BROOKLYN, NY — Think of the best arena concert you’ve ever been to. One where a big-deal artist took the stage and the crowd exploded, cheering for and reaching toward the performer. OK, now imagine that level of passion as a photo negative: The cheers become jeers; the excitement becomes disdain. Now direct it toward a 21-year-old on a basketball court.
That was what the Barclays Center felt like every time Grayson Allen handled the ball against UNC in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament on Friday. Duke’s lightning rod of a guard — known for tripping rivals and throwing temper tantrums — couldn’t shoot a free throw without a thundering chorus of boos.
Playing outside their home state, the Blue Devils typically draw heavily from their fans in the Northeast corridor. But in the beginning of the game, as UNC pulled away, it felt like all of Chapel Hill had driven up to Brooklyn just to let Allen know they thought he was trash.
That kind of vehement dislike, though a predictable response from a sworn enemy, is hard to ignore. Even for players on the most hated team in college basketball.
“I mean, you can’t help but notice it,” said senior Matt Jones. He stood in the locker room after Duke’s stunning comeback to beat UNC, 93-83 and explained that he’d never heard someone booed the way Allen was. Which is saying something coming from a guy who’s played four years of Duke basketball.
Allen sat on a training table behind Jones with his left lower leg wrapped in ice packs and tape as he waited to head to the press conference with coach Mike Krzyzewski and sophomore Luke Kennard. Kennard has been Duke’s surprising superstar this season, a reliable constant in an inconsistent year. Several players have been injured, and the team struggled to find regularity in styles of play and lineups.
But the most notable problem and the team’s largest distraction was Allen himself: The junior drew the ire of the nation for repeatedly tripping other players and then losing his cool on the sidelines. The kicking earned Allen a one-game team suspension and Coach K stripped Allen of his captaincy because of his inability to keep it together. Even that was a sentence many in the media (or with Twitter accounts and opinions) called lenient.
If his teammates ever found Allen’s behavior unacceptable, however, they didn’t say so on Friday night. Jones came the closest to admittance when he said that some players had grown up over the course of the season and that he’d never had any reason not to read what people were saying about Duke. Many players described the season as being filled with “adversity.” (I can’t help but wonder if someone in the school’s marketing department fed them that talking point, given that six different players used it.)
“We’ve had ups and downs, we’ve had adversity,” said graduate student Amile Jefferson. “That’s how you grow. You don’t really grow when everything is peachy keen. You grow having to fight and learn about yourself. You look in the mirror, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
All of them, however, agreed that they felt the team was finally gelling. They also seemed to actually like their controversial teammate, whom many refer to as simply “G.” During warm-ups against Louisville on Thursday, a few gave Allen hugs. He laughed with other players as they joked around and practiced threes.
“Grayson is just a player,” Kennard told SB Nation after the press conference. “He likes to play, and this is what he does — he competes. He wants to win, and we’ve been there through it all. Our chemistry as a team has grown. Every time we’re on the court now it gets better and better. We’re definitely in a groove.”
The team is certainly hitting its stride. Duke has won back-to-back-to-back games at the tournament, and if it pulls off a win on Saturday, it’ll be the first team in ACC Tournament history to take the title by winning four games in four days.
The chemistry Kennard referred to has been palpable in a way it wasn’t during the regular season. Duke has come back from deficits in each game. The athletes have played a graceful game, highly aware of spacing and situation. Allen has kept it together.
“Obviously it was tough for Grayson,” said freshman Jack White of his teammate’s year. “I wouldn’t want to be the one out there with the whole crowd booing you, especially when you’re on the road. But he handled it really well. We know him a lot more than the outside world knows him and know he’s a great guy. As a freshman, he’s really mentored me.”
On the other side of the locker room, Jefferson echoed his younger teammate’s thoughts.
“We’re a tough team; things like that bond us,” he said. “We always have each other’s backs. The way G is playing, he’s just given us an added element that’s taken us to another level.”
Allen is an incredible player when he’s focused. After leading Duke in scoring and assists his sophomore season, Allen was widely expected to be the centerpiece of this year’s team. The trouble at midseason popped a hole in that theory.
Now it seems like Allen is regaining his focus at exactly the right moment. At the press conference, Coach K said Allen saved Duke from elimination with the four three-pointers he hit in the first half when Duke was consistently down by 10.
“They were playing a lot better than us than the score indicated,” he said. “[Allen’s] four threes made it look like we were OK, but it was almost a third-round knockout without him playing the way he did.”
Allen didn’t say much about his behavioral issues or the ire he drew from the crowd at the presser, and he wasn’t available for one-on-ones. He did tell reporters that he’s always equally confident no matter how he’s playing, which is hard to believe if you watched him emotionally dissolve on the court in the past few months.
He must’ve heard the crowd on Friday — or on Thursday, when Louisville fans also booed him, though not quite as loudly — but he certainly didn’t let it show. You could’ve put on noise-canceling headphones and you wouldn’t have been able to tell from Allen’s reaction that he was at the center of a boo tornado.
The other Duke players are actually embracing that ire, just as past Duke teams have thrived on the “Duke against the world” mentality. When I asked Jones if Duke is the Patriots of college basketball, he laughed and said yes. Sophomore Brennan Besser said that while the season “... hasn’t been easy, anything great that’s worth doing isn’t easy.”
But it was freshman forward Harry Giles who put it best.
“We’re Duke. We know we’re gonna be the most hated team every year,” he said. “We embrace that. That’s why you come to Duke, to be the villain in people’s eyes. You know they won’t like you. But at the end of the day, you gotta play basketball.”