‘Black Duke’ takes flight After decades of resistance, black America embraces Blue Devils basketball

Once upon a time in college basketball, black fans had a special sort of hate for Duke.

This season is different. The Blue Devils are so good in the ‘hood, Jay-Z came to watch them play … in Pittsburgh. LeBron James witnessed the Zion Williamson mixtape in Charlottesville, Virginia. After every game, the internet is flooded with highlights of Williamson and Duke’s three other one-and-about-to-be-dones. The program has come so far from its so-called “Uncle Tom” days, Sacramento Kings rookie and recent Duke star Marvin Bagley III just laced the newest J. Cole beat with raps such as way back I was hated but they love me now.

And all that’s not even counting when Ken Griffey Jr., Todd Gurley, Spike Lee and former President Barack Obama came to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium for the rivalry game with North Carolina.

Black fans now root for Duke at higher rates than the general population, according to the ESPN Sports Poll. In 2017, 12 percent of black college basketball enthusiasts identified as Duke fans, compared with 8 percent of all college basketball fans. So far this season, 24 percent of the audience for Duke games on ESPN is black, compared with 21 percent for all games.

How did Duke go from ashy to classy? From supposedly privileged punks who vanquished iconic black teams to having a hairstyle named after the 2015 championship squad? From featuring white stars who fizzled in the pros to Zion running through competition like a midnight locomotive?

Like everything pertaining to Duke basketball, it starts with coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K changed with the times, gradually embracing the concept of recruiting players who would be at Duke for only a few months before jumping to the NBA. His credibility grew when he started coaching Olympic teams and building relationships with legends such as James and Kobe Bryant. The turning point was Duke’s 2015 title team, featuring three one-and-dones and the “Duke Starting Five” haircut trend.

Now Duke is an apex competitor, ready for the next “Nike check coming out the projects.” The freshmen Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones draw huge TV ratings. Duke has black fans like this dude, straight photobombing ESPN in Louisville’s arena after Duke came back from a 23-point deficit in the second half:

“I do think the success of the program, having a series of one-and-done players now, Coach K being fully embraced by the stars of the NBA with the Olympics, a confluence of things have contributed to changing that narrative,” said Grant Hill, the Hall of Famer and former Duke star who was unfairly saddled with much of the black community’s dislike of his team.

“It’s kind of funny why people didn’t like us back in the day. It’s even funnier now that people are big fans because of the haircut,” Hill continued.

“But the fact that Duke is now sort of embraced is interesting.”

Jay-Z laughs during the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Duke Blue Devils at Petersen Events Center on January 22, 2019 in Pittsburgh.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Duke hired Krzyzewski from West Point in 1980, two years after losing the NCAA championship game to Kentucky. In 1982, Krzyzewski brought in Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson and Jay Bilas. In 1986, that group and freshman Danny Ferry went to the championship game, which they lost to Louisville.

In that era, black America’s team was Georgetown, led by pioneering coach John Thompson. He took the Hoyas to three Final Fours, winning the 1984 national championship and the hearts of black folks with an attitude of uncompromising blackness.

Like Georgetown, Duke was an expensive, academically elite private school. Unlike Georgetown, Duke featured a high proportion of white stars, including Alarie, Ferry and, in the 1988-89 season, a bratty freshman named Christian Laettner. In the 1989 NCAA tournament, with Ferry and Laettner leading the way, Duke beat a Georgetown team featuring a young Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo to secure a spot in the Final Four. Thompson never got that close to a championship again.

The next two seasons, two players arrived who would put Duke over the top and set the Duke image for years to come. Point guard Bobby Hurley fit one type of Duke stereotype: scrappy, not overly talented, and white. Hill fit another: He was the privileged son of a former NFL star and a corporate executive, and black.

“In the ’80s, it was almost the more struggle you came from, the blacker you were,” Hill said.

Another factor contributing to black fans’ past disdain for Duke was that the team’s best white players — Alarie, Ferry, Hurley, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kyle Singler, the Plumlee brothers — often had mediocre NBA careers. Laettner, the best white Duke player, whose arrogance and frat-boy looks inspired hate in whites and blacks alike, made one All-Star appearance and averaged 12.8 points per game over his 13-year career. J.J. Redick, twice the National Player of the Year at Duke, has a career average of 12.8 points per game in his 13th NBA season.

Laettner and Hurley got destroyed in the 1990 NCAA championship game, losing 103-73 to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, led by gold-toothed forward Larry Johnson. But in the 1991 Final Four, with Hill as a freshman, Duke took down undefeated UNLV, then went on to win Krzyzewski’s first title.

The following year, Laettner, Hill and Hurley smashed another set of black icons, Michigan’s legendary Fab Five freshmen, to capture a second straight championship.

