DURHAM, N.C. — Here on Planet Duke, they prove again Bertrand Russell’s paramount old line, Sin is geographical. About 75 fans wait outside pretty little Cameron Indoor Stadium on a sublime, climate-changed “winter” Saturday for a postgame emergence of Grayson Allen. About 10, including a father and kid son, wear Allen’s Duke “3” shirt, and one little girl has made a poster-board valentine for the 6-foot-5 Duke junior.
Other precincts would call Allen a devil as well as a Devil, but fan groups are like families: If your own does something untoward, it’s more acceptable than if those heathens from elsewhere do the same. While the country gorged on football this December and January, Allen threw one of the spasms of turbulence into a bumpy Duke season when he, of course, did two kooky things at once: He tripped an opposing player for the third time in 11 months, and he steered a little flood of attention toward college basketball pre-March.
That flood has receded, and the topics have changed, and the issue sits dormant with Allen having tripped one Kentuckian, one Canadian and one North Carolinian, all in the state of North Carolina, a range less varied than when the soccer star Luis Suarez bit one Dutchman, one Serbian and one Italian, in three countries and two continents. The Duke team that comes to Virginia on Wednesday night has won five games in a row, has seen its ranking bob ahead of Virginia — No. 12 vs. No. 14 — and has honed a penchant for using versions of the phrase “becoming a team.”
“We’re becoming a team,” the graduate-student sage Amile Jefferson said.
“I’m not saying we’re this great team, but we’re a team,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
For those just extricating themselves from the football couch, here’s what has happened with Duke 2016-17: It has another cluster of McDonald’s all-Americans (eight). It had a preseason ranking of No. 1. It began at a suboptimal 15-5. It lost to Kansas in New York, at Virginia Tech, at Florida State, at Louisville and at home to North Carolina State on the key date of Monday, Jan. 23. It lost Krzyzewski, who on Monday became a septuagenarian, for seven games to back surgery. It lost Allen for one game (against Virginia Tech) to a suspension from tripping Steven Santa Ana of Elon, in a world in which Duke would not seem to need to trip Elon.
As the fans wait on this Saturday, Duke has just used poise and cohesion to stave off a desperate Clemson, 64-62. It has done the thankless work of following upon an apex: the 86-78 win over North Carolina two nights prior. Cameron has been its usual self if not its best self — that would have come 40 hours earlier against North Carolina — and again, the students have resurrected the German pop-dance trio Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” in pregame, to goose-bumpy effect. Outside, a few players trickle out, sign autographs and pose for photographs.
A 17-year-old from South Florida, Nick Nielsen, is here as a birthday present from his mother. She has gone back to the hotel. He waits. He holds a basketball that former Duke assistant coach and former player Jon Scheyer, a favorite of Nielsen’s, already has signed. As his “3” shirt hints, he has loved Allen for a long time, even before Allen “put us on his back,” in Krzyzewski’s words, as a freshman in the national championship game of April 6, 2015.
This stance has subjected Nielsen to ribbing at school, with fellow students occasionally pretending to trip him. He does not condone or like Allen’s tripping, but he likes very much the passion that finds a bizarre offshoot in the tripping. “If you look at him when he plays, Grayson Allen takes a lot of cheap shots himself,” Nielsen says. He says this after Allen has just walked by, moments before.
When Duke lost at home to North Carolina State for the first time in 22 seasons, 84-82, and slid to 3-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, it apparently applied one of the oldest methods in sports: It held meetings. One could wonder why teams don’t meet more often, or wonder if a coach’s main function is deciding when to hold abnormal meetings.
“I think that started five games ago,” Jefferson said of becoming a team. “We lost a really tough game here at home and, you know, we had meetings. We met individually. We met as a team. And we drew a line in the sand. And we said, ‘This is enough. Enough is enough. What are we going to be?’ Really, sink or swim for our group.
“And, you know, from then on, we’ve been tough. We’ve changed. The biggest thing that came out of all our meetings was change. When are we going to change? When are we going to grow up? When are we going to respect the name on the front of our shirts, those warm-ups we wear, that brotherhood? When are we going to be a part of that? And guys responded. Everyone responded.”
By the end of the phase, it had won a hangover game against Clemson to improve to 20-5, with Krzyzewski saying: “Look, Thursday’s game [against the Tar Heels] was huge. And if you ask anybody in the gym who was at Thursday’s game, ‘How do you feel?’ [they] would say, ‘I feel different than I did Thursday. Not as emotional. Because you’re a human being. . . . To win, at times, you can’t be normal. You can’t be normal. You have to fight human nature.”
With the defense looking often steep, and with leading scorer Luke Kennard sometimes carrying the team offensively, Duke, a five-time national titlist, pretty much has qualified for the Final Four in Phoenix, according to some estimates. Allen, of course, has re-blossomed as well. He shot 26 for 54, and 20 for 41 from three-point range, in the first four wins, before a 2-for-10 and 2-for-7 against Clemson after which Krzyzewski said: “I thought Grayson was really tired today. You could tell it in his face,” even as it was “not like he played poorly.”
To the waiting fans, Allen did emerge, after almost an hour, and from a door different than expected. He had spoken Thursday night, telling reporters it wouldn’t be a “tell-all,” but was out of sight at talk time Saturday. He walked along the sidewalk with a small gaggle of teammates through the remaining gaggle of fans, smiling and giving thumbs-up gestures.
“I got a 30-picture burst,” Nielsen said.