Mike Krzyzewski once talked about the problems he faced in dealing with the great Christian Laettner.
Laettner was an intense and combative player. Those qualities were what lifted him to greatness. But they also made the Blue Devil star difficult to deal with. Several of his teammates complained that Laettner was as tough on his teammates in practice as he was on opponents in games. Freshman Cherokee Parks had some particularly ugly run-ins with Laettner in 1991-92, while fellow All-Americans Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley admitted that there were times that they almost hated Laettner.
Krzyzewski knew what was going on, but he had to walk the fine line between controlling Laettner’s fire and extinguishing it. His metaphor is that dealing with Laettner was like tending a furnace in the basement of a building – the trick was to use the fire to heat the building without burning it down.
In Laettner’s case, Krzyzewski never let the building burn. He controlled the fire well enough to earn two national titles and four straight Final Fours in Laettner’s four seasons.
Well, it doesn’t take a fire fighter to understand that K’s building is smoldering today.
A quarter century after Laettner, Grayson Allen brings a very similar fire to the Duke program. His aggressiveness and combativeness is what lifts him from good to great. When controlled, Allen is like a force of nature on the court, asserting his will and dominating the game.
Unfortunately, Allen’s fire has not been as well-controlled as Laettner’s inferno. The older Duke star really only lost control once in his career, when he tapped the chest of fallen Kentucky center Aminu Timberlake in the 1992 East Regional title game. It was not a dangerous or vicious blow – certainly not the “stomp” that Duke haters like to call it. But it was an expression of Laettner’s frustration and a moment when he lost control.
It was also the only in-game loss of control by Laettner in his career.
The problem in Allen’s case is that he’s lost it three times in the last season-and-a-third. He first tripped Louisville’s Raymond Spalding last Feb. 8 in Durham. It was easy to see what caused the play – Allen was bounced to the floor on a driving layup attempt without a foul call. He clearly reacted out of frustration.
And while his trip was inexcusable, it was not as inherently dangerous as the blow that sent him flying to the ground.
If that had been the end of it, Allen’s trip would have been as obscure as the elbow to the face that he took from Louisville’s Jaylen Johnson in the rematch with Louisville later that month (a blow that didn’t earn Johnson a technical foul or a suspension).
But Allen followed his Louisville trip by tripping FSU’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes in the final seconds of Duke’s victory in Cameron. This one was different. Allen and Rathan-Mayes were jawing as the clock ran down on the Blue Devil victory, when Allen stuck out his leg and tripped his antagonist. It was almost a playful action – except such action has no place on a college court – especially not from a player already involved in one tripping incident.
Suddenly, Allen was the most famous tripper in America – the subject of countless diatribes on ESPN and on other outlets. He was universally condemned (even vilified) and many were outraged when the ACC failed to do more than reprimand the Duke star.
Allen was contrite in public, apologizing profusely and promising that he had learned his lesson. For the first 12 games of the season, the tripping problem seemed to be behind him. There was much more emphasis on his struggles to overcome an injured toe.
Then came Wednesday night in Greensboro.
Allen’s trip of Elon’s Steven Santa Ana was deliberate and inexcusable. As Santa Anna drove for the basketball, Allen clearly bumped him, drawing a foul. But when Santa Ana ended the play by making a flailing attempt to get a shot off (a move Allen attempts time after time) it got ugly. Their arms locked and Santa Ana’s momentum spun Allen around.
It was during that spin that the Duke junior stretched out his leg and tried to trip the Elon guard.
Like Allen’s first two trips, the play wasn’t that noteworthy – other than it was the third time such a play involved Allen.
Even worse, in my mind, was Allen’s reaction to the play.
Frankly, he went berserk.
Assistant coach Jon Scheyer had to muscle him to the bench, all the time, mouthing “Calm down.” But for about 30 seconds, Allen was out of control. I’m not sure where his anger was directed – at Santa Ana? At the refs? At himself?
Krzyzewski didn’t want to talk about the incident after the game, other than to call the play “inexcusable” and to report that he had forced Allen to personally apologize to Santa Ana and Elon coach Mike Matheny.
The next morning, Duke released a statement from Krzyzewski, reporting that Allen was suspended indefinitely.
Obviously, this creates concern for the Blue Devils going forward. Their next game will be Dec. 31 at Virginia Tech, which is likely to be a ranked team at that point. Without Allen, a tough game becomes even tougher. After that are two gimmies – home games with Georgia Tech and Boston College.
But concerns for Duke going forward have to be secondary to concerns about Allen’s future. Krzyzewski made it clear Wednesday night that he is concerned for the kid and getting him on track is his primary concern.
It would be easier to deal with if Allen was a simple thug.
But he’s not. He’s a well-spoken young man and an academic All-America. Unlike Laettner, he’s not disliked by his teammates. On most occasions, he’s exactly the NCAA’s ideal “student-athlete.”
Except when he’s not.
It would take a psychiatric professional (which I am NOT) to judge the roots of Allen’s apparent anger issues. But those issues – whatever the cause – have to be addressed … and corrected.
I honestly believe that’s why Krzyzewski suspended Allen “indefinitely” – rather than for a set number of games. His suspension will not be dictated by the schedule, but by Allen’s response to his Wednesday night meltdown.
I’ll be honest … it scared me.
I may be an alarmist here, but I recall a number of ACC players who had mental issues. There was Wake Forest center Loren Wood – a player Krzyzewski once asked the Crazies to lay off, who after a breakdown in Winston-Salem, recovered to help Arizona to the 2001 national title game (a loss to Duke). There was Ray Harrison, a guard from Greensboro who once beat out David Thompson as North Carolina’s prep player of the year. Harrison had a great junior year for UNC, but had issues the next year and struggled.
Then there was Mike Wilkes, a forward who helped Virginia to one of the great upsets in ACC history – a victory over UNC and Charlie Scott in the 1970 ACC Tournament. Friends were bothered by Wilkes’ bizarre behavior off the court and one night he melted down on the court, showing up with a shaved head, putting himself into a game, then having a meltdown in the locker room. Wilkes died very young of mysterious causes.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Allen’s problems are anywhere near that level … or even that he has serious issues at all. I just want to be sure he doesn’t have such issues … and I feel sure that Krzyzewski has the same concern.
Allen’s future is more important than the future of this Duke basketball team.
Duke will be fine. I just hope Allen is.
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