‘I Hate Christian Laettner’ and the Genesis of Duke Hate

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Updated: March 16, 2015

There is just something about Duke.

I don’t quite know how to explain it, but they are team that elicits the same type of disdain I usually reserve the for New England Patriots. Both teams are well coached, smart, disciplined, and perennial winners…and each  goes about their business in a way that makes me to bash my head against a wall.

Watching their games, it just always feels like they are getting away with something. It is bad enough that you often have to play a flawless game to beat them, but it is even harder when you factor in that they are afforded (in my mind) all of the breaks and seemingly are always getting the benefit of the doubt.

As a Yankee fan, I fully grasp and appreciate why people love-to-hate the organization for I have similar feelings towards Coach K and the Dukies.  It is a natural sentiment that is hard to turn off, one that over time keeps you actively engaged in following their progress with the reaching hope that they will eventually fall flat on their face.

The sad thing is, for awhile I actually really liked Duke. Growing up in the 80’s, they were the team that was constantly on the cusp of winning an NCCA Championship before ultimately falling short. They were an up-and-coming program that was built by Coach K from the ground up, and you couldn’t but help but admire the persistent of a group that kept knocking on the door, desperately trying to reach the pinnacle. I sympathized with Duke to a degree and the underdog aura that surrounded the program during that time period.

The high water mark of feeling sorry for Duke came in the 1990 National Championship game when Larry Johnson and UNLV overwhelmed and embarrassed the Blue Devils  by a score of 103-73. Anyone who watched that game couldn’t help but feel that Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley didn’t belong on the court against a team of full grown men like the one that Vegas ran out there, and you had to wonder when (if ever) it was going to be Duke’s “time”.

The answer to that question came just a year later when Duke turned the tables on UNLV and upset the undefeated juggernaut in the Final Four. Laettner and Hurley each had  improved by leaps and bounds since previous years’ bloodbath, and they were buoyed by the addition of a spectacular freshman named Grant Hill. Duke captured its first national title two days later by defeating Kansas, solidifying its spot as one of the upper echelon programs in all of college basketball.  They had finally reached the mountaintop.

And this is where it all  began to change.

The shift was subtle, but in relatively short order the Blue Devils were no longer viewed as the plucky upstarts fighting for respectability. Instead, they  were largely seen as a group of entitled rich kids that flopped and connived their way to victories. Laettner was the face and catalyst of much of the ill will directed at Duke, and the fact that he embraced it and was so dam good only made the team (and him) that much more unlikeable.

I personally felt my own feelings towards the Duke basketball program begin to change as a result of the meteoric rise of Michigan’s Fab Five and Laettner’s petty behavior in stomping on the chest of Kentucky Wildcat forward Aminu Timberlake. Both of these areas were covered in depth in ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 film, “I Hate Christian Laettner”. He proved to be the perfect villain, not allowing the young bucks on Michigan dethrone his team and proving that you can get away with such an egregious action (the one against Timberlake) and not only remain in the game, but later hit a shot that will go down as possibly the best ever.

There is much more contained in the documentary, and by the end of it you will have formed perhaps a revised opinion of Laettner. What can’t be discounted is that he was an amazing college player that played some of his best games when the stakes were highest. He also became the model of what a prototypical Duke player looked like for a solid twenty year stretch, or at least how they appeared before Coach K started using his influence and relationship with Team USA to recruit different caliber players.

For better or for worse, Laettner helped changed the tenor of a Duke program that I once admired, becoming the embodiment of everything a lot of us loathe about them even to this day.

 

 

 

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