Duke basketball has a number of traditions. They are one of the most legendary programs in college basketball; right there with UCLA and Kentucky in terms of basketball’s premier blue-blood programs. And yes, as a Duke fan I’m obligated to leave UNC off that list. Duke’s many traditions include the rivalry games with North Carolina, the Krzyzewski-ville village of tents outside Cameron Indoor, winning, intensity on defense, and of course the presence of coach Mike Krzyzewski himself. They’re all traditions, and they’re all part of what makes Duke, well, Duke! But one of their most notorious traditions is the presence of the one hated player per generation. That’s right, while there are many levels of Duke hate, the one constant has been the presence of one player per Duke team that everyone in the country can rally to hate. Some were hated more than others, with the levels of hatred varying from the subtle “I hate that guy” whispered under the breath to the more relentless booing of a player every time the touch the ball. For one particular Duke player, the hatred even reached other members of his family and resulted in opposing fans stealing his cell phone number only to bombard him with calls for days before Duke played their team.
To illustrate how widespread and consistent the tradition of Duke player-hating has been, consider the Grantland article series from a few years ago that created a tournament of the most hated college basketball players of all time. They set the tournament up just like the NCAA tournament, with past players being separated into different brackets and then pitted against each other to determine who was hated more. While seeding the tournament, the creators determined that the number of Duke players actually made it “unfair” to the other players, so they actually put all of the Duke players into their own bracket just to keep things even. No other school had more than a couple players in the tournament; Duke got its own bracket all to itself.
The notorious tradition of hating individual Duke players started slow with Jay Bilas in the 1980s. Bilas received a more subtle form of the intense hatred that would become commonplace years later. Yes, the insightful announcer and analyst we all know and love today was once among the Duke hated. Funny how things can change. After Bilas came one Danny Ferry, who would receive more hatred from fans compared to Bilas mostly due to his general demeanor and on court antics. But what Bilas started and Danny Ferry built upon, an ultra-competitive young man named Christian Laettner would, for better or worse, perfect. When Laettner came to Duke the program itself was fast on the rise, and Laettner would be one of major pieces that would complete the puzzle. While at Duke, Laettner went to four final fours and won two national championships. So why was he hated? Who really knows, maybe people hated his success, his looks, or his potentially dirty play. If you want a full look into why Laettner was hated so much, I would highly recommend ESPN’s 30 for 30 titled “I Hate Christian Laettner.”
After Laettner there were a myriad of hated Duke players, though only one or two of them would even come close to reaching the level of hate directed at Christian. There was Bobby Hurley, who had been at Duke at the same time as Laettner so he’d been spared much of the hate. Steve Wojciechowski (Woj), the floor slapping and scrappy guard from the late nineties, received his share of hate. Then came the great Duke teams of the early 2000s, for which Shane Battier was the proverbial face of Duke hate. Again, none of these guys were polarizing enough, or good enough, to be hated as much as Christian. But in 2004 a freshman named J.J. Redick came to campus, and he came about as close as you can get to reaching the Laettner level of hate. Redick was the best shooter in college basketball during his time at Duke. His teams were decent, but never great, and he never won a national championship at Duke. But as to why he was hated so deeply and passionately, I honestly couldn’t say. The reason for Redick hate is relatively unknown, at least to me. It’s likely he suffered from Duke hate that had already been built up for years thanks to Laettner, Battier, and Ferry. But one thing is for sure, people always seemed to find a reason to hate J.J., especially the fans in Boston College and Maryland. The hate for Redick was as heated and ruthless as any in college basketball history (except of course for Laettner).
Similar to the time period after Laettner’s departure from Duke, Redick’s departure creating a lull in Duke hatred, at least relatively speaking. Sure, there were the Greg Paulus’, the Kyle Singler’s, and the Jon Scheyer’s of the world, but none of them really grabbed the villain role quite like Laettner and Redick. But in the 2015 national championship game Duke was playing a tough Wisconsin team, and America got its first glimpse of the next, and possibly last, Duke super-villain. With Duke down 10 with 12 minutes to play, Coach K inserted a freshman by the name of Grayson Allen into the lineup. Allen created the spark that ultimately led Duke to winning the game and the national championship. Largely because of Allen, the team America loves to hate was back on top once again. Though it wasn’t necessarily this moment that led the masses to hating Allen, it was the moment we all learned his name and it set the stage for Allen’s Duke career, which would come to be defined by his antics and the hatred directed at him.
