Duke won the NCAA basketball championship. I suppose that makes me happy. They beat Wisconsin, and if Wisconsin had won, Scott Walker would have been happy. And I do not want Scott Walker to be happy. (Why? Maybe it's because I am both the son of and the father and father-in-law of teachers. But that's another blog.)
Getting back to basketball, I don't follow college hoops too much. In our house, we concentrate on the NBA. But it was fun to watch the last few games of the tournament – "the Sweet Sixteen," "the Elite Eight," "the Final Four," and – what? – "the Terrible Two??" They don't give a funny name to the last game. I guess it's just "the Championship Game." How unimaginative. The NCAA should get some consultant to get a FB Fan Page or Twitter contest going to come up with a silly name for the last game.
College basketball is quite different from the pro game that I watch so much. (Did I mention that the Tiny Goddess is a not-so-secret Laker girl? And beyond that, she'll watch any NBA game. She'll even watch Eastern Conference games!) The quality of play in the NCAA – except for crazy level of activity on the court and the inherent tension created by the one-and-out elimination format – is not very good. It's fun to see a bunch of excited kids running around and crying at the end if they lose, but they really can't play The Game all that well, once you've seen the best. Occasionally, we'll see a player make a good move and say, "Oh, he could be a good pro. I want him!" But that's only on occasion.
This year, however, we saw quite a few players who might make good pros. (Already, John Calipari has said that as many as seven of his players might elect to make themselves eligible for the draft.) Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow from Duke, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker of Wisconsin, and Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, and the Harrison brothers from Kentucky – all of them might make good pros. Okafor and Towns look like sure-things, but you never know. The NBA is famous for great college players who are disappointments or who flunk out to the D-League, Europe, or even China.
Which brings us to the player who epitomizes Duke basketball: CHRISTIAN LAETTER. He was one of the greatest players in college basketball history – four Final Fours in four years, with back-to-back wins in 1991 and 1992, and a list of NCAA tournament records that remain unbroken after more than twenty years (most points scored, most games played, most free throws attempted and made) – who was basically a bust as a pro. He was the only college player chosen for the 1992 Olympic "Dream Team" with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, etc., but when it came to the pro game, he just didn't have the skills to dominate. He stayed in the NBA for thirteen vagabond seasons (playing in Minnesota twice, Toronto twice, Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, Washington, and Miami) and made one All-Star team as a reserve. He averaged 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds a game for his career. Not bad, but not nearly as great as his college career might have predicted. Unfortunately, the history of the NBA draft is littered with big-time busts: Danny Ferry, Adam Morrison, Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, Billy "the Hill" McGill, etc. In that light, Laettner didn't do so badly. But he'll always be known for two main things: the success of his college career and how much he was hated by everybody, teammates and basketball fans alike. He was an arrogant bully and seemed to revel in the role.
Check out this famous clip from an NCAA Final game when he actually stepped on his opponent's stomach (OK, it was only a "love-tap")
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_DzmM6jTGk -- Laettner stomps on Timberlake
Laettner should have been thrown out of that game, but he stayed in and hit one of the most famous shots in college sports history --
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3_IT622Sbc -- Laettner's 1992 shot that beat Kentucky
That's another reason people hated him: because he was so damn good – at least at the college level -- and he knew it. Sure, he was arrogant. But people were jealous of him in the same way that people are jealous of colleges like Duke.
I'm sure the Duke kids are snotty, for a variety of reasons: money, smarts, Eastern origins, etc. And I wouldn't be surprised if they look down on the "cracker/hillbilly/white trash/trailer trash" kids around them. Everybody makes fun of Southerners, including themselves. "You might be a redneck," etc. (Semi-seriously, there is a prejudice for and against certain accents: all people with British accents sound smarter than they are, and all people with Southern accents sound dumber. Not fair, but true.)
Somehow, Duke exemplified by Laettner became a villain. All successful teams – the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, the New England Patriots – become villains to others. That's the price of success sometimes.
But why single out Duke for special hatred? There are much bigger problems in college sports. The grotesque financial-and-media bloat of big-time college athletics in an era when college is unaffordable to the average American student gives me pause. Coach K makes $7.2 million a year – but that's just from Duke, just one revenue stream. There's also his sneaker deal, his summer camp, his radio show, his TV show, speaking engagements, and who-knows-what-else. Of course, he's the top coach in the college game, but there are a lot of lesser coaches who are making millions while grad students and adjunct professors live on food stamps. That's not mention the lack of health insurance or worker's compensation for athletes, threats and abuse from under-pressure coaches, and the basic denial of an education to these hired sports-workers.
Duke has a much better graduation rate than most programs. It's produced a whole list of excellent NBA players including Grant Hill, Kyrie Irving, Luol Deng, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, J.J. Reddick, Corey Maggette, Jeff Mullins, and others. Duke is one of the good schools; it's where you want your kid to go. Hatred of Duke is misplaced. Hate Christian Laettner because he's a dick, not because he went to a good college.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01nl5XkQagA -- Laettner on why people hate him
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyLofrdwftY -- Laettner on the "Dream Team"