ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — I am standing over a cauldron of hate. I am watching it bubble and boil. I am getting in the mood for tonight’s showdown between Michigan State and No. 1-ranked Duke.

“Igor, give me the photo of the coach!” I scream. “We will burn him in hatred! Ahahahahahaha!”

“Yessss, maaaaster,” Igor says.

Igor hands me the photo of Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s coach for the past 19 years.

“Look at how evil he is!” I exclaim, ready to drop his photo into the smoldering pot. “Look at how, uh …uh . . .”

Actually, now that I think about it, Krzyzewski is a pretty good guy. He hasn’t jumped from school to school. He hasn’t jumped to the pros. He is honorable, according to his players and recruits.

And as a motivator? Grant Hill, who starred at Duke, told me about a time when the Blue Devils weren’t playing hard. Krzyzewski called a meeting, shut off all the lights, and walked in holding a candle, whispering, “I’m just an old Polish coach, looking for a team with heart . . .”

The kids destroyed their next opponent.

How can you hate a motivator like that?

“Burn him, master?” Igor says.

“No, Igor,” I sigh, handing back the photo, “let’s start with someone else.”

A pair of Pistons

Alumni. Let’s try alumni. Rich, obnoxious alumni.

“Igor, the Duke alumni roster!” I yell. “We’ll cook it in hatred!”

“Yessss, maaaaster.”

Igor hands me the book. I dangle it over the steaming stew.

“Everyone hates Duke alumni, right? Their elitist attitude! We hate it …we hate . . .”

I notice the page is turned to Hill, who is only the most polite, intelligent newcomer to the NBA in years. And on the page before him is Christian Laettner, who is now Hill’s teammate on the Pistons. If we burn them in hate, we’re gonna have a lot of explaining to do when we go to the Palace.

“Burn, master?” Igor says.

“No, Igor,” I say, handing him back the alumni book. “No burn.”

This is harder than it seemed. Can’t hate the coach. Can’t hate the alumni — at least not all of them. Wait. I know. It’s so simple. The current players. None of them is on the Pistons.

“LET’S ROAST ‘EM!” I declare.

Igor brings me 8×10’s of the current Duke squad.

“Now, we’re cooking!” I holler. “Get it? Cooking?”

Igor does not smile.

“Let’s burn a Dukie in flames! What’s a Final Four if you can’t hate the other team? Igor! The first victim!”

Igor hands me an 8×10. It is Shane Battier.

“BURN, BABY, BURN . . .”

I stop.

“Aww, Igor, why’d you bring me him?” I say. “Shane Battier is from Detroit. He went to Country Day. He’s a nice, intelligent kid. I can’t hate him. Give me someone else.”

“Yessss, maaaaster.”

Igor hands me a new 8×10. Guard Trajan Langdon.

“Finally!” I yell, throwing his picture into the hot air above the cauldron.
“We loathe him! We despise him! Trajan! Ha! What kind of dumb name is that?”

“Alaskan,” mumbles Igor.

I look at him. I pause. I snatch the photo before it lands in the gook.

Alaskan. That’s right. I forgot. This kid is a great story. He’s a hero to an entire state. There are children in Alaska who have given up dogsleds to bounce basketballs because of Langdon. In a poor and often frozen place, he has become a beacon of hope.

I love Alaska. How can I hate Langdon?

“No burn, master?” Igor says.

“No burn, Igor,” I sigh.

Respect for the Spartans

The pot is boiling over. The game grows near. The hatred is hot and ready. All it needs is a target.

“Any program that wins as much as Duke has to have paid a price,” I say.
“There must be cheating and compromise. I know, Igor. Bring me their graduation rate! I’m sure it’s horrible!”

Igor brings the graduation rate. It’s excellent.

“Bring me their test scores! I’m sure they’re low.”

Igor brings the test scores. They’re incredibly high.

“Bring me their recruiting scandals!” I say. “The free cars. The free trips. Surely there’s a ton of that going on!”

Igor brings me the recruiting-scandal file. It is empty.

“OK, this is serious,” I say. “How about their trash talk? A team that good must be awfully cocky.”

Igor brings me a Krzyzewski interview. In it, he says, “Tom Izzo has a tremendous program. He’s got a great team.” His players are equally humble. No trash talk. No smack.

Arrrgh! What is going on here? Can’t hate the coach, players, alumni, program, standards, academics or language. I bury my face in my hands. I’ve got a boiling pot of hatred and nothing to drop in it.

“It’s not fair!” I holler. “It’s not fair.”

“Actually,” Igor says, shrugging, “it’s very fair. They are

simply a superior team.”

I look up, startled.

“Igor,” I say, “since when can you talk like that?”

“I’ve always been able to talk this way,” he says. “I am, myself, a Duke graduate. Like all Duke grads, I’ve simply been humoring your inferior tendencies.”

I rub my chin. I squint my eyes.

I throw Igor in the boiling vat.

I feel better already.

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