Late in the first half of Duke’s 69-65 win over Syracuse on Friday, star forward Marvin Bagley III hit a soft jumper in the key. It was part of a small Duke run, and as the Blue Devils got into position on defense, Coach Mike Krzyzewski gesticulated wildly from the sideline. It was a signal, and all five players slapped the floor in unison.
Like expensive medical centers and college Republicanism, floor-slapping is something that has come to be expected from Duke. “Slapping the floor is all about intensity and getting a stop,” senior Grayson Allen explained after Friday’s game.
The tradition started sometime in the 1980s, shortly after Coach Mike Krzyzewski arrived and turned the program into a basketball powerhouse. “I don’t remember exactly how it got started,” he said in a 2015 interview. “I know in ’86, [Tommy] Amaker and those guys did it. It wasn’t orchestrated, it was spontaneous.”
Spontaneous certainly wouldn’t be an apt descriptor for the floor-slapping against Syracuse. To make matters worse, the gesture came as Duke set up in a zone defense. Grant Hill, who was calling the game for CBS, wondered aloud, “Can you do that in a zone?”
Hill’s comment represented a major moment in March Madness history. It showed that even a former Blue Devil is capable of thinking Duke is lame.
After the game, Allen defended himself and his teammates. “You can definitely slap the floor playing zone,” he said. “It more symbolizes getting a stop than it does man-to-man defense.”
This wasn’t the first time Duke has slapped the floor while playing zone. In 2015, the Duke team that eventually won the national championship performed a choreographed floor smack against Georgia Tech.
Quinn Cook, the point guard for that Duke team, said he initiated that slap after a timeout. “It’s a time in the game where we need a stop, things are not going right, and it’s a breaking point,” he said.
While Duke players may act like the floor slap is a spur-of-the-moment reaction, it’s actually a learned technique.
The indoctrination comes straight from the top. During the 2015 season, Krzyzewski broke his watch while slapping the court—during a game against Toldeo, of all teams.
When things are going poorly for the Blue Devils, opposing teams will sometimes do the floor slap right back in their faces. Of course, this doesn’t deter Duke from continuing the practice. As the most hated team in the country, it’s just part of the gig. The slap is the physical manifestation of girding oneself for incoming grievances, and, even in the zone, it’s an ingenious ploy.
As players graduate or join the NBA, they leave the friendly bubble of Duke and join the general population. Krzyzewski, meanwhile, has been working on campus and preaching the floor slap for 38 years. You don’t stay successful for more than three decades without making a few tweaks, and his five national championships and 12 Final Four appearances testify to his willingness to change.
In the past few years, Krzyzewski has begun to rely more and more on one-and-done athletes. He bemoans the practice as he benefits from it, but, as the best coach in college basketball, he knows he has to evolve in order to win. That’s why he’s not too proud to order his players to slap the floor in unison while in a zone defense. For the slap to survive, the slap must grow.
The most famous proponent of the floor slap was runty, mid-1990s-era point guard (and now Marquette head coach) Steve Wojciechowski. But even a pest like Wojciechowski is perturbed by how modern Duke teams slap the floor. “That wasn’t the norm for all five guys to do it,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “That has to be orchestrated a little bit more.”
If this new brand of slapping irks Hill, Wojciechowski, or any other former players, so be it. This is Duke, after all. The more hate, the merrier.
“Always remember: Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Richard Nixon said this in a speech to White House staff after he resigned from the presidency. For him, being hated was an unavoidable fate. No matter how successful he became, he would always see himself as the aggrieved party. Nixon, of course, went to Duke. And had he played basketball, he definitely would have slapped the floor while in a zone defense.