Dirty Duke Basketball: The Players We Love To Hate

With March Madness on the way, let's take a look at the most hated team in college basketball.

There is joy in collective hatred. 

From the Cowboys, to the Yankees, to Tom Brady, it’s fun to be a hater – even if we lack concrete reasons to do so. But I guarantee players like Tom Brady thrive on the “me vs. the world” mentality, because there’s no such thing as bad publicity in such a field. 

Controversial players and widely disliked teams drive engagement out of hate. It’s a useful phenomenon that can be used as a tool in promotions. And the Duke men’s basketball team is one of those instances. 

As an institution, Duke is hated by all except for those who attended the school or grew up a Duke sports fan. Duke symbolizes money and privilege, partly because its students are known for being rich white kids from out of state. The Duke basketball team became the pinnacle of this hatred, generally beginning with Christian Laettner. 

Christian Laettner played for Duke from 1988 to 1992. He remains one of the best NCAA players of all time. Under Coach K, Laettner led Duke to four final four appearances in a row, including its first national championships in 1991 and 1992. Laettner broke quite literally every NCAA record with his performances. 

For a player or team to become a hated icon, they first have to be good. It also helps when the media appears to have an obsession with them. Laettner was the best, so his notoriety began there. But Laettner became the representative of everything people hate about Duke – he was a pretty white boy with perceived entitlement, and his court attitude ranged from unapologetic to straight-up obnoxious. He knew he was good. Even Laettner’s teammates hated him. He provoked his teammates to try and make them better, but he did this by insulting, hitting, and swearing at them. 

Laettner set the precedent for dirty Duke players to come. Laettner trash-talked without remorse and made dirty plays. He grabbed jerseys, threw elbows, and knocked his opponents to the floor. The best part? Laettner rarely received any pushback from referees, and basketball fans quickly took notice of this. During the 1992 NCAA Tournament, Laettner stomped on the chest of a Kentucky player who had fallen to the floor. Shortly afterwards, Laettner went on to hit college basketball’s most recognizable shot of all time, winning the game for Duke. 

Here’s the thing: even people with bare-minimum basketball knowledge have heard the name Christian Laettner. And they’ve seen videos of the game-winning shot. Laettner even inspired a documentary titled I Hate Christian Laettner. Laettner drove haters to Duke’s games, and made lifelong fans as well. His controversy meant he and Duke were in the news everyday. Without excusing his actions, is that such a bad thing? There is fame in villainy, and sports as whole wouldn’t be the same without “evil” figures to talk about. We’d be bored without them.

Christian Laettner actually predicted who would become the next “him” for Duke – Grayson Allen. Grayson Allen played for Duke between 2014 and 2018. Like Laettner, Allen excelled in big games. He performed explosively with powerful dunks and huge celebrations, hyping up fans and screaming at the away game crowds. Most would say Allen went too far with his competitiveness. Like Laettner, sportsmanship came second to winning and being the best on the court. Allen is infamous for tripping players and throwing temper tantrums. He invites hate like it fuels him, and it seems like it does. Most importantly, Allen is a freakishly athletic white guy who graduated from a prep school before heading to Duke. Allen is now in the NBA, and still makes headlines for playing dirty and thinking highly of himself. 

At this point, Duke having a “most hated” player is a team tradition. On a team that is already rooted against by most, one player who embodies Duke’s unlikable qualities the most will become public enemy number one. The player who fits the mold will become a household name, and even field hurled insults for his lesser sins. Most of the time, that player will relish in the loathing and become even more of an entertaining figure. 

So, who’s next? 

Duke’s current team is the first without Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K, as its head coach since 1980. The change begs the question of whether Duke will remain a despised powerhouse or not. 

If Duke does continue that legacy, and one person has a target on their back, I’d bet it’ll be Kyle Filipowski. A 7 foot freshman, Filipowski is already making waves as a dynamic, otherworldly type of player. He displays passion in his performances, but he isn’t cocky or contentious – yet

But Filipowski checks all the boxes: he’s white, comes from a New England prep school, and has had quite a leg up in life. The kid even played water polo. Most importantly, he’s good. Filipowski is the first freshman in Duke history to perform a double-double in his first three games as a college player, and the only Duke player to score double-digits in the first 12 games of a season. 

If Filipowski starts getting hate hurled at him, and becomes the type of personality to rival Laettner and Allen, I’d say that’s good news for promotions. If all eyes are on Duke and Filipowski, with everyone wanting to see what he does next (good or bad), that drives customer engagement. If Filipowski becomes the one we love to hate, more power to us. The more attention he garners, the more people will be willing to predict his successes or downfalls.

Kathryn Inman

Kathryn Inman

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