‘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

Heat’s Justise Winslow donates cars to two families who lost their vehicles in Hurricane Harvey ‘I felt it in my heart to do this and give back to this city that’s given me so much’

HOUSTON — He may wear “Miami” across his chest, but it’s the city of Houston that has shaped his heart.

This has been a challenging year for the Space City, and nothing was more difficult for Miami Heat star Justise Winslow than watching from afar as Hurricane Harvey howled through his hometown.

“It was tough,” Winslow told The Undefeated. “I had family and friends that had to evacuate on the boats. Some had really bad flooding in their homes. So it would’ve been easier if I would’ve been here to help hands-on. Not being here and having to hope for phone calls and hope for texts, that was really tough.”

This is why he donated $100,000 through his Robin’s House Foundation to various charities, including $50,000 to Small Steps Nurturing Center, an early childhood program that helps economically at-risk children and their families. The center used the funds to purchase two cars to give to two families after their own cars were lost to the floods.

On Jan. 21, with the Miami Heat in town to face the Houston Rockets, Winslow met the families who received the vehicles at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Houston.

Justise Winslow poses for photos with the families who received his car donation.

Courtesy Justise Winslow

“It feels so good to know that I have a safe car to drive to work, and be able to provide for my family,” said Lanesha Dabney, a 24-year-old single mother of two boys ages 2 and 4 who received a 2015 Chevrolet Equinox. “We appreciate this from the bottom of our hearts,” she told Winslow.

“It feels great, man, just being in the position I’m in, being able to live out my dream and play in the NBA. I want to be able to give the same hope and opportunity to everyone,” Winslow said. “These families were hurt hard by the hurricane, and this is just a small token of my appreciation for the city and what it’s done for me. These people have inspired me to persevere and look at life in a different perspective.”

The emotion poured out of the third-year wingman as he spoke about some of the role models in his life. Winslow grew up in an athletic family. His father, Rickie, was a member of the famed University of Houston 1984 Final Four basketball team. He started all four years at small forward for the Cougars and eventually played pro ball overseas until 2000. His sister, Bianca, also played for the University of Houston. His parents divorced when he was in grade school and his mother, Robin Davis, was awarded custody.

Davis believed in the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” This is why she encouraged her children to have other role models in their lives.

Former NBA star John Lucas, the current player development coach for the Rockets, was one of those people. Every young basketball player growing up in Houston coveted an invitation to Lucas’ summer camp. NBA players regularly appear at these camps to get extra work in with the coach.

Winslow recalled his time with Lucas as some of the most important moments in his life.

“The biggest thing was he took me in, and I was with him nonstop. Both his boys, Jay and John, always looked after me as well. For me he served as a father figure in my life. It helped fill that void for me a little bit. But there was definitely a lot of tough love. He’d never just tell me what I wanted to hear. He would tell me the truth, as brutal as it may have been. I wouldn’t be the same player if I hadn’t worked with him.”

“He’s a great kid,” Lucas said. “He won three state titles in a row at St. John’s High School. His athleticism is what jumped off the chart at me. He plays exactly how his dad used to play back at U of H. He’s going to continue to get better.”

Winslow grew up in Houston’s Third Ward. After seeing the devastation, he felt in his “heart to give back to the city that’s given him so much.”

“The people here are so generous, loving and caring. I know they were helping each other. This is a strong city, and it’s made me who I am today.”

On the court this year, Winslow and the Heat had a rough start. The 21-year-old missed 14 games with a left knee injury, and the team started 11-13. But since then, the squad has jumped back up to the top four in the Eastern Conference standings, at 27-21. Winslow returned to the lineup in Milwaukee on Jan. 17, giving Miami a clutch 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. Shooting 3s is not something he had to do in his first two seasons in the league. But because of injuries to Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson, the third-year forward has been thrust into a new role.

“As long as we are winning, I’m happy. I do want to play better. I’m still adapting to some new responsibilities,” he said. “But I love this team, and we really seem to be clicking right now. We just need to get healthy so we can truly see the damage we can do when we’re at full strength.”

A lot is made in Miami about the so-called “Heat Culture,” a nickname for the franchise’s aggressive approach to conditioning and fitness. But Winslow said working harder than the next guy is a lesson he learned in his hometown.

“It wasn’t always easy,” he said. “But it’s our mentality here to never give up. It’s taught me how to be a better person, a better teammate, and it makes me proud to be from the city of Houston.”