“You had this idea about the kind of black players Coach K recruited,” said Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African-American studies department. “Kind of a cut-and-dried, clean-cut type of black player … a lot seemed to be mixed-race. When it came to color, they were often light-skinned. It seemed like he had a pattern.”

Neal hated Duke basketball for years, even after he became a professor there in 2004. “What framed my view of Duke was when they played UNLV and it was portrayed as these great student-athletes versus the thugs,” he said, then added: “Laettner didn’t help.”

The Fab Five, who injected hip-hop style and attitude into college basketball, were viewed as the antithesis of Duke. Michigan’s Jalen Rose crystallized those feelings in his Fab Five documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler: “I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

That was a false label — Rose’s teammate Chris Webber was a middle-class kid, for example, and Krzyzewski recruited Webber hard — but it resonated.

“I said what people had been thinking for 30 years,” Rose, now an ESPN analyst, said in an interview.

Kyrie Irving (left), during his one-and-done year at Duke, gets second-half instructions from coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) against Michigan State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, on Dec. 1, 2010.

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty Images

But with two championships, Duke could now recruit with anyone in the country. The Blue Devils won a third title in 2001 with Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. Their fourth title, in 2010, featured Nolan Smith and white players such as Singler, Miles and Mason Plumlee, and Jon Scheyer.

Black stars such as Hill, Williams and Boozer probably would have been one-and-done in today’s game. As the college basketball landscape shifted, Corey Maggette left Duke after one season. Elton Brand left after two and became an NBA All-Star.

Then came Kyrie Irving, whose spectacular 11-game Duke career in 2010-11 set the program on a new course. Irving went first in the NBA draft, won Rookie of the Year, is a perennial All-Star and became an NBA champion in 2016.

The next generation of young stars took notice.

From left to right: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Justise Winslow of the Duke Blue Devils wait for player introductions before their game against the Miami Hurricanes at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 13, 2015.

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The Black Duke turning point came in 2015: the championship team featuring freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, and senior Quinn Cook.

“My freshman year, it was different,” Cook said. “Me and Amile Jefferson talk about it all the time. Warming up, it’d be like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber playing in the arena. And by my senior year, they were playing like Lil Durk and Shy Glizzy and Chief Keef and Meek Mill.”

Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” became the soundtrack to their championship run. The idea came from assistant coach Jeff Capel, the former Duke player whose jersey was spotted on Tupac Shakur back in the day.

“We play team basketball. Coach has a military background. We take charges. We get hype after little plays,” Cook said. “I think in the basketball community, it just looks like — I don’t want to say ‘corny,’ it’s just different. But coach lets you add your flair to it, add your little swagger, your team swagger.

“If we buy in and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on the court and in the classroom, coach lets us be us.”

When Cook arrived on campus, he was surprised to find out that several teammates had tattoos. They wore sweatsuits on the road, not suits and ties. Krzyzewski was a Beyoncé fan and had a picture with Jay-Z on his phone. After a disappointing first-round loss in the 2014 tournament, Cook started growing his hair out to show his complete focus on basketball. Then the entire team said no clippers would touch their hair until they lost. That took 14 games. They left the tops of their ’dos long and shaped up the bottoms. By the time they won the 2015 tournament, the Duke haircut had trended nationally.

In 2016, Brandon Ingram wore that haircut in his one-and-done Duke season. Then came Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Bagley. Next up is Williamson, one of the most electrifying college athletes ever and the obvious first choice in the 2019 NBA draft. Barrett is projected to be picked second, Reddish fourth and Jones later in the first round.

Today, “I just think Duke has a look to it,” Cook said. “If you look at the guys in the NBA, I don’t want to say it’s never been cool to go to Duke, but Duke is everywhere now.”

Said Rose: “Now, Coach K is recruiting the player. Before, they were recruiting the program. Before, Coach K wouldn’t even necessarily want four of the top 10 players because he wanted guys who he could mold them and culture them and bring them into the system. Just because you’re a top-flight player, that doesn’t mean you fit into what we’re trying to do.”

“Now, he fits Duke to the top-flight player.”

The roots of Black Duke run much deeper than Zion, Kyrie or Coach K.

In 1892, Trinity College relocated to Durham, North Carolina, with the generous assistance of a local tobacco baron named Washington Duke. That same year, Duke’s barber in Durham, an enterprising black man named John Merrick, expressed an interest in learning about real estate. Duke helped Merrick buy the barbershop, which he expanded into a chain of barbershops. Under Washington Duke’s tutelage, Merrick made more real estate purchases, which became Durham’s “Black Wall Street” district of businesses and homes owned by African-Americans.

Washington Duke also advised Merrick as he co-founded two pioneering black businesses, the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Co. and the Mechanics and Farmers Bank. After Duke’s death, his son James Duke gave millions to Trinity College, which was renamed after the Duke patriarch in 1924. Duke family money also endowed historically black universities such as North Carolina Central and Johnson C. Smith, plus what once was the black hospital in Durham.

