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"Here I go: 'Florida beat duke a few weeks ago,' " my grandma Audrey Versteeg begins. " 'But this week the Dukies kind of stole the show.' "
She's reading one of many poems she wrote trash-talking Duke men’s basketball.
The Plumlee gang helped Duke win.
That certainly didn’t make me grin.
My grandma started mailing these poems to my sister around 2010. My grandma isn’t around anymore so to help me remember how it all started, I called my aunt Dian. She lived down the road from my grandma in South Dakota and helped out with everything, including the TV.
"Whenever March Madness came around, she’d go, 'OK, so which games can I watch tomorrow?' " Dian recalls. "So I’d start looking them up. 'Well, you can go to CBS and watch this game at 2 o’clock, or if you want to watch Iowa you go to this channel at this time.' "
"Do you remember if she filled out brackets?" I ask.
"Oh, she would never pick Duke to win," Dian responds. "Even if they were the No. 1, top seed of everybody, it did not matter. She picked them to lose every single time, first game out."
The Poem That Started It All
But as a teenager in the '90s, my sister, Tremaine, loved Duke even though we lived in Iowa.
"I was in high school and played basketball, and the Duke team had some players that were really cute and on top of it they were really good," Tremaine says. "So I was like, 'This was my team!' Mike Dunleavy and Shane Battier really stick out as two who, I thought, 'They’re great.' "
"Did you think they were cute?" I ask.
"Yes," she says with a laugh, "which is embarrassing to admit."
Our grandma despised the Blue Devils for the same reason my sister loved them: They were good. Always good.
"And she thought, 'Nope. Don’t like you. You look cocky, or you look too confident.' " Tremaine recalls. "And she thought their mascot — 'cause it literally is a devil — that that was wrong and blasphemous. Like, 'Why would you ever have a devil as a mascot?' "
Throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, my grandma and Tremaine would razz each other about Duke whenever we visited her in South Dakota. Then one Christmas, Tremaine sewed our grandma a pillow out of an old Duke T-shirt. Around 2010, Tremaine sent the first poem.
"I sent her a card, and I decided I was going to write a little couplet in there. And then all of sudden she responded, and I was like, 'Whoa! What — what’s happening here?' "
Dear Tremaine, here is my opinion of the Duke game on Sunday.
Trying to find something to watch on TV
The Florida–Duke game sounded good to me.
So I got my popcorn and can of coke
Hoping the game would not be a joke
Neither height nor quickness could help duke win
And they couldn’t get the ball to go in.
Watching Duke get beat was great
Especially when it’s the team I hate.
Love, Grandma V
'Well, At Least Duke Rhymes With Puke'
To put her poems together, our Grandma took diligent game notes.
"She would have her paper and pencil out," Dian recalls. "Her little note pad that said 'Audrey Versteeg' at the top. So if a Duke player fouled somebody, she would make a note or try to write a line of poetry. And she always wanted to rhyme."
I remember my grandma once saying, "Well, at least Duke rhymes with puke. That’s easy."
"Because who would think the word 'puke' would come out of your grandmother’s mouth?" Dian says. "That was not her personality to do that. But for this she took on a different personality."
Oh, Dukies! Oh, Dukies! You proved me so right!
You’re not a team that can put up a fight.
Your name might still be somewhere on the list
But nowhere at the number you wished!
'Go, Duke! Signed, Coach K'
Most poems included a jab at Duke’s head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, known as "Coach K."
Virginia was orange. Duke was blue.
Coach K looked like he had the flu.
"She’d always talk about his scowl," Tremaine says. "She would watch a Duke game on TV, and they would, you know, pan to the bench and show a close up. And if he had his hand on his hips or any sort of negative vibe, she would take the very long Norwegian pointer finger of hers and just kind of wag it at him. 'No, no, no. You better stop that.' "
So one time, Tremaine sent an extra special surprise.
"I thought, you know, we need to take this up a notch," Tremaine recalls. "So I called the local grocery store and asked for a white and blue bouquet of flowers."
When Dian stopped by Grandma's, as she did most nights, the bouquet was right on the kitchen counter.
"I walked in, and I go, 'Well look at these flowers!' " Dian recalls. "And she goes, 'Read the card.' "
It read: "Dear Audrey, Thanks for all your support over the years. I heard you are a big fan. Go, Duke! Signed, Coach K."
"I started to laugh," Dian says. "And she goes, 'I think Tremaine is behind this.' And then she giggled. So then grandma in turn would say, 'I gotta write a poem.' "
Most TV announcers picked Duke to lose!
I wonder where they got their clues?
Coach K took off his jacket but not his tie.
Do you suppose he wanted to cry?
With special “thoughts,” Grandma V.
Grandma and Tremaine exchanged poems in the mail for five or six years. But as our grandma got older, her handwriting changed — from cursive to print to chicken scratch.
A nail in the eye,
Taking a bath in lye,
Mauled by a pit bull,
Coughing a fitful,
Sleeping with a rattlesnake,
Stepping on a rake.
All of this rebuke
Is preferred over Duke.
"That was one of the last ones I received," Tremaine says. "I know she didn’t physically write it. It’s just not her handwriting. It just became harder for her to write independently, and I probably wrote her more towards the end. I knew she would enjoy getting it, and it was still lifting her spirits in some way or making her day even if she didn’t respond."
'Treasured Artifacts And Memories'
My sister keeps the poems in a canvas box in her nightstand.
"I mean they’re treasured artifacts and memories," she says. "It was fun to have that special bond and relationship that was just the two of us. And I love them. I mean — it did carry over to other parts of our life, where I have a poem of my wedding shower, for our wedding. And then I do like to imagine to myself, like — because she never knew that I was going to have a kid — what the baby shower poem might have been."
During March Madness in 2017, our grandma had a stroke. In the hospital with her, I watched the historic women’s Final Four, when Mississippi State ended UConn’s record-breaking run. Two days after that, she died. Her spirit is always present, but these poems keep her mischief alive.
There really aren’t many games left.
And I’m sure Duke will fail the test.
The end for them is really near.
And then I will certainly cheer.
This segment aired on March 21, 2020.
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