There isn’t more despised college basketball player in history than Duke’s Christian Laettner but have you stopped to wonder why we hate him so much?
One of the great things about sports is there are heroes and villains, teams to root for and teams to root against. The Duke Blue Devils definitely fall into the villain camp in college basketball and the Darth Vader in Duke’s history, at least according to opposing fans, is Christian Laettner.
The stories write themselves about Laettner, who was one of the most productive college basketball players in NCAA history. No one can deny the brilliance of Laettner’s on-court performance, which includes a pair of national championships, NCAA Tournament records for points scored, games won, career games played and a pair of epic buzzer-beating shots to break the hearts of UConn and Kentucky fans.
Most fans remember Laettner as the embodiment of privilege on Duke from 1988-1992, a period that saw fans gravitating towards more trendy and hip teams like UNLV and Michigan’s Fab Five. Laettner’s movie-star looks, tremendous skill on the floor and swagger made him an easy target for people looking to take the Blue Devils down a peg.
People automatically assume Laettner has had it easy his whole life due to his good looks and the fact he attended a prestigious school like Duke. That was definitely not the case with Laettner being raised in a middle-class family in upstate New York before earning a basketball scholarship at Duke.
Once he arrived in Durham Laettner immediately became a lightning rod for the Blue Devils, largely due to his attitude and desire to win at all costs. Laettner had a bit of a Herb Brooks quality to him in that he would push the buttons of his teammates, like Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, to get the best out of them.
The topic of America’s hatred of Laettner is explored in great detail in a 30 for 30 that debuted in 2015 aptly titled I Hate Christian Laettner. The film features many interviews with players, coaches, and family members who interacted with Laettner, including several who admitted despising him for various reasons.
One player who understood Laettner very well was Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who described Laettner as “a bit of a rebel” in the film. Krzyzewski also recalled a memorable conversation he had with Laettner’s first pro coach, Sidney Lowe, who thought that Laettner was arrogant and spoiled. The best way Krzyzewski had to describe Laettner was as a fire that could light an entire building if harnessed correctly but one that could also burn it down if left uncontrolled.
Laettner used that competitive fire on the court to become one of the most dynamic players in college basketball, thriving on the hatred opposing crowds would hurl his way. A lot of fans disliked Laettner for the way he carried himself on the floor, with Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson admitting in the film there were racial dynamics that also played into some of the hatred towards Laettner.
Laettner was a representation of “the variety and brand of whiteness with which Duke is associated,” Dyson said, also indicating that Laettner was “appropriating black styles of masculine projection, but onto white bodies.” It is certainly an interesting dynamic to consider, but it is not the only reason people hated Christian Laettner.
The most infamous part of Laettner’s personality was his bully mentality, one that came into full display in the 1992 East Regional Final against Kentucky. We all know how that game ended, but first let’s take a look back at one of the most memorable examples of bad sportsmanship in Laettner’s career, the moment he stepped on Wildcats’ defender Aminu Timberlake after making a basket.
The move was clearly an attempt to taunt but not injure Timberlake and Laettner was given a technical foul, but curiously was allowed to stay in the game. Conspiracy theorists often will claim Laettner got preferential treatment from officials, citing this incident as a reason since a lot of other players would have been ejected for doing the same thing Laettner merely got T-ed up for.
The end of that game saw Laettner deliver the most memorable moment in the history of the NCAA Tournament, drilling the game-winner at the buzzer to send Duke back to the Final Four in overtime. “Christian just loves that situation,” Grant Hill (who was the inbounder on the play) said at the time. “He wants the ball. He feels like he is going to make it.”
“Laettner seized this spectacular game in his meaty paws, turning a moment of desperation into a shot for the ages,” said Mickey McCarthy, a reporter covering the game for The News and Observer at the time as he praised Laettner’s indomitable will to win.
There is plenty to hate about Laettner but there is plenty to admire as well. Laettner was a brilliant player for Duke who was tough, hated to lose, incredibly clutch and someone who could get the best out of his teammates.
A lot of these same qualities can be used to describe all-time greats like Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant and Wayne Gretzky. All of those guys are incredibly popular figures within their sports and do have their fair share of haters, but none of them are as universally reviled as Laettner.
This does go back to raise the question of why, exactly, Laettner is so hated throughout America. Perhaps part of it is his association with Duke, but a bigger issue may be the fact Laettner was a college kid who did a few questionable things on the floor to draw a label of arrogance.
There is a fine line between arrogance and confidence with Laettner showing an incredible ability to toe that line. There were times Laettner ended up on the wrong side of it, like when he stepped on Timberlake, but he also is a fine example of how to lead and win at the collegiate level.
Fans should learn to at least appreciate, if not outright like Laettner, for the fact he makes people care about what he does. Whether you loved Laettner or despised him the Duke star got a reaction out of you, making his games must-see TV.
Those kinds of lightning rods are what make sports great. You can’t have heroes without villains, and Laettner thrived as one of college basketball’s biggest villains when he was with the Blue Devils.
If people simply didn’t care who wins or loses watching games wouldn’t be as fun. No one is asking for people to make Laettner their favorite athlete of all time, but he does deserve a lot more credit than he has received over the years for his excellence on the court.
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