Loose Ball

There is a ball. But you’re not supposed to know about it.

Marshall Plumlee signed it, but not with his name. He wrote the names of his brothers: Mason and Miles, who hoisted the national championship trophy without him in 2010. He also wrote a few others. Even if he denies it.

[callout2]“We’re not talking about that,” he said.[/callout2]

A few people saw the ball, for a brief moment, before Nick Pagliuca snatched it away and hid it in a locker. He then smuggled it into an equipment bag, out of sight. That’s the same Nick Pagliuca who wrote four sets of initials on the ball, including BM and LR.

“That’s a good question,” Jahlil Okafor said when asked about the ball.

Mom is on the ball, and Josh. There are names that don’t have a lot of meaning for all of us, but they mean the world to the players in the Duke locker room.

“We’re not talking about the ball,” Sean Kelly chimed in.

“It’s just something that we wanted to do,” assistant coach Nate James said. “We actually didn’t want it to get out, because we wanted to keep it in house.”

Now that the secret is out, however, James explained a bit of the background.

[callout2]“It was a thing we thought would be great for all the guys to do,” James said. “Just think about all the people in their lives that helped us get here. So that sometimes, when you’re a little discouraged, a little down. maybe a little afraid, maybe you can think about all the people that helped you get to this point.”[/callout2]

Duke faced that moment in the final game of their NCAA title run. The Blue Devils saw Wisconsin run out to a nine point lead, with 805 seconds remaining in their season.

Wisconsin was the team that wasn’t afraid of the big stage. They were a veteran team that grew up together. The Badgers told jokes, did impressions, mugged for the camera, and demonstrated the epitome of loose. Two days earlier, Wisconsin had slain the giant, sending Kentucky home.

Duke didn’t need to worry about going home. They needed to worry about returning to their locker room, where a ball, covered in names, sat on an upturned cup. It would be the first thing they saw when they came through the doors.

“We signed it around tournament time,” James said. “Since we started the tournament, it’s been a thing that we had and carried with it wherever we went.

Grayson Allen, who denied knowledge of any ball, may have been thinking of the names he scrawled on it, as he threw himself across the floor for loose balls in the Final Four, scrapping for points and helping the Blue Devils claw back.

Tyus Jones, who wouldn’t comment on the ball, wrote his own personal inspiration on its pebbled surface. He may have been thinking of them as he hit dagger shots in the closing moments.
Now that the nets have been cut and the trophies are headed for their on-campus cases, where does the ball go?

“That’s a good question,” Okafor repeats. “Coach K, I guess.”

Now it all makes sense. Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in college history, is a master motivator. Now at the helm of his fifth national champion, surely this ball will go in his own personal memorabilia collection, along with balls that may bear the name of Calvin Hill, Bob Hurley senior, and maybe even little brother Marshall Plumlee.

No, James says. This isn’t something Krzyzewski has done before. Like the game itself, Krzyzewski is constantly changing. What worked with the Laettners and Hurleys and Duhons and Battiers.

It’s why Krzyzewski won his first title in an era when stars stayed for four years and his most recent in the one-and-done era.

“This is definitely something new he’s done for this team,” James said.

Or maybe he didn’t.

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know what that is,” Quinn Cook said, his poker face slipping into an enormous grin. “What ball?”