Cyber Ties That Bind

What started as a fan site has evolved into a neighborhood on the Net.
Writer: 
August 1, 2004

On March 26, 1989, in East Rutherford,New Jersey, the Blue Devils won the East Regional Finals of the NCAA Tournament, defeating Georgetown 85-77 in overtime. Last November, they did it again, this time on a TV screen in the parking lot outside Wallace Wade stadium. Duke had just lost to N.C. State in football, but one group of middle-aged Duke fans--turtlenecks, cuffed khakis, wedding rings, penny loafers--refused to end the day in defeat. Instead, they gathered around a mini TV set up on the tailgate of a Toyota Landcruiser, popped a tape into the VCR, and relived the glory:

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 Site inciters: King, left, and Hemmerich. Photo: Jon Gardiner

 

"I was there."

"Me, too."
"This Laettner kid's gonna be something special, people!"
"Look at Snyder run the court. He's coaching material!"
"Okay, this is our biggest lead, and then we go cold for about five minutes."
"I hate this part. Can we rewind back to Henderson's dunk on Mourning?"
"That was so sweet."
"It was sweetness."

Passersby stopped and squinted at the screen. But the group was oblivious. It was as if, to them, it was quite unexceptional to be forty-something and cheering on a team that wasn't just destined to win but that had, in fact, already won, as if the surest antidote for a tough loss was to simply rewind time and watch a great win.

And this appeared to work. They high-fived. They danced. They got quiet during free throws and went "Whoosh!" afterwards, and when it was all over, they weren't going home after a crushing defeat--they were going to the Final Four.

What was even stranger than the sight itself was how it came to be. Five years ago, none of those present had ever laid eyes on one another. They didn't work together or live together. They weren't friends at Duke--some didn't even go to Duke--and if they were in the same class or the same dorm, as some were, they had only discovered this years after the fact. They were strangers in nearly every sense of the word, separated by age and profession and, in some cases, hundreds and hundreds of miles. But they would talk almost every day.

Site meister: Armstrong

 Site meister: Armstrong. Photo: Noah Berger

 

Actually, they would "post." They'd wake up in the morning, have coffee, walk their dogs, head to the office, and then, once settled in front of the computer, they would do what people everywhere were just beginning to add to their morning routines--they would log on. Before a day full of meetings and deadlines, they'd meet up at their favorite virtual hangout, a website known simply and widely as the "DBR."

The acronym stands for the Duke Basketball Report, which is what the site's founders had first intended it to be, a website where anybody anywhere could go for information on Duke basketball, a fan site for the Blue Devil faithful. But seven years and 130-million hits later, the DBR has outgrown itself. As much as it is hoops newsletter--stats, schedules, game analysis, recruiting news, links to stories--it is cyber campus, a Duke away from Duke. And although they're quick to disavow any official relationship with the university, the site's creators have accomplished something they never saw coming. They meant to build, as one puts it, "a neighborhood pub on the Internet." Instead, they built the neighborhood.

"Julio" and "Boswell" (screen names) met, appropriately, online. It was the early-Nineties and they were posting on Prodigy, one of the first Internet service providers, where, for a daily rate, a user could sign up for membership on a bulletin board of his or her choosing. After a series of electronic interactions on the Duke basketball board, they decided to meet in person. "Julio," it turned out, was Julian King, an IT consultant living in Raleigh and a lifelong Blue Devils fan. King, though not an alumnus himself, is the son of two alumni and the grandson of the late Deryl Hart, the former Duke president and chair of the department of surgery. "Boswell," on the other hand, had not only gone to Duke, he'd stayed as long as he possibly could. Mike Hemmerich '80, J.D. '85, M.B.A. '94 is president of the Dilweg Companies, a Research Triangle-based commercial real-estate firm, which he co-founded with former Duke and Green Bay Packers quarterback Anthony Dilweg '88.

"Prodigy had started raising its rates," says Hemmerich. "So one day, we were talking--this was '96, Wojo's first season--and Julian said, 'You know, there's this thing called the World Wide Web. We could just make our own website.' And I said, 'Okay, great.' "

The first incarnation of the DBR was called "juliovision.com," a standard, no-frills page with a bulletin board for comments. "It was just a gag," says King. "It was a joke on my name." Hemmerich and King may not have taken themselves very seriously, but juliovision, they decided, would adhere to a certain standard. Theirs, unlike the majority of fan message boards, would be a controlled forum. The language would be clean. There would be no "flaming," as it's known in cyberspace, no ranting or bashing. Even "woofing"--baselessly declaring one's team to be superior to another, as in, "The Sixers are going to destroy the Celtics tonight!"--would be discouraged. Anyone wishing to post a comment would have to be sensitive both to the other posters and the aims of the Duke program, including the players and the players' families. "We didn't want to do anything that would interfere with what Coach K's trying to accomplish," Hemmerich says. "We just wanted to create an atmosphere where everybody--our fans, fans from other schools, whoever--could share opinions, get insights, exchange thoughts on the team, and so forth."

