What, me worry?
As Duke basketball fans, or any fans for that matter, we root for names on the front of those jerseys before the ones on the back of them. The transitory nature of sports and college athletics in particular means fans are used to rooting for the next incarnation of their team with or without the players whom we come to like as our favorites.
When a player puts on that Duke basketball jersey, the fans will root and support whoever they are, from Christian Laettner to Javin DeLaurier. Players will become stars no matter what. Some surprise us like Ja Morant or Damian Lillard, who both were lightly regarded as high schoolers and under-recruited, but in the vacuum of the top prospects, others will step up to fill the roles of leading scorers and high-flying dunkers despite what they were ranked coming in.
Some players value the top-notch and expensive educations they can get for the price of their services for a year or two. It is often scoffed at that this is a fair trade, and while it isn’t exactly a 50/50 type proposition, few things in life are, and a degree from Duke or Stanford, with all the professional contacts outside of basketball that schools like that can bring, is worth more than just the cost of tuition. This education also allows them to fall back on something if their careers don’t go as they planned or they work in fields outside of basketball for the many years beyond performing on the hardwood courts.
As Duke basketball has shown, many former players get the chance to apprentice under one of the best coaches to ever do it. As Duke basketball has also shown, it is a great place to build a brand, and it is much easier to do it at the college level than in an off-year preparing for the NBA outside of the spotlight.
While March Madness is always more popular than the regular season, during the time window that Duke basketball and Zion Williamson were taking on Central Florida, the most viewers tuned in since 1991 and marked a 35 percent increase from the year before. Duke basketball was also making its historic run at back-to-back titles in ’91, so maybe the lesson is to always have compelling teams at Duke to multiply the chance of success.
That is preaching to the choir for this writer, but it may not be as welcome news in some other hoops fandoms. Either way, though Zion did come into college with a huge social following, the platform he played on showcased him to a larger, broader national audience on a game-to-game basis leading to a shoe contract that he could retire off of without any of the substantial sums he will likely earn from actually playing or other endorsements.
The key is he performed as the crowds kept tuning in. This is crucial because as we saw this year with huge expectations and the accompanying hype arriving in Georgia and Washington with unprecedented recruiting classes, the popularity and momentum will go away if those expectations aren’t met. If there is a viable alternative in the G-League with 6-8 developmental teams comprised of top NBA prospects from the world over with exposure on major TV and streaming networks, that’s not good for the NCAA no matter if you feel they are in trouble or not.
There will always be college basketball, college basketball players, and die-hard college basketball fans, myself included, and Duke basketball has built itself to the point where those entering college will want to go there. But there’s a saying that goes if you ain’t trying, you’re dying, and right now the NCAA isn’t trying all they should be. That is what two of the sports most influential voices in Coach K and Jay Bilas are trying to say, and that is why there may be a reason to listen.
Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more updates, analyses, and opinions regarding all things Duke basketball.