But the truth is, I'm not worried. Maybe I should be. But I still think this team will be the greatest Yankee club since our last title in 2000. (I also thought Isiah Thomas would be do a 'pretty solid job' with the Knicks) So instead, I'll be writing about the latest of my annual Duke-inspired mental breakdowns. I've been promising this story for about a week now, and at this point it's almost certain to disappoint. Some day, I'll write about my top 5 sports-related meltdowns ever, of which this is not one. Still, there are moments that might be worth reading, so here we go.
Duke played Villanova on a Thursday, and Missouri played Memphis at the same time. My roommate and his friends are mostly Mizzou fans from somewhere out in that great expanse we call the West. We all went to a bar called Mullholland's, which is one of only two sports bars in our neighborhood. The other is this amazing dive called 'The Turkey's Nest,' but they were too cheap to have anything but the one CBS feed, so we had to look elsewhere.
What can I say about Mulholland's? It's your typical pretentious sports bar with delusions of sophistication. They have the requisite big-screen tvs and so-so food, but they also have a self-consciously faux-mahogany wooden decor, unnecessary leather furniture, and a non-functional fireplace. Other than some superficial Brooklyn touches, like a wall of exposed brick behind the bar, you could be at an airport or a strip mall joint. It serves the purpose, I guess, but it basically has no character, and therefore none of the immediacy or clubby ambiance you want in a sports bar.
Anyway, we walked in, and the Missouri contingent (clad in their black and gold) were immediately greeted by welcoming shouts. I came in last, and as I passed the first table, a blond girl wearing a black and gold sweater looked at me suspiciously.
"M! I! Z!" she shouted.
Apparently, if you're a real Missouri fan, you're supposed to respond with "Z! O! U!" I just stared at her for a second and kept moving. "Those aren't real Missouri fans," she said, decisively, to her friends.
We found a table, one with the obnoxiously high stool-chairs where you constantly have to find a place for your legs. The games started, and Duke went on a 5-0 run which would be the highlight of the night. Over on one of the plush leather chairs, I noticed another Duke fan. The next time we scored, we both cheered, and he looked over. I put up a fist and said "Go Duke."
And then he made the same gesture, we smiled in recognition, later on we said hello, had a short but respectful conversation, discovered some people we knew in common back in Durham, bonded over Duke's close win over Villanova, and left feeling good about the world.
Oh wait, that's not what happened at all. Instead, his eyes narrowed, he gave a little scowl, crossed his arms, and looked back at the tv. (To be fair, he was probably still depressed over the November election, and also may have just lost his banking job and gold-digger girlfriend.)
I hope I'm painting the right picture; the vibes in that place were shit. And the game followed suit. After the initial run, Duke tanked. Our shooting was abysmal, Nova's D was suffocating, and at halftime the eventual outcome was pretty clear. Mentally, I started to fall down the old slippery slope. Memories of the last five years overran the carefully constructed gates I'd erected to keep myself positive about our chances. I started to sulk. The Missouri crew took pains to keep me upbeat, saying things like "you guys are fine. You'll blow 'em out second half." But the game's truth had already revealed itself to me in an unmistakable vision.
And then fate intervened to turn my depression into budding anger. From the game's outset, a youngish dude sitting at the bar had taken it upon himself to start shouting "Fuck Duke!" everytime something went wrong for us. It became clear early on that he wasn't a Villanova fan, which would be understandable, or a UNC fan, which would be less understandable but still make a kind of sense. No, this guy was just an asshole. And he looked like one, too. He had that smarmy waspish thing going, where you can tell he'd been bred for an unhappy, cruel, upper-crust kind of arrogance since youth.
Late in the first half, after one of his tirades, he stood up, ducked under the divider, and started tending bar. So not only was he a loathsome creature, but he worked there, too, and had a certain power. A terrible situation.
In the second half, the anger started to fester and boil. The game, the surroundings, and the alcohol combined to produce violent fantasies. With about fifteen minutes left, when a missed three produced another exuberant "Yeah! Fuck Duke!" cry (followed by the dude unleashing that smug grin on the entire bar), I turned to my friend Matt and said "I'm going to fucking kill him." The unoriginal, incessant 'heckling' had gotten to me.
It must be said that on a day-to-day basis, I'm a patient, rational human. I don't get in fights, and I like to think I'm not a neanderthal who deals with tricky situations by going apeshit. I also don't generally care what strangers think of me, and am not easily riled. To be honest, I'd have very little idea how to even carry myself in a fight. But something about the perceptible insanity in my eyes gave Matt pause, because his smile turned kinda wary and he gave one of those nervous chuckles people use when they're hoping a situation won't get out of hand.
That's when I realized I needed to leave. Even as I told everyone goodbye, and they, confused but somewhat understanding, watched me go, the rage started to erupt. I got as far as the door before deciding, 'you know what, I'm gonna go confront the 'Fuck Duke' guy.'
Again, I have no idea what I planned to say or do. I'm sure it would have been very embarrassing for me. I turned around, got halfway back, locked my eyes on his gray sweater, and barely, just barely, came to my senses.
I stalked to the subway, watched the end of the loss alone in my apartment, bitched to my stepfather on the phone (where my lamentations reached such a fever pitch that even he, known for the occasional incongruent reaction, broke out the "well...it's just a game" line), and threw a plastic cup at the sink.
After the game, I went onto a website I'd discovered days before called 'Duke Basketball Report.' It had message boards, and someone posted these three-point shooting stats from our last five NCAA losses.
Duke 3pt. shooting, NCAA tournament losses:
2004: 6-22 against Uconn, Final Four
2005: 7-23 against Michigan State, Sweet 16
2006: 5-26 against LSU, Sweet 16
2007: 3-11 against VCU, First Round
2008: 5-22 against West Virginia, Second Round
2009: 5-27 against Nova, Sweet 16
I can't remember exactly how I responded, and I can't look it up since my post earned me a lifetime ban from the message board, but it was something like: "Keep recruiting teams that live and die by the 3, Coach Genius."
Zing! Send that one to the Insult Hall of Fame, overnight mail. Anyway, opposition to the Duke regime isn't tolerated there, so they banned me. It was my third post ever, which is fairly quick in my lifetime record of Total Rejection by Others (non-female division).
I managed not to do any more damage that night, so the final stat line of the Villanova meltdown looks like this: one Duke loss, one two-hour fugue of petulant anger, one near fight, one thrown cup, one rebuke by a parent, and one lifetime ban from an internet site.
It's a shame I didn't stay at Mulholland's, though, because toward the end of the game, I missed something awesome. While the smarmy bartender continued to annoy everybody as the games wound to an end, the general feeling turned against him in a big way. Finally, he shouted "Fuck Duke!" one last time, and Matt's friend Dave- a Missouri fan but fed up nonetheless- unleashed the greatest, goofiest March Madness retort in world history:
"Fuck your wack bracket!"
According to secondhand reports, the entire place cracked up, and instead of smiling and conceding the awesome comeback, the idiot turned around and gave him a withering stare that produced even more laughter.
What goes around, comes around. And if that little bon mot doesn't propel you through Thursday, at which point you can coast through Friday and into Masters weekend, maybe The Who's epic performance of "A Quick One While He's Away" will do the trick. I discovered it on YouTube last night. By the "you are forgiven" breakdown at the end (used to brilliant effect by the immortal Wes Anderson in 'Rushmore'), I was spinning on my bedroom floor, all my bookshelves had been knocked over, and I'd aged twenty years. But in a good way. Enjoy.