Growing up I loved the Fab Five. The freshman class of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson became crossover sensations practically overnight when they landed at the University of Michigan in 1991. It wasn’t just what these five African-American teenagers did on the court in becoming the first team to reach the NCAA tournamentchampionship game with a starting lineup of all first-year players, something that had never been done before. It was how they did it: with a brash, unapologetic attitude and flamboyant style that forever changed the culture of basketball.
Decades later when I interviewed members of that team for my book, We Matter: Athletes And Activism, it was still a tremendous honor to speak with my childhood heroes. They remain cultural icons today. When I was in high school back in Oklahoma, you couldn’t tell my AAU team, the Antioch Saints, that we weren’t the Fab Five. We all shaved our heads bald, got some black shoes with black socks, got the older team’s old uniforms so they would fit us extra baggy, adopted their trash-talking swagger on the court and modeled our games around them: Derrick Taylor was Chris Webber, Marcus Potter was Jalen Rose, Daniel Hishaw was Ray Jackson, DeMarco Hawkins was Jimmy King and I was Juwan Howard.
In our minds, we were the Fab Five.
Now Duke? Duke was the enemy. The antithesis of what we loved and aspired to. They’d won the national championship the season before the Fab Five came together, but in our minds Duke embodied the privileged, spoiled team that had everything given to them. The referees cheated for them, mainstream America loved them … and we hated everything about them. (Though everyone always admitted Grant Hill was cool.)
As Rose said in a 2011 documentary: “I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”
Didn’t matter if it was an overgeneralization or not. It was our perception. And as we all know, perception becomes reality. I remember watching a Duke game when I was younger. They were losing but their fans were chanting: “It’s all right, it’s OK, you’re gonna work for us one day!” That cemented my hate for all things Duke.
Are there people at Duke that embody that privileged I’m-better-than-you mentality? Sure. Do they speak for everyone? I’m sure they don’t. But the sense of superiority and elitism about their basketball team was always front and center. And no one exuded it more than Duke’s biggest star: Christian Laettner.
I remember when I first met Laettner years later during my rookie season in the NBA after I was drafted to the Dallas Mavericks. He, of course, was not only Duke’s greatest ever player but possibly the most clutch player in the history of college basketball. He was the ultimate competitor with a résumé that included four Final Four appearances in a row, two national championships and the NCAA tournament records for most points scored, most free throws made, most free throws attempted and most games played. When they play the greatest buzzer-beating shots in March Madness history, Laettner has two of them. There was the dagger to beat UConn in the Elite Eight when he was a sophomore and then another two years later known simply as The Shot. You know the one.
Besides Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, there are very few people you could put in front of Christian Laettner in the GOAT conversation for college basketball. But that didn’t mean we had to like him.
Laettner had led Duke to the school’s first national title as a junior, toppling another iconic black team along the way: the undefeated and seemingly invincible UNLV Runnin’ Rebels with Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt. Then one year later, he defeated my Fab Five in the final to make Duke back-to-back national champions. But he didn’t just defeat them: he schooled them. Was hitting threes and smiling and dunking on them and yelling and carrying on. Laettner was seen as the great white hope in a sport increasingly dominated by young African-American men. Not hype, but hope. Because Christian Laettner was the real deal on the court.
He was the perfect villain. Someone who everyone outside of Durham loved to hate. He could have been a part of the Cobra Kai. Dirty, elbow you, bump you when you’re down, kick you when nobody was looking and then look all innocent with his hands out when the crowd started yelling at him as if he were saying: “What did I do?” And he kept getting away with it. I’ll never forget seeing Laettner actually stomp on the chest of Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake and get a “stern talking-to” from the referee instead of an automatic ejection. He got away with it, like Duke always did, and then had the privilege of hitting the game-winning shot.
On Thursday, I had a chance to speak with Jimmy King and Ray Jackson from the Fab Five about those Duke teams on my radio show The Collision: Where Sports and Politics Collide.
“When we played, we were looked at as villains, bad guys, don’t respect the game,” King said. But Duke got a pass and they were the ones who were stepping on players, spitting, getting into altercations but nothing was said.”
I asked Jackson whether a double standard was at play: how would the referees have reacted if a player from Michigan’s mostly black team had stepped on a fallen opponent’s stomach during a game? “They would’ve escorted us out the gym,” he said, laughing. “It would’ve looked like the Malice at the Palace.”
The understanding was that everything was given to Duke players, especially Christian Laettner: that he could get away with anything and everything on the floor. They reeked of entitlement and embodied everything so many people despised in a way that went beyond sports. They had an air about them like I’m better than you. Not just on the basketball court, but as human beings. Just overall elitists. And that’s what we thought Duke really embodied: a superiority complex.
So when I met Laettner as his teammate in the NBA, the first thing I said to him was that I grew up hating him. Like literally hating his guts. He laughed and said, “Yeah, all the brothas hate me.” And I said, “No, all jokes aside, I always said if I ever met you, I was going to punch you in the face on sight.” And he said without hesitation, “Well, if you still feel that way after two months, I’ll give you a free shot.”
Turns out, Christian Laettner was one of the coolest cats on the team. Later on when we were traded to the Washington Wizards together, his locker was right next to mine and we talked all the time. He was the nicest guy. Got along with everyone in the locker room. Played hard every night. Mentored the young guys. Encouraged young guys who were having a difficult transition to the NBA as many did, including myself.
When guys back home asked about which guys I liked on the team and I would include Laettner, they’d always stop me short. Did you say Christian Laettner? Duke Christian Laettner? Stomped-on-my-man-from-Kentucky’s-stomach Christian Laettner? Preppy, privileged, everybody-even-white-people-outside-of-Duke-hates-with-a-passion Christian Laettner? “Yup,” I would say, “and everything we thought about him all these years is incorrect.”
As Jackson told me on Thursday: “(Laettner) was a true blue-collar basketball player and he worked hard for everything. And that’s what you understand when you take the media out of it and you get to know players.”
The perception of Duke has changed over the years. Longtime coach Mike Krzyzewski adapted with the times and began to recruit more ‘one-and-done’ players who would spend only a few months on campus before going to the NBA, something he had long resisted. People may root against them, but the racial undertones that had once been glaring are no more. A recent ESPN Sports Poll showed that black fans now root for Duke at higher rates than the general population, which would have been unthinkable to my Antioch Saints. People may want this year’s Duke team with Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish to lose just because they are the most talented, but it’s not the same charged kind of hate.
Back in the day, you were almost looked at as a traitor if you went to Duke or supported them, but it’s different today. Jay Z, Spike Lee, Todd Gurley and Barack Obama have been spotted courtside at Blue Devils games this year. There is a long line of decorated and increasingly African-American stars that have come through the program in the years since the Laettner teams – guys like Zion, Barrett, Reddish, Jabari Parker, Luol Deng, Kyrie Irving, Jahlil Okafor, Austin Rivers, Marvin Bagley III, Elton Brand, Gary Trent Jr, Chris Carrawell, Justise Winslow, Nolan Smith, Jayson Tatum, Quinn Cook, Brandon Ingram, Mike Dunleavy Jr, Corey Maggette, Shelden Williams, Wendell Carter Jr, Seth Curry, Tyus Jones and Rodney Hood – who aren’t viewed in the same light as their predecessors.
Every now and then, Duke will feature a player like Grayson Allen who embodies the ghost of the Blue Devils’ past – the dirty, entitled playerwho seems to get away with everything on the court and always acts like he did nothing wrong, all while getting every benefit from the doubt from the officials – and that old Duke hatred briefly resurrects itself.
But guys like him are now the exception to the rule. The culture has changed and Duke has changed with it.