Grayson Allen's Unfortunate Reality: Duke Star Is College Hoops' Archvillain

Reid ForgraveSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 23, 2016

GREENSBORO, NC - DECEMBER 21: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils waits at the scorer's table during the second half of their game against the Elon Phoenix at the Greensboro Coliseum on December 21, 2016 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Duke won 72-61. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

You look at the video of the play, and you compare it to the two videos of similar plays from last season, and you can't help but think: That's dirty. And that's suspension-worthy. And…that's why we hate Duke.

Late in the first half in Duke's 72-61 win over Elon on Wednesday night, junior Grayson Allen was defending Elon's Steven Santa Ana near the baseline when Allen stuck out his leg, tripping Santa Ana. When Allen was assessed a technical foul, he threw a tantrum on the bench.

It looked strikingly similar to the two tripping incidents from last season—one against Louisville, the other against Florida State—that made the talented, NBA-bound guard public enemy No. 1 to college basketball fans. On Thursday morning, with seemingly everyone in the college basketball universe calling for Allen's head on a platter, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski served it up to them, suspending Allen indefinitely.

In the public's eyes, Allen had officially ascended to the highest level of villainy in Duke's evil empire: Christian Laettner, Quin Snyder, Bobby Hurley, J.J. Redick and now Grayson Allen.

We all thought the chest-stomping Laettner would be the greatest Duke villain of all time. But with Allen's Draymond Green-like tripping tendencies, perhaps the empire has a new Darth Vader. Between now and the Final Four, the hate will flow to him like the hate has flowed to few college basketball players before: taunts, signs, memes and general degradations of character.

But then you look at the video after the game. You know the one I'm talking about, where the 21-year-old kid is sitting at his locker, head down, surrounded by a phalanx of microphones, performing the rite of public contrition.

It is in those moments that we see Allen is a real and vulnerable person, not Darth Vader after all. His eyes are red. His voice sounds stuffed up, as if he's been battling a nasty sinus infection. 

You look at this video, and you know the public basketball humiliation Allen put himself through last season after his two unsportsmanlike trips will only crescendo in the next few months. You look at this video, and while you know this incident plus the two from last season are "inexcusable" and "unacceptable" (to use Coach K's words), how can you not feel some empathy?

These were three instances from the heat of competition, comprising just three split seconds in his life. While it's one thing to say he should be suspended, it's quite another to use these three incidents to judge this young man's character.

Are we really looking at a villain?

Don't take my word for it. Take the word of someone who has experienced something like this firsthand, when another star player made another big mistake on another public stage and turned into another season's villain.

On the night of Feb. 8, 2014, things were getting heated in Lubbock, Texas.

Oklahoma State was about to lose to a dreadful Texas Tech team, and star sophomore point guard Marcus Smart—who, like Allen this year, had bypassed the NBA draft in favor of one more year in school—jumped to block a transition layup with a few seconds left and was called for a foul.

His momentum carried him into the stands, full of rabid Texas Tech fans. One fan in particular irked him. Smart shoved the fan. The arena erupted. The next day, the school handed down a three-game suspension, but not before Smart had been labeled a hothead, a dirty player, a thug and far, far worse.

"None of it is excusable," said Travis Ford, Smart's coach at Oklahoma State who now coaches at Saint Louis University. "We know right from wrong, and we know that was wrong. But my goodness; we are in a society where the pressure put on kids in sports, in the heat of the moment—yes, of course it's wrong, but…who are we to judge? Who are we to crucify somebody? It's easy to sit back and state opinions, and everyone's got 'em. But I've tried to stop doing that because of the circumstances I've been a part of."

The circumstances around Marcus were complicated. There was a serious illness in his family that had worn on his emotions. His team—the one he'd returned to college for so he could lead it to the Final Four—was struggling mightily. The pressure on the kid was immense, and he screwed up. Ford knew Smart was a good kid, and Smart—like Allen did in the postgame press conference—owned up to his mistake.

Like Smart, Allen is a passionate and emotional player, disliked by his opponents and their fans and with the pressure of starring for a Final Four-caliber team. Of course, there's a big difference: While Smart's incident breached the fourth wall with a fan, Allen's incidents have inexplicably happened three times.

Still, Ford's message remains the same: "I was watching TV [Wednesday] night and hearing a lot of people going after this kid. Not that it makes it right, but how do you know you wouldn't have done the same thing? It's not like he's walking down the street and thinking, 'Hey, I'm sticking my leg out here.'"

Of course Allen deserves a suspension. He probably deserved to sit down back in February when he tripped someone a second time. But does he deserve the vitriol and the public condemnation, and the fact that at age 21 these three plays will likely come to define him for the rest of his basketball career? Certainly not.

Yet he gets it anyway, because we as sports fans love to knock people off the mountaintop. Allen is on the tallest of mountaintops. He plays for a Duke team that is the nation's most talented, he was a preseason favorite for player of the year, and he's an anomaly because he's a white star in a primarily black sport.

To the frothing masses, may I refer you to ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla's tweet Thursday:

"Coach K should have handled this the first or the second time, and in a sense he enabled the behavior—at least on the outside to the public," Fraschilla told Bleacher Report on Thursday.

"We don't know what he did internally, but we know he didn't suspend him from a game. When you go play at a place like Duke or Kansas or Kentucky, the exposure is a double-edged sword. When you make a mistake like he did, you become a laughingstock."

Think about that: a 21-year-old who is one of the most talented young basketball players in the world, and he's now a laughingstock. It's cruel how we demand perfection from these young men and how we mock them when they screw up.

This snarky derision misses the more pressing point: Why does he keep doing this? Is this impulse control and an anger issue, as Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel has poignantly suggested? Is he competitive to a fault? Or is he just a dirty player?

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 19: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts during their game against the Tennessee State Tigers at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 19, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

"When things like this happen, people want figurative blood, and they don't care for anything else," said longtime Sporting News college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy, one of the most respected minds in college basketball media.

"There's no consideration at all for why does this keep coming up. This isn't normal athletic behavior. So why does it keep happening? And that's what Mike [Krzyzewski] is trying to ascertain, because it has repercussions for Duke's season. They need it to stop—for their season's purposes and for Grayson's future."

That's what's too often been missing from this conversation. Grayson's future.

I've heard people debate whether he should be suspended for one game or for 10. I've heard people question this young man's character and his draft stock. I've seen discussions—and, yes, participated in some—of where Allen ranks on the all-time Duke villain list. I know these will be the things that will consume way too much airtime during the college basketball season.

But I've not heard nearly enough about how this will affect Allen. Can we show some compassion when someone is going through one of the worst self-inflicted humiliations he'll ever experience?

And anyway, this was just a trip. This was not good sportsmanship, but come on; haven't we seen so, so much worse?

"It's not even the worst I've seen this week," DeCourcy said. "I watched the NFL this Sunday. And this isn't even close."


Reid Forgrave covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @ReidForgrave.


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