“There’s a reason I like Duke that’s deeper than basketball,” said rap producer and longtime Duke fan 9th Wonder, who also is a professor at Duke, Harvard and his alma mater, North Carolina Central. “The Dukes went on record saying we cannot empower black people without teaching them economic empowerment.”

Duke went on a building spree with its new endowment. The architect for many of the campus buildings still in use today, including Cameron Indoor Stadium, was a black man named Julian Abele.

This history casts a different light on the perception of Duke as a “white” school — especially since we now know that Georgetown sold 272 slaves in 1838 to ensure its survival.

“When I talk to my friends and start pulling all this history up, it’s a hard reality for them to face,” 9th Wonder said. “They’re like, ‘The black person in me should have been rooting for Duke all along.’ ”

Outside Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University as snow falls from Winter Storm Diego on December 9, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

Lance King/Getty Images

That time former NBA All-Star Carlos Boozer almost sued Prince A hair salon, a dance floor and a heart-shaped bed — what else did Prince manage to squeeze into Boozer’s home?

It’s been two years since the world was rocked by the news that Prince, one of the most talented artists to roam this earth, had died in his home.

As the world grappled with such a significant loss, others attempted to fill the void with some of their fondest memories of Prince. Sharing stories of fan meet-and-greets with those who either knew him personally or were touched by his aura almost became therapeutic. Most sentiments were sweet and thoughtful, while others expressed the playful side of Prince. But the anecdotes that seemed to gain the most attention came from those who had experienced “made-for-television moments” with The Purple One himself. One of those people? Former NBA All-Star Carlos Boozer.

Boozer’s unique encounter with Prince is one deserving of an E! True Hollywood Story segment on Chappelle’s Show. Thirteen years and many previously unreleased details later, the story has quickly become one of Boozer’s most popular to share.

We’ll take it back to 2005, when Boozer, a 23-year-old with only two seasons of professional basketball under his belt, had just signed a contract with the Utah Jazz. It was a fresh start for the NBA player, and finding a new home topped Boozer’s list of priorities. Boozer hadn’t planned all the details of his new location, but after growing up in Alaska and battling harsh winters in Cleveland, he was certainly in search of a warmer climate. Ultimately, Boozer settled on a 10-bedroom, 18,000-square-foot mansion in Bel-Air, Los Angeles.

But before Boozer could spend quality time in his new crib, the Jazz training camp was calling — and so were at least 20 people looking to rent his new house while he was away.

“My Realtor Roxanne hits me and she says, ‘Los, I got a call from a bunch of people who want to rent your crib,’ ” Boozer said. “I was like, ‘I haven’t even lived in it. I’m still a week away from decorating, so, no. I haven’t lived in it yet, why would I lease it out to somebody else?’

“The list kept getting shorter and shorter of people calling about it. The first calls, it was about 20 people. The previous owner had been in entertainment and was well-known and threw gatherings and parties there, so they knew the house.”

As Boozer continued to decline offers, the list continued to dwindle. Twenty people became 18. Eighteen became seven. Around a month later, Boozer was down to one persistent person, who’d call to make an offer at least eight times. The unidentified person was willing to pay $95,000 a month, which was a little over $1 million for the year, and that was an offer Boozer refused to pass up. As good as the deal was, there was only one short catch: Boozer would have to fly from Utah back to Los Angeles to meet with the potential renter.

Boozer waited for an off day to make the trip. He returned to his home and waited to meet the renter who’d be helping him with his mortgage payments. The gates to the home opened, and a limo entered. Out of it came a man no taller than 5 feet 2 inches and dressed in a layered top, nice jeans, boots with a perfect hairstyle. His eyes remained hidden behind sunglasses, but a starstruck Boozer already knew exactly who it was. The potential renter surprised both Boozer and his real estate agent Roxanne Nelson.

“As soon as he stepped out of the limo I was like, ‘Wow’ because I didn’t know who [I’d be renting to],” Boozer said. “Roxanne didn’t even know who it was because it was always the assistant calling on his behalf. So when he pulled up to sign the paperwork at the house, I was like, ‘Roxanne, is that Prince?’ It was a moment for me because there’s not that many times I’ve been starstruck, but that was one of those times. I was starstruck because it was Prince — I listened to half his albums because my parents were huge fans growing up. I watched his movies. Purple Rain is still one of the best movies ever made. It was incredible to be able to rent my house to him.”

“It was a moment for me because there’s not that many times I’ve been starstruck, but that was one of those times.”

The two began to talk and bonded over their common interest in basketball. On the rooftop was Boozer’s basketball court. Prince began shooting around with Boozer and talking to the rising star about his career.

