It could be my snobbishness as a college basketball fan, and not being impressed by any other team during the 2017-’18 season. It could also be my arrogance as a Duke fan. Either way I had no intention of writing my farewell so soon to a Blue Devils team I actually believed was going to win a National Championship this year.
On Sunday (2) Duke — a 3-point favorite according to Vegas despite being the lower seed — lost to (1) Kansas in the final of the Midwest Regional, 85-81. Although Duke led by 3 with less than a minute to go, the Jayhawks hit a game-tying three-pointer and the Devils weren’t able to secure the win in the last possession of regulation. Kansas controlled the overtime session, and just like that Duke’s season was over.
Call me old fashioned, but I don’t call off work unless it’s an important game. By Duke’s standards, a program that has won three National Championships in the 19 years I’ve been a fan, an Elite Eight contest against Kansas registered around a 6 out of 10 in the “importance” department. I obviously cared about the outcome, but not enough to get penalized two points by my employer (of which I only get 10 points per year before I’m up for termination).
It helps that I work in a casino, a place that doesn’t lack for television screens, and I made sure at 2:00 P.M. that the ones in my general proximity were tuned into CBS. I watched the majority of the game from a distance, enough to see the score change every minute or two. It was a back-and-forth contest throughout: Duke led by 3 at the half; Kansas led by as many as 7 points in the second half; Duke stormed back to take a small lead towards the end; and with about 30 seconds to go Kansas tied it, and won in overtime.
I saw all this happening, even while I dealt craps and went to the high limits to deal blackjack. The latter is where I was for the final action of the game. I remember the customers at my table were winning every goddamn hand, it seemed like, and in the meantime my favorite sports team was playing the final game of their season. I kept a decent front on the outside — and it helped that a couple guys on my blackjack game were tipping generously — but on the inside I just wanted to go on break and smoke a couple Newport’s to come down from the nervous-excited adrenaline rush.
The child in me was strong in that little 10- or 15-minute window. I had flashbacks of Duke’s collapse against Connecticut in the 2004 Final Four, a game I watched with my older brother while my family and I were on vacation in Solvang. It was the superstitious, naive child that kept telling me that wasn’t supposed to happen. It was not supposed to end that way.
My competitive nature fails me in these moments. Logically I knew I was in Southern California, and that this game was being played in Omaha, Nebraska. My loyalty to Duke had no tangible or abstract effect on the game’s outcome. But be that as it may, it still felt like something was being personally taken away from me.
In my youth I was spoiled and emotional. The mentality I kept for Duke basketball turned, in many ways, into the mentality I had for myself in real life: I was not in the business of taking any L’s. And whenever I did, it felt like a mistake. Duke’s loss to Kansas, a game that took me back to a psychological state I know too well but don’t often visit, was very much in that vein. 15 years ago it would have made for the perfect opportunity to throw a tantrum, or discard all of my Blue Devils paraphernalia directly into the garbage.
Truthfully, the losses don’t feel any differently now than they did when I was 11 or 12. As weird as it can sound — and even though I make a clear distinction between Sports Pain and Real Life Pain — it still hurts when my teams lose. The two things I have, as a 28 year-old, on my side, are that I have now gone through enough losses (in sports and in life) to know I have no reason to believe I should always get my way, and that I have real-life priorities and responsibilities that trump some meaningless basketball game in March.
I sometimes forget that this version of me still exists. It’s stupid, and it makes no fucking sense, but it comes around to let me know I haven’t really changed. The same kid that used to destroy the Tiddlywinks layout, or throw the Skip-Bo cards after being defeated, is still alive and (somewhat) well. My punishment used to be cleaning up the mess I made, which was fair enough.
Now my punishment is internalizing all this stuff, knowing the only proven way of making myself feel better is to take out my frustrations in the quickest and most convenient fashion available.
Luckily, I am no longer that guy. I just feel like that guy.