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Staring Into the Abyss….(My Journey to Duke-UVA)

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During my couple of years working on this blog and our radio show, I have received a lot of advice…some good….some bad. Barry Booker’s advice that “you have to just say what you believe and let the chips fall where they may”….Good. Rob Bromley’s advice that all important things are found “inside the huddle”….Bad. Ryan Lemond’s advice that “the first thing you should check before going on tv is you have any boogers”….Good. Alan Cutler’s advice that “the secret to success in this business is all in the moustache”….Bad. But the best piece of advice I have received came early on from Gregg Doyel of CBSSportsline, who said to me, “Dont get to know anyone that you are covering….you might end up liking them and then it becomes a lot harder to rip them. That is why I just hate everybody.” Never did I realize this maxim was more true than on Wednesday when I found myself at the Duke-UVA game in Charlottesville.

As a starting point, let me say that I was excited to go to the game and am very thankful to the folks at UVA for hooking me up with press credentials. The new arena at UVA is likely the nicest in the country. It is NBA caliber, with luxury boxes, big screens all over the arena and a great look both inside and out. I now see why Patrick Patterson considered going to the school. And going to a regular season game and watching non-UK media cover a team was also very interesting. I noticed right off that the demographics of the UVA and Duke press corps were the same as that for UK….old, white and demoralized. Everyone had that “things were so much better in ’83” look and the fashion sensibility was right out of a Dungeons and Dragons convention. The food was good (spaghetti with mixed greens, reflecting the UVA health sensibility) and the game itself was entertaining enough. Duke won, but both teams pulled a Rasheed Wallace and played hard and it was generally exciting throughout. Thus on the whole, people were generally very nice and the experience was a positive one….well, at least until I encountered the Duke locker room after the game.

My reason for being at the game, besides just wanting to fill up my night in Charlottesville with some basketball, was to interview Nolan Smith for our radio show. Nolan with his Louisville roots, spurned the Cardinals and ended up at Duke and I hoped to catch up with him and see how that decision has played out for him. However to do this interview, I would have to make my way into the Duke locker room. Now I have grown accustomed to the method of interviewing done by Kentucky. Here, the UK media folks pick four players for the media to chat with, and they come out to the media room….the locker room is off limits. Not so elsewhere….in the ACC, the locker room is open, which means you go in and try to talk to players while they are in various states of undress and are attempting to hit the showers before the trip home. Now prior to this experience, I was generally against the UK system….by only bringing out the best players of the game, I never got to talk to “The Member” or Jared Carter….not good. But now, after spending some time in a sweaty Duke locker room with players all of a different shade of pale, I give kudos to the UK policy.

I walked in to the roomo with 8-10 beat reporters and immediately noticed that the Duke kids all were sweating like John Brady in church. While it is often mocked about how much Duke guys “hustle”, it was amazing to see that in person they really do look worn out from all the floor slapping. The room was actually small, but the four main stars were together in a corner, surrounded by the media. I was waiting on Nolan Smith when I saw Greg Paulus out of the corner of my eye. Now anyone who knows me knows one thing….it is guys like Paulus that are usually my least favorite players. Duke has a long history of the “gritty” white guard going back to Hurley, Wojo, Collins and Redick and I have made a living out of detesting those guys. And now they have Paulus, who I can objectively say has improved immensely since arriving at Duke, but whose mere sight on the basketball court often makes me want to scream. And then I look up, and there he is….eye swelling from being reinjured under his socket, answering the media’s questions with what I was sure was simply some snotty answer that make me want to shake him. As I waited for Smith, I noticed that one by one, each of the reporters was leaving Paulus for Singler, Scheyer and a surprisingly tatted up Taylor King and I thought to myself, “maybe I should ask Paulus some questions.” Of course I had little concern about the game itself, but this was my chance to have Paulus say something arrogant or elitist that I could then mock for the rest of my days. When the last of the deshelved reporters left, I went to Greg and decided, “why not?” Time for the Paulus interview. And of course, unfortunately, he won me over. Here was part of our exchange:

Q: Greg, my name is Matt Jones and I am from ESPN Radio in Louisville, Kentucky. Mind if I ask you a few questions?

A: Sure. Kentucky huh? Boy they love their basketball there.

Q: Yeah they do. At this point in the season, are you looking much at the other teams in the country?

A: Not really, I see some other teams play now and then but I try to focus on our games. We are so busy that I cant really just sit around and watch a lot of basketball.

Q: Do you know much about other players in the country, like say Patrick Patterson at Kentucky?

A: Yeah I know a little bit about them. Patterson is amazing man, I loved watching him play. I remember when he visited here and we played pick up and he could do just about everything. I was sorry to see him get hurt because he is so talented. I think he was probably the most underrated big man in the country.

With that answer, Greg kind of won me over a bit….and I didnt like it. So I thought, “well I gotta hit hard….I cant let Paulus win this bout!” So I cme with this:

Q: Greg I hate to ask you this but….

A: No man dont sweat it.

Q: Well I have watched you and noticed that the fans of other teams can be pretty hard on ya and it seems to me that you are following a bit of a tradition dating back to Bobby Hurley of the floor-slapping guard that other fans hate. Do you think that is fair and what do you think about that?

A: Oh yeah that is definitely true. You know, I know that the fans of other teams dont like me and to be honest, if i I didnt go here I might not like me either. (laughs) But I know it is not personal to me and it just comes with the territory of playing here. There are a lot of guys who have dealt with it and I think it was good for me to be here with JJ because he took a lot more than I ever did. But you know, I dont think its personal at all. It is just part of playing for Duke.

Q: Well thanks for talking with me.

A: No problem man good luck to Kentucky on getting in the Tournament. They deserve it.

And just like that, he had me. Guys that I love like Jay Bilas say leave the Cats out….and here is Greg Paulus…..Greg ‘Freakin Paulus….saying to put the Cats in. After eyeing Paulus and making jokes about him for years, here is Greg answering all of my questions, being genuinely funny and praising my man Patrick Patterson, all the while being articulate and (shock) actually interesting for a college basketball player. And now I am supposed to hate him? I mean I am sure I will get my anti-Paulus mojo back soon enough, but damn Gregg was right. You cant go and talk to people face-to-face and expect to still be able not to like them the next day. Better to brood in solitude, rather than fraternize with the enemy in public.

So the next time Paulus is on television, forgive me if I send my wrath in the other direction. I am sure that I can yell at Singler, King, Nelson or Henderson (Smith and Scheyer won me over way back). Zoubeck is certainly worthy of mocking and the guys on the end of the bench should all be deported. But now, I am not sure I can go at Paulus anymore. With one interview, he took away my wrath and moved himself out of the “Wojo” category of Duke hate into the “Battier” category of Duke tolerance. Seeing that I was growing weak, I decided to move outside to meet Smith and stay away from any more Duke interaction. Secretly, like you, I enjoy hating my alma mater’s basketball team….and I cant let anyone take that away from me. Thus in the future I may have to stick to post-games in Lexington. Before you know it, you will hear my say “awww that Willie Williams is just misunderstood”. At that point, its time to hang it up.

Article written by Matt Jones