“He was very cool,” Boozer said. “Obviously, very short, but he was huge into basketball. Loved basketball. We had a great conversation. He said he followed me a bit in my career. He told me I was a beast of a young player, because I was young. I was a baby in the NBA. He’s from Minnesota, so he was a huge Kevin Garnett fan at the time.

“Honestly, he had a good jump shot. I was like, ‘Wow.’ He could actually play ball. Very impressive.”

Prince disclosed to Boozer that he needed a place where he and his band would feel inspired enough to create a new album. He signed a one-year lease and began occupying the space during basketball season. But a few weeks later, Boozer would be sidelined with a hamstring injury that required physical therapy.

“The best physical therapist, Judy Seto, was in L.A.,” Boozer said. “I fly out to L.A. I had to be there like three weeks to take care of my hamstring, and I go by the crib. I hit him up, I said, ‘P, I’m about to come by the house. If you need anything, let me know.’ ”

Boozer returned to his street, but something had changed. The house he’d purchased didn’t look like the house he’d purchased at all. Maybe it wasn’t his. Boozer continued to drive down the street, then back up to the only house with his address. The 12-foot-high gates adorned with gold lions that greeted him every time he came home had been replaced by a purple symbol of some sort. This couldn’t have been his. Boozer punched in the code to his home and the gates opened right away. “I’m like, ‘Wow, so the homie changed my gate to this symbol,’ ” Boozer thought at the time.

“I’m about to sue Prince. Who wants to sue Prince?”

It was his home. But what had happened to it? Boozer stepped out of his car. The stairs leading from the motor court to his home were draped with a purple carpet emblazoned with the same symbol that greeted him minutes earlier.

“I wasn’t aware of what that symbol was at the time,” Boozer admitted.

Prince’s decorative creations outside of the home seemed minor once Boozer laid eyes on the interior renovations. The beautiful Italian carpets chosen by his then-wife were pulled up and replaced by black carpeting. Black and purple seemed to be the new theme of the home, and there were those symbols again. Boozer approached a spare bedroom that had been completely transformed into a full-use hair salon. The other, a massage parlor.

“I never had that [in a home], but I’m still like, ‘What’s going on?’ I spent all this bread to decorate, and now he did all this. I had a really awesome weight room. He turned the weight room into a dance floor. He had a disco ball and a DJ booth, which I thought was pretty awesome since I never had that before either, but I was still like, ‘What the hell?’ I’m livid. I go into the bedroom and it’s a purple, heart-shaped bed with black carpet. At this point, I’m like, ‘What the f— happened to my house?’ ”

Boozer immediately began placing calls to the superstar, only to be greeted by his voicemail each time. Days turned into weeks, and after nearly two months without a returned call or response from Prince, Boozer was ready to take legal action.

“I left him one more message and said, ‘P, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for two months. I don’t know where you are, I hope everything is cool with you and your family, but I’m about to sue you because you changed my whole house around without giving me no notice, and that’s a breach of contract.’ ”

Three days later, Prince was back on the grid.

“My lawyers were about to prepare the paperwork and everything. I’m about to sue Prince. Who wants to sue Prince? An idol, someone you look up to? Nobody wants to do that. It gets to that point and he calls me. I’m at a game and he’s in Japan on tour for that 3121 album. He goes, ‘Man, I’m so sorry. I’ve been on the road the whole time. Don’t worry, the house is going to look just like the house when you moved out. When I move out at the end of my lease, it’ll look just like I was never there. Trust me.’ He wired me $500,000 to ease my mind, which is a lot of bread on top of the rent that he was already paying.”

Being a man of his word, Prince did exactly what he said he’d do. By the end of his lease, the house looked as if he’d never been there. Boozer walked in to see beautiful Italian carpeting. The hair salon was gone, and all the equipment was back in his awesome weight room. The mystery symbols that were seen in nearly every room had vanished without a trace. Still in disbelief at how quickly Prince had transformed the home back into his home, Boozer wired the $500,000 back to his renter.

Proof of Prince’s stay is documented throughout the album artwork for 3121, Prince’s 31st studio album released in 2006.

“If you look at the CD cover, it’s my house,” Boozer said. “So he put the house all in the CD cover.”

The two formed a friendship over the years and would make time for lunch or dinner when they were in the same area. The last time Boozer would see his friend was at the Jordan Brand’s 30th anniversary party during NBA All-Star Weekend in 2015. Prince gave an impromptu performance and wowed the crowd, just as he did throughout his career.

“Even now with the two-year anniversary [of his passing], it’s still mind-boggling to me what really happened,” Boozer said. “There’s just so much mystery around his death — Michael Jackson’s death, Whitney Houston’s death too. I’d like to know what really happened.

“[If he were still alive], I’d tell him it is an honor to meet you. I literally do believe I was conceived because of your music between my mom and dad. You’ve inspired so many people. It’s an honor to have met you, great to hear your music and good to call you a friend.”