Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Adversity Kids

(Today is the One Year Anniversary for Seth Curry Saves Duke! Read more in the morning post below.)

You can't even move your mouse over a hyperlink these days without reading that the Dukies are 'tight-knit.' It's a sentiment I'm hearing over and over, and it's gone beyond a talking point; according to this report and a few others, several of the players were close to tears in the locker room after the Baylor win. And there are scads of quotes like these:

Lance Thomas: "We hang together on and off the court and like each other." "There are no separate cliques on this team, we are all in this with one another."

Scheyer: "We can tell one another anything. We’re able to confront each other and we all hold each other accountable. I have never been on a team in my life that was so close."

Coach Steve Wojciechowski: "It’s not the most talented team, but they like one another and do everything together."

Coach K: "This team will really be brothers forever. It’s as close a team as I’ve had." You want great things to happen for people who are great with us. I mean, they’ve been spectacular to coach. You can tell they’re really close and I’m ecstatic about it. I can’t tell you how happy I am about them taking our staff to Indianapolis."

The way they've played under pressure during this tournament is indicative of that closeness and resolve. The games against Purdue and Baylor were the kind they would have lost in previous years, as I said in yesterday's mammoth post. That's particularly true for the Baylor affair, played in front of hostile fans and basically amounting to a road game. But there's a new cohesiveness this season, a bond that's helped them emerge from the rough patches that would have halted their progress under different circumstances. The question is, where does it come from?

When people unite anywhere, why does it happen? The answer is usually adversity, individual and shared. This team is rich in shared adversity. Most of the players have had to deal with the following gremlins for their entire careers:

1) Duke Haters - they're everywhere. Any time the team goes on the road, they have to ignore legions of idiots who spew pure nastiness and invective. The abuse Duke takes goes well beyond what any other team in college basketball has to face.

2) Great Expectations - The program has a strong history full of championships and Final Four appearances, and every Duke team is measured by those standards.

3) Widespread Doubt - This may seem to conflict with #2, but believe me when I say the two co-exist. Along with the expectations, recent teams have had to face a nation of fans, coaches, and media repeating the idea that Duke doesn't have what it takes. They're not athletic enough, not hungry enough, not tough enough, not big enough. In the past, these critiques held some truth.

When an entire team is confronted with this kind of negative pressure, how can they react? There are three options, as far as I can tell: by cowering, by acting out to the team's detriment, or by circling the proverbial wagons and trying to shut out the distractions. To Coach K's credit, I've never seen a Duke team take the second option. We have cowered, I think. Intimidation has ended our season in the past. But this year's team has chosen to pull together, and they've followed up with intense commitment. In hindsight, the choice was probably made as far back as the summer, when players like Nolan Smith made huge improvements as a result of unsparing workouts. Or maybe they came together in the wake of the Villanova loss last season. It's hard to know.

What's easier to see is that along with shared adversity, many of our players brought their own individual adversity into the group consciousness. When you run down the list, it starts to get pretty remarkable.

Nolan Smith - Nolan's story is the most profound, and the saddest. When he was 8 years old, his father Derek collapsed and died in front of him on a cruise ship. Derek played in the NBA, and the last thing he ever told his son was that attitude meant everything in basketball. The two were extremely close, and the impact on Nolan hasn't faded. You can read more in this excellent ESPN piece from last year.

Nolan now has a tattoo of his dad's face, name, and number on his right arm. Before the Baylor game, he sent a last message on his twitter account: "This one's for you, dad. I love you!" After scoring 29 points and winning the Most Outstanding Player award for the region, he gave credit to Derek. "I always play for him, to honor him, and he's always with me, but today I could really feel him. There were a couple of times, a couple of shots, that I knew he was with me."

Andre Dawkins - Baby Dawk is just a freshman, but earlier this season, before a game to St. John's, his half-sister died in a car accident on her way to see him play. Dawkins played without knowing, and scored 2 points in a win over St. John's. Coming into that game, he'd been averaging 9.9 points. After, he took a leave of absence. Needless to say, he wasn't the same when he returned. It took him most of the season to re-gain any playing time, but slowly he worked his way into the roation. Against Baylor, he hit two huge threes in the first half.

Brian Zoubek - Coming out of high school, Ole Snowshoes was a McDonald's All-American, and many predicted he'd be a top-tier college center. Instead, he broke his foot in the summer before his freshman season, and suffered the same injury the next year. He couldn't recover his form during those years, and after last year's struggles he was officially declared a bust. Through all the negativity, he maintained his humility and work ethic. This year, his reputation is somewhat restored by excellent play, and he's the biggest reason why Duke has an inside presence they've lacked since Shelden Williams left for the NBA.

Jon Scheyer - The always-cruel fans in Maryland were the originators of the 'Scheyerface' campaign, a comic visual spectacle that blows up pictures of Scheyer's face at its most contorted. As large-scale and disconcertingly visible as it became, this was probably the tamest of the insults Scheyer had to face on the road. Like every other white Duke star, he earned the brunt of opposing fans' wrath. If someone gave him a dollar for every time an smirking undergrad called him a fag or made comments about his mother, he'd have a nice little fortune.

The knock on Scheyer in year's past was that he couldn't stand up to tough perimeter defense, and seemed to tire out by the time March rolled around. The psychological toll he suffered on the road had to play a part in that diminishment. But with his play in the Baylor game, Scheyer no longer has anything left to prove. He's faced the heat without resorting to a facade of arrogance like Laettner or Redick, and by leading Duke to the Final 4, he's triumphed over even his harshest critics.

These aren't the only four on Duke's roster to have overcome daunting obstacles. But they're the most notable, and serve as symbols for the team's trials and tribulations. So what happens when this individual and shared adversity is recognized? What happens when players use their collective struggle to merge with each other, to form a group identity whose toughness is both hard-earned and indelible?

They reach a point where the outside noise doesn't matter. No distractions will ever be quite as hard to ignore. New stress won't knock them off their stride. In the harrowing moments, they can call on memory, and they can call on each other.

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