Through Allen’s next two seasons, his performances were marred by incidents where he had tripped opponents in a questionable and likely intentional manner. It seemed to the fan’s eye like he just couldn’t control himself. He’d be defending a shot or going for a loose ball, and his leg would just stick out and trip up an opponent. To tell the truth, even as a Duke fan it was next to impossible trying to defend Grayson for these incidents. Over his sophomore and junior seasons, there were at least a handful of such incidents. And nothing will make American sports fans hate you faster than the appearance of dirty play combined with assumed cockiness. And again, Grayson also had the weight of all the existing Duke hate now squarely on his shoulders. Because of his tripping incidents and the general Duke hatred directed at him, Allen’s night by night performances are always accompanied by boos and jeers from the crowd. Recently after a game at Virginia Tech, which Duke lost, Va. Tech head coach Buzz Williams actually took to the microphone to tell his own fans to tone down their chants and their language, much of which was directed at Grayson. Watching Duke games with Allen on the floor brings back vivid memories of watching J.J. Redick games. Not just because their play is somewhat similar (though Grayson’s athleticism is far beyond Redick’s) but because of how much they are hated by opposing fans. Opposing fans boo and scream and chant whenever Allen even touches the ball. Many of the chants are audible even while watching the games on TV.
So now here we are, in March of 2018 and it is right near the end of Grayson Allen’s career at Duke. Whether Duke is able to go on a run for another championship or gets bounced in the first round, this will be the end of Grayson Allen’s time in Durham. He has been able to get past many of the tripping issues that overshadowed his middle years at Duke, and has played quite well in the process. But when Grayson’s time at Duke does come to an end at the finish of this season, I’m naturally left to wonder, who’s next? Who is going to be the next face of Duke hate? There are a couple of nominees on the current roster as perhaps guard Alex O’Connell or big man Jack White could fill the role in the future. But I’m not convinced O’Connell has the skill level which typically accompanies Duke’s most hated players, and White is probably eliminated based on name alone (c’mon, you can’t hate someone named Jack White!).
So where does that leave us? The truth is that the landscape of college basketball has changed so much over the time since Laettner and Hurley were at Duke, and really even since Redick was there, that it’s hard to envision anyone reaching that level of hate ever again. The culture of one and done players, which has now become entrenched at Duke as well, means that we rarely get to know players personally for longer than a few months. What made the hatred of Laettner, Battier, Redick, and Allen so passionate was that each of them was around for four years. The hate was allowed to build, stew, and fester for four years around these guys. People felt like they knew them, like they had watched them forever and hated them forever. With the one and done culture of today it seems unlikely that a prominent Duke player will last long enough in the program to garner so much hate and carry on the torch (or pitchfork, get it, because they’re “Blue Devils”). Yes, I understand that Allen was able to receive the hate during the one and done era, but that seems like more of an exception than the rule. Looking back on Grayson’s career, it’s almost ironic that his tripping incidents led to his hate, because without them he may have gone to the NBA after his Sophomore season as well. At that time he was already deemed an NBA ready athlete, but his maturity came into question because of the tripping incidents. It’s hard for me to imagine that those incidents had not affected his draft status.
Outside of the one and done culture, the other main reason for the future of Duke hate coming into question, is Coach K himself. With over 1,000 wins in coaching and going on 40 years at Duke, one has to wonder how much time Coach K has left on the bench. How much longer will he want to put up with one and dones? How much longer can he deal with the ever changing and criticized nature of college basketball? Who knows? But as the ultimate face of Duke hate, and the man largely responsible for bringing all of Duke’s most hated players to campus, it is fair to assume that the hatred will dissipate slightly once he’s gone. Not to mention the fact that not only will opposing fans have less to hate, but it’s very likely Duke’s talent and ability to win games could fall off once the hall of fame coach leaves, and nobody hates a loser.
Tonight Duke plays North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s senior night, which means its Grayson Allen’s night. Regardless of the game’s outcome this will be the last time he plays inside Duke’s fabled arena. As a fan, I know I will be sad to see him go. His game was fun t watch when it wasn’t riddled with controversy. And as was the case with Redick, the hate surrounding him has become so intense that you can’t help but feel bad for the kid. And to all of the Duke and Grayson Allen haters out there just admit it; you’re going to miss him when he’s gone too. Because once he’s gone, what else do you have left to hate?
Eh, I’m sure you’ll find something.