I WANTED TO VOMIT THE LAST TIME THE BLUE DEVILS WON THE NATIONAL championship. It was 2001, I was a sophomore at Duke, and I had been living with pneumonia for two weeks and counting. ¶ I don't remember much about the road to the Final Four, having spent most of it in a bacterial daze. But by the end of the tournament I was lucid enough to recognize the once-in-a-college-career opportunity (if you're very lucky) of going to a school with the best basketball team in the country. I wasn't about to miss potential greatness on bed rest.
That's how I found myself, fortified with a Z-Pak, in a darkened and jam-packed Cameron Indoor Stadium on the night of the final. As the last seconds ticked away with Duke up 10 points on Arizona, I wondered if I was hallucinating again. There on the video screens was Chris Duhon dribbling at half-court in the Metrodome, seemingly in slow motion. Then the buzzer sounded, and Jason Williams leaped into Shane Battier's arms. It was over. Our team had won the national title.
Nearly a decade later Duke has returned to the top, but as alumni, our celebrations have changed. Back on that night in 2001, we poured out of Cameron into the crisp Carolina air and headed for Main Quad. We built a victory pyre, and in went Microeconomics (fifth edition), with yesterday's notes wedged between the pages. In went dorm chairs and whatever other flammable debris we could get our hands on. All of us were seized by a glee and a strange hysteria.
This time I watched the title game at a garishly lit barbecue joint in Manhattan. The place was packed (seating capacity: 75) with equal Duke and Anyone-But-Duke contingents. After Butler's heart-stopping last shot bricked off the rim, the Dukies in the restaurant hugged and high-fived each other. Then we turned to our mobile applications to celebrate with the rest of our old college buddies, now scattered throughout the country. A server cleared the tables and the manager took down a tournament banner. Nothing (thankfully) went up in flames.
Nobody went to class the day after we won the national title in 2001. I've never been sure whether the administrators had declared a holiday or if everyone—professors included—had simply stayed up too late to get up for a 9 a.m. chemistry lecture. Perhaps it was a moot point, since our homework had, literally, gone up in smoke. This year my friends and I adjourned shortly after the game, back to our separate apartments, and, in the morning, to real-world jobs for whom a Duke championship is no excuse to miss work.
That real world has also taught us the harsh reality of being a Dukie outside the protective walls of the Gothic Wonderland. In my first year after college I saw Duke play Texas at Madison Square Garden, where a woman turned to me and rebuked me for cheering for the Blue Devils. I looked around; there were blue-clad fans throughout the arena, but none within earshot. I had a feeling I wasn't in Cameron anymore.
The loathing of our team has forged bonds among the Blue Devils faithful. Other colleges enjoy the adoration of local residents, sometimes statewide. Thanks to a certain institution 12 miles away, Duke has no such radius of appreciation. For the most part, as alumni, we're the only fans our school has got.
After the confetti had rained down on the 2010 season, I left the restaurant, passing the bar where sullen Anyone-But-Duke fans nursed their drinks. Walking home I passed a girl who spotted the letter on my chest and called out in recognition: "Yay, Duke!"
We may be a few, but this year we are a very happy few and more closely knit than ever.
Rebecca Sun, Duke class of 2003, has been a reporter for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED since '05.