Duke’s title run revives status as Wall Street’s favorite team

With deep ties to the finance industry, Wall Street is excited about Duke and Zion Williamson's NCAA tournament prospects.

"I've generally tried to avoid religious statements in public," joked private equity mogul David Rubenstein. "But I am a committed Zionist."

“I’ve generally tried to avoid religious statements in public,” joked Rubenstein, an alumnus of the North Carolina school and former chairman of its board of trustees. “But I am a committed Zionist.”

Rubenstein isn’t alone in his deification of Zion Williamson, a college basketball star and one of the hottest NBA prospects since LeBron James in 2003. Duke fans on Wall Street – always a vociferous bunch – are crowing about a possible NCAA championship this year and keeping their calendars open to attend Final Four games. “I will be there,” Rubenstein said in an interview.

With deep ties to the finance industry, Duke is a school that Wall Street has strong feelings about – even if they’re not always positive. And Williamson’s phenom status has turned Duke games into a hotter ticket for fans and non-fans alike.

If the Blue Devils make it to the finals in Minneapolis the weekend of April 6, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Ashok Varadhan will be there. The executive, who serves as co-head of the firm’s securities division and a member of its management committee, has stronger ties to the program than most Wall Street alumni: While at Duke, he was a basketball team manager from 1991 to 1993 – when Mike Krzyzewski’s team won a pair of national titles.

Varadhan is convinced that the current squad – led by Williamson, who averaged 22.1 points and a team-leading 8.9 rebounds – has what it takes to win it all.

“They are so talented, personable, together, and possess the combination of youthful innocence coupled with an incredible will to win,” he said.

Varadhan stays connected to Dukies in finance through their shared passion for the basketball team, which opens tournament play Friday night against North Dakota State in Columbia, South Carolina.

That circle of friends includes Apollo Global Management LLC Co-President Jim Zelter, Oaktree Capital Group LLC Co-Chairman Bruce Karsh, Brownstone Investment Group Chief Executive Officer Doug Lowey, Maveron LLC co-founder Dan Levitan, Centerview Partners LLC partner David Cohen and Perella Weinberg Partners partner Bob Steel.

The way Varadhan tells it, their group text lights up during games – and keeps going after the final buzzer.

“We tend to offer each other no shortage of reactions and opinions,” he said.

That all sounds familiar to Mark Williams, a Bank of America managing director who was the basketball team manager for his four years at Duke, graduating in 1992 after back-to-back NCAA championships.

The Blue Devils are a community, Williams said, one that includes friends, family, co-workers and colleagues in the financial-services industry.

“If I look at the clients I work with, one of those touch points – if you’re a fan of the sport – then Duke basketball is a connector,” he said.

Williams said he’s been present at all five Duke championship-winning games, and that he doesn’t intend to miss No. 6. Tickets won’t be a problem. “I’m still a friend of the program,” he said, chuckling.

Riche McKnight, a former in-house counsel at Morgan Stanley, is already planning for possible hurdles to his making it to the Final Four. He was supposed to go to the Syracuse-Duke game earlier this season, but work prevented him from making the trip to Durham, North Carolina. He was supposed to go to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament but, yet again, work got in the way.

“If we make the Final Four, I think I’m just gonna turn my phone off and go,” said McKnight, global head of litigation for Endeavor. “If I get a message saying I can’t go, it’ll be too late.”