In the illustrious career of Coach Mike Krzyzewski, as in the career of all basketball immortals, the great moments are drawn all the sharper against the low moments. The national championships and national players of the year are received all the better after having sloughed through the most adverse-ridden seasons.
As fans, we see these moments in the losses more than in the wins. A loss to Lehigh? That’s the adversity we see. There is so much more to a season, and to a team’s identity, than its final game’s outcome. Each season is a collection of those moments good and bad, and fans are seldom granted a peak through the Duke blue looking glass.
In 2007, in the months leading up to and following another painful first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament—this time to Virginia Commonwealth and Eric Maynor—Duke was going through an adversity that few of us can truly understand. Duke’s team itself was far from perfect: it lost four consecutive ACC games, and ended the season on another four-game losing streak. But it was the amount of venom directed at the Blue Devils from and through the media that chipped away at his team’s ability to focus on the simplicity of a simple game. Duke was hated, and the antipathy had become suffocating. And Coach K wasn’t going to take it anymore.
“It’s like, ‘Why did you say you hate Duke? Is that the only thing you hate?’” Coach K told The Free Republic in the summer of 2007. “I go up and I say I hate cancer. That’s something to hate. John Edwards has said he hates Duke…. I don’t think that’s right. I’m going to start talking about those things.”
The tipping point for Coach K wasn’t that loss to VCU, but the way one of his star freshman had been treated in the media—the media in Coach K’s and the player’s hometown of Chicago, no less. The paper published a bloodied picture of Jon Scheyer with the headline, “Duke Can’t Cut It.”
“It’s funny, but it’s a kid,” Coach K told The Free Republic. “For me, it’s a crappy thing. How did that happen? How do you get to the point where really—I’m not saying we haven’t done anything wrong or whatever—but we run a clean program and we’ve helped build a children’s hospital, we’ve built the Emily Krzyzewski Center, we’re on the V Foundation. What the hell are we doing, except winning?”
The theories in response to that question were many. And every year, a litany of journalists—some serious, some not so serious—used their respective platforms to proselytize to their readerships as to why Duke was deserving or not deserving of the venom that was coming its way. But the subject was tired and increasingly boorish, particularly when non-journalists began to seize the Internet’s stage to pile on to the mockery of Duke. In other words, the efforts had gone beyond Will Blythe’s book entitled To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry. That book, from January 2007, was innocuous compared to the March 2007 YouTube video, “This is Why Duke Sucks.” In it, a couple regular guys rap about Duke’s coaches and players—questioning the players’ sexual identity, comparing Coach K to Hitler, and so forth. It’s been seen two million times.
This had to stop. And though there remains an unquestioned distaste for the Blue Devils nationally—Duke is, simultaneously, the nation’s most popular and least popular college basketball team—the ad hominem attacks have slowed considerably against the players themselves. The turning of that tide is rather remarkable, considering the proximity that outspoken fans and foes have to Duke’s players now in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Plenty of people still dislike Duke, but the shift in the way Duke’s players are perceived and discussed has been fundamentally altered, a shift largely owed to the rise of Duke Blue Planet and its overseer, David Bradley.
With Duke basketball since 2005, David Bradley has steered DukeBluePlanet—the official Internet presence of Blue Devil Basketball—to becoming the premiere college athletics website in the country. DBP truly began to take off in December 2007, when its YouTube channel was founded. Since then, it has developed a following of 65,000 fans on Facebook, of 53,000 followers on Twitter, of 6,000 followers on Instagram, and of countless more through its print magazine, its website, its podcasts, and so forth. Through its videos and its commentary, DukeBluePlanet has given the outside a world a view of what happens inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, and inside the program, humanizing the players and coaches alike in a way that few other college athletic programs had done before or have done since.
“I would say the outside world has had a pretty strong and a different view of Duke basketball because now you see more than what you see on ESPN,” Bradley told me this week while watching final preparations go up for Countdown to Craziness in Cameron Indoor. “Before all the video and the growth of Duke Blue Planet, you saw Duke on TV and just thought we were super intense, and Coach K was a taskmaster. With DBP, we’ve tried to show the behind the scenes, show how great our kids are, show how much fun we have as players and students.”
So in the wake of all the anger that was coming at Duke’s student-athletes, the Blue Devils made an odd choice: they faced the venom head on, putting its players front and center, encouraging them to engage fans on Twitter and Facebook, putting the camera and microphone in hand for video after video of pre-game and post-game commentary on YouTube.
“As a whole, Duke athletics has sort of taken the approach of trusting our athletes and recognizing that social media can help them,” Bradley says. “From a basketball-specific standpoint, certainly we all feel like our kids—we have Coach K and he’s the best ambassador, of course—we have such great kids. We would be foolish not to have a Duke Blue Planet from that standpoint.”
This does not come without its risks. There are examples nationwide—in college athletics and out—of the dangers of social media, and of fans knowing too much about the student-athletes they are now able to follow 24/7.
The precautions Duke takes, however, coupled with the tremendous upside, make the risks worth it.
“I would say the impact social media has had on Duke basketball has been great on every level,” Bradley explains. “How people perceive the program has changed a fair amount. But it’s not just DBP; it’s our guys. They are our storytellers.”
The stories they tell vary, from interviewing one another in the wake of a big win, to the more playful videos with Duke University’s improv comedy troupe, to shooting basketballs all over campus and off the top of Duke Chapel.
And the man behind it all puts it all together for Duke fans to enjoy.
“I have unbelievable freedom, and as I’ve gone along the freedom has grown more and more,” Bradley says. “We’ve sort of figured out to accomplish our goals, we need to update the site more, have fresher content, get our guys more involved. I would say that’s the biggest thing. I’ve been fortunate to have the coaches’ trust and to have the freedom to do what I’ve been able to do. Most head coaches wouldn’t have someone like me on the staff to create that content and update it more regularly.”
The result has been an inoculation of sorts from the venom. It’s impossible to hate Nolan Smith is a phrase I heard more and more as the Blue Devils made their run to the 2010 championship, surprising just as much because they were the Goliath going up against a David, and yet without so much of the targeted assailments in the media that had persisted throughout the 2000s. People may not root for Nolan’s team to win, but they can no longer root against Nolan. So popular did Nolan become through social media and the traditional media, Nolan even earned a nickname: “The People’s Champ.”
Collectively, that has made the game more fun, I suspect, for everyone involved. It’s about basketball again, and Coach K’s mission of taking 18-year olds and eventually sending them on their way as young men, prepared for the world.
Thanks to Duke Blue Planet, the world has come to them a little bit sooner. And we’re all better off for it. But DBP is not resting on its laurels. In November, the website will be relaunched, with new features, player pages, and a fresh focus on the players and the coaches and the fans that make Duke basketball what it has become to all of us away from the basketball court.
Many thanks to David Bradley for agreeing to this interview. He has less time than the rest of us, and more energy, too.