. Basketball for the states of Michigan (Battier), Louisiana (Duhon), and Illinois(Scheyer). Bobby Hurley led the No. 1 high school team in the nation and was named one of the top 10 New Jersey high school basketball players of the century. Kyle Singler was Player of the Year in Oregon and the top-rated small forward in the nation as a high-schooler. Duke is hardly landing non-factors on the high school level.

This doesn't even include recruits like Mr. Basketball of Illinois, Chris Collins, or Mr. Basketball of New York State, Elton Brand; or Quin Snyder, two-time Washington State Player of the Year and leader of the No. 1 high school team in the country; or Parade Magazine's national prep Player of the Year, Danny Ferry--all of whom failed to win national championships at Duke. (Krzyzewski has his share of "squandered talent" as well.)

It's easy to talk about all of the talent coming through Chapel Hill after we have watched them blossom into All-Stars, Olympians, and NBA Champions. But the reality is that the talent going in to these programs is relatively equal. Before they were professionals, these players were all part of a large pool of raw high school talent accessed by both programs. The great disparity lies in the talent that comes out of these programs, a disparity that is largely unconnected with anything that happened in high school or in utero.

Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison, Ty Lawson, and Danny Green were not who we now know them to be when they showed up as freshmen in Chapel Hill, anymore than were Josh McRoberts (No. 1 RSCI, 2005), Austin Rivers (No. 2 RSCI, 2011), Greg Paulus (No. 13, 2005), or Casey Sanders (No. 16, 1999). Something happened for these players between McDonald's All-American and NBA superstar: college. So, while the talent coming out of these programs may be fairly unequal, that's an entirely separate discussion from which program is landing more talent on the front end.

Yet, somehow, the notion of Duke's inferior talent has become as ingrained in popular sentiment as the myth that Coach K is in the Final Four year after year (it's been twice in the past 12 seasons, by the way). The notion is so commonplace, in fact, that it seems a person possessing such an anti-establishment streak as Klosterman would have already formed a natural aversion to it.

But perhaps his evolution as a college hoops fan is as incomplete as his science, and for this we cannot blame him. Even the best of us fall prey to myth.