The independent news organization of Duke University

THE MOST HATED PLAYER IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL

In real time, it looked like an elbow to the face. Inadvertent, perhaps, but definitely an elbow to