As word spread and juliovision grew, the site came to serve another function, one the tech world was then only beginning to fully grasp: A website like Hemmerich and King's that drew on a community of people spread out all over the world but connected through a common interest could be more than a virtual outlet or a source of news. By connecting those people digitally, and by having in place some means of verifying identity, it could connect them physically. It could move them--as it did Cary Willis Weems '77--to pack their bags and drive from Atlanta to Tampa to meet someone they'd never seen or talked to but who had--as Mike Rosen '70 did--an extra ticket to the game.

Soon, people who had met online were meeting outside stadiums, in restaurants, at picnics and parties, and sometimes for no other reason than to eat pizza and watch Grant Hill dunk in slow motion over and over again. They were shaking hands and trading cards and, like members of a secret club, calling one another by their screen names. But juliovision wasn't secret in the least. In fact, it wasn't secret enough. It was free (still is), and it was quickly becoming more than Hemmerich and King could handle. By 1997, they'd decided to all but give up the hobby. Then juliovision made perhaps its most crucial connection. It put Hemmerich and King in touch with their future partner.

James Armstrong '82 was born in Washington the day before a blizzard. He likes cats. He has a four-year-old, seventeen-pound Russian blue named Gremalkin. He attended high school in New Jersey and was expelled his senior year, but Duke let him in anyway. He majored in computer science and minored in mathematics and physics and, unofficially, basketball. All of this information you can find on his personal website.

What you can't find is that Armstrong is an expert website maker, a software engineer. Or that, upon discovering juliovision, he offered his services to Hemmerich and King for free. Or that, as a Cameron Crazy in the early Eighties, he originated the once popular "key-chain jangle" tactic for distracting the opposing team: "Clyde Austin, N.C. State's point guard, had these two really nice cars, which smelled strongly, to many of us, of illegal inducement. We threw aspirin at Mo Rivers [alleged to have stolen aspirin]. We threw underwear at Tony Warren [alleged to have shoplifted underwear]. Those were easy. But how were you going to throw cars on the floor? So I told everybody to start shaking their keys. He missed all eight free throws that night."

And it was just that sort of genius for defensive tactics that Hemmerich and King were looking for. Because, at the time, juliovision's defense was terrible. Without a firewall, they couldn't stop penetration (by hackers), and without a big man in the middle (an administrator like Armstrong), they couldn't regulate trash talking. When, in 1997, dozens of Kentucky Wildcat fans flooded the juliovision bulletin board, insulting Duke and its fans, Hemmerich and King decided enough was enough. "If we were going to keep it up," says Hemmerich, "we had to get help with the tech side of things." They took Armstrong up on his offer.

"They wanted accountability for posts and initial oversight," recalls Armstrong. "So I wrote some software for a basic bulletin-board system. People would have to include their e-mail address when they wanted to post something. We would read their post, and if we approved it, we would e-mail them an ID code and URL, which would enable them to actually put it on the bulletin board."

Armstrong, then vice president of engineering at The Internet Mall, a dot-com in California, had the know-how, and he also had the hardware, fast machines with oodles of bandwidth that could appreciably enhance the site: "At the time, J&B [Julio and Boswell] were getting bills for juliovision. So many people were visiting the site, it was busting its bandwidth quotas." So Armstrong asked his boss if they could run the site on The Internet Mall's machines. "He said, 'Well, if it doesn't cost us anything, why not?'" Juliovision didn't cost The Internet Mall anything, but it may well have cost other companies employing Duke fans. "A lot of people told us they were checking it out at work, so we were probably a great contributor to the American productivity drag." In 1999, juliovision acquired the domain name "dukebasketballreport.com," and while Hemmerich and King weren't taking themselves any more seriously, 100,000 hits a day for a three-year old site was no joke.

By 2000, the DBR was incorporated as a North Carolina company, and, having struck a deal with Sports University Advertising, had made enough money to cover costs. The Internet bubble was bursting, but the DBR was just getting started. "The day after we beat Carolina or something, we could get over two-million hits," says Armstrong. "But hourly, the traffic really fluctuates. You look at it when we're playing a game, and there's nothing. Zero. It's like the machine is down."

Given the constant growth of the Internet, it's impossible to put a number on the fan sites populating the Web. A recent Google search produced thirteen devoted to Duke, two of which are fee-charging sites ("Devils Illustrated" and "The Devils Den") owned by companies that specialize in running college fan sites. Rivals.com, a company based in Brentwood, Tennessee, runs ninety-two college fan sites nationwide, from BamaOnLine to GoWyoGo.com. The Seattle-based TheInsiders.com, the recruiting fanatic's dream site, operates 133, as well as high-school sites in fourteen states.

