By Michael Corey, Blue Devil Weekly
DURHAM, N.C. - Last November, Sports Illustrated published an article on Mike Krzyzewski’s philosophy toward acclimating freshmen to his program headlined “The Duke Way,” a title alluding to the Roman Empire and Livy’s The Roman Way of Declaring War. By comparing Duke basketball to one of history’s most dominant states, SI made a statement regarding the enormity of the program’s dominance, the strict regimen of preparation leading to said results, and the fear and loathing — or the respecting and loving — synonymous with its four-letter appellation.
That name represents all that a program has done in its past. And just as an empire has been emboldened by and remembered for its triumphs on the battlefield, so too is an athletic program forged and revered for its travails on the playing field. All of the sacrifice, and all of the effort, goes toward living up to and reinforcing that name and the history behind it.
“We play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back of the jersey,” Krzyzewski has been known to say.
But just as a name is critical to the construction of an identity, so too is the attire on which that name is emblazoned.
Virtually the same for decades — a blue and white color scheme, with DUKE arched over the jersey’s number on the front — the Blue Devils began to experiment with their uniform’s appearance beginning in the 1994-95 season, when a strip was added to the shoulder that looked more like a band-aid than a dynamic redesign.
Duke suffered plenty of bumps and bruises that season, and as a result, those jerseys were tossed aside for the traditional design.
And with that return to normalcy, the Blue Devils also returned to their winning ways. Nike and Duke mixed things up again on November 20, 1996, however, with the introduction of black to the classic Duke color scheme. In a move that upset traditionalists, Duke created an alternative road look with an all-black uniform, which debuted at the Preseason NIT — an addition that has remained in the Duke wardrobe ever since.
The uniform remained largely unchanged, except for the fabric, until last season, when the lettering was slightly altered, black trim was added, and the color schemes were shifted, replacing the solid-color uniforms with jerseys displaying a mixture of black, blue and white.
But Nike, always attempting to be innovative in its designs, sought to further alter the Duke jersey for 2006-07. A balance with Duke jerseys of the past was critical, however, largely because of the opinion of Krzyzewski.
“He’s got this traditional look he likes and that’s what we normally go by,” explains Dave McClain, Duke’s equipment manager for the past 10 seasons.
The result is the addition of three jerseys to Duke’s repertoire — one each in home white, away black and away blue — that divert ever-so-slightly from the regular jersey Duke wore a year ago. The addition is a black stripe that will appear on the jersey straps near the neckline, pointing downward at a 45-degree angle. The jerseys will be worn early in the season, and will function as alternatives throughout the rest of the year.
Duke’s captains will play the largest role in determining how often the new design is worn. One of their responsibilities is to select the attire prior to each away game, and often times, superstition comes into play.
McClain recalls that at the onset of the 1999-2000 season, Duke fell to Stanford and Connecticut to start the year at 0-2. The blue jerseys had been worn in each contest, and Duke’s captains opted to keep them in the closet for the rest of their tenure.
During Nike’s tenure as Duke’s supplier of apparel, which began in the 1993-94 season, a systematic approach has been taken toward any alterations of design.
“Nike submits artwork to us — they’ll submit this colored artwork booklet for example — and we get the book and we’ll make the changes in the book that we want, or we’ll have the local Nike rep come meet with us to go over the designs,” McClain says. “It’s resubmitted back to Nike, they make the changes and they resubmit it for approval.
“With the men’s basketball team, Nike normally makes a prototype and sends it in, and Coach K and (his wife) Mickie and the other coaches give it a thumbs up or thumbs down if it’s something they want to go with,” McClain continues. “And if it is, it’s not only put into making the team uniforms, it’s also put in production for retail sales.”
Those sales have remained strong for Duke attire over the years, as the Blue Devils ranked 23rd in overall college licensed apparel in 2005-06, according to the Collegiate Licensing Company.
But changes to uniforms are not only geared toward sales — they have practical advantages, too.
“The old fabric was a mesh that had small holes in it where air could get through it, but the fabric still held a lot of moisture in it,” McClain says. “It’s a lot of weight on a kid, especially if he’s a big kid. And of course over the past 10 years they’ve developed the moisture-management fabrics that wick the water away from the body so it’s not collecting. It’s dispersed through the fabric and it evaporates quicker, which keeps them cooler and dryer. I love the fabrics now. The athletic fabrics are just becoming better and better and it’s much better for the athletes, so I’m big on the Nike Dri-Fit, the stuff’s phenomenal.”
So for this season, the Blue Devils will have six designs to choose from, and 12 jerseys in all. McClain makes sure that there are two versions of each jersey, a practice he did not partake in until former Duke star Trajan Langdon was relegated to wearing a nameless jersey with the number 45 on it after his customary 21 had been stained with blood and was therefore unusable.
“He was very uncomfortable in it,” McClain says.
And with those extra jerseys, McClain rotates them like tires to even out the wear and tear that a season of ACC basketball can bring. The more observant players — or perhaps the ones more inclined to superstition — prefer consistency rather than appearance, and for those individuals, McClain concedes and keeps the same jerseys in circulation.
The one consistency among all the jerseys is the presence of an American flag that is stitched just above the heart. That tradition began shortly after the attacks of September 11, a tradition decreed by the ACC and embraced by each of its member programs to serve as a reminder that the games being played and the lessons being learned represent something greater than themselves. The actions that take place on the court, the ideals symbolized therein — camaraderie, determination and honor — are indicative of that to which America aspires, and they are celebrated every winter in the microcosm of college basketball.
And few colleges better represent those ideals than Duke University. After all, it’s not the name on the back of the jersey that matters, but the name on the front.