Fan sites are probably best known for getting people in a lot of trouble. In the spring of 2003, tigerboard.com, a Missouri fan site, posted photos of Iowa State University's basketball coach Larry Eustachy kissing female students at an off-campus party. This, Iowa State officials ruled, was not the offense they hired him for. Days later, Eustachy resigned. Around the same time, autigers.com, an Auburn University fan site, was flooded with posts about sightings of University of Alabama head football coach Mike Price at a Pensacola, Florida, strip club. Given the source, Alabama fans had good reason to ignore this--until it was circulating conference-wide. Local papers picked it up, and Price was gone within weeks. In the winter of 2003, news of player dissatisfaction with UNC head basketball coach Matt Doherty first appeared on insidecarolina.com, a Tar Heel fan site. Roy Williams has since replaced him.

According to Sports Illustrated, whose reporters monitor fan sites to fish for leads, rare is the big-time school generating fewer than three unofficial sites. "Unofficial," meaning that, like the DBR, they are in no way affiliated with or endorsed by the school, and so their operators aren't subject to such NCAA restrictions as talking to recruits--which, unlike the DBR, many do. "Julian stayed out of that," says Steve Politi, a sports writer with The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, and former Duke beat reporter with The News & Observer. "He's a fan--a very well-connected one--but a fan. So many times I run into these 'reporters' from 'ilovethewildcats.com' or some other bogus site grilling kids with questions like, 'What you think about Tubby [Smith, University of Kentucky men's basketball coach]?' or 'When you gonna make a visit?' They've really blurred the line between unbiased media and fan. That's one thing I really admire about the guys at the DBR. They haven't turned it into a profession. It's just their passion."

Still, says Politi, the DBR altered the media landscape. "Julian's site was one of the first in the country to have an influence on how beat writers did their reporting. This was 1996, remember, back when the Internet was in its infancy. It gave people this instant access to Duke news. I stumbled upon it one day and came back to it several times a day. I can't tell you how many times I had an edge on the technophobic competition because of things those guys unearthed."

Will Blythe, author and longtime literary editor at Esquire, is a Chapel Hill native and UNC graduate. He's currently working on a book about the Duke-UNC rivalry. To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever is due out from HarperCollins next spring. "I've been reading it for a Duke perspective on basketball and all things Carolina," he says. A lifelong Tar Heel fan, Blythe says he was amazed by the degree of civility he encountered on the DBR. "I didn't feel like I was slipping behind enemy lines at all." When he e-mailed the DBR one day looking for Duke partisans to interview for his book, he recalls, Hemmerich promptly responded. "He kindly collected for me a vast array of anti-Carolina jokes."

Sometimes, though, even the DBR messes up. "Those guys are great," says Jay Bilas '86, J.D. '92, an ESPN commentator and former starting forward with the Blue Devils, referring to Hemmerich and King. "But on any message board, you could say something that's misleading. You can't really judge tone, and since very few posters use their real names, you don't know if the person's credible at all. So while people may just think it's folks talking to each other, it's more like going on public radio. And I think you have the obligation to be accurate."

Now and then, Bilas says, he'll visit and, if he needs to, correct the record. "When people see something in print, they more readily believe it. And if it's wrong or improperly attributed, that can be dangerous. You say it in the barbershop, and it floats off in the air. But when you write it on a site, it tends to have more of a shelf life."

"It's a challenge," says Jason Evans '89, senior executive producer with CNN. "There are a lot of folks, including myself, on the DBR who trace their Duke fandom back to being insane fans when they were at Duke. We have a certain reputation as Cameron Crazies, being really creative, really passionate, and that's why the Crazies are the standard by which every single other group of fans are measuring themselves. And so here you have sort of the post-Crazy community on the DBR. I'd like to think that we try to do the same thing again on the Internet. We try to be just as intelligent and creative. We try not to be crude. And we don't succeed all the time. But it'd be really great if we could be known as the best fans on the Internet. And you know, some of us are really trying to do that."

Evans describes himself as "probably the number one most frequent poster of all time on the DBR." Nobody denies this. The DBR has two bulletin boards, one for basketball and one for everything else. And, among the variously titled threads on either, you can almost always find him--taking issue with a newspaper article's flawed game reporting or deconstructing the latest Survivor, which he watches religiously: "First of all, NYC Crazie, you're dead on for questioning why Shii Ann and Kathy went along with this. Rob spoke to Lex about protecting Lex. He said nothing to Shii Ann and Kathy. Who else do they think is going to get voted off?"

"A lot of us have become friends without ever having seen each other," he says. "There are probably twenty-plus people in the world who, if you said to me, 'Do you know that person?' I'd say, 'Yeah, of course,' even though I've never heard their voice or seen their face in my life. But I could tell you their marital status, how many kids they have, their career, their political leanings.

"Before the ACC tournament two years ago, I told probably a dozen people, 'Hey, if you have a hotel problem or something, you can sleep at my house.' My wife got a little upset. She said, 'You don't know these people at all.' And I said, 'Yes I do.' And she said, 'You've never met them.' And I said, 'Yes, but I promise, I know them very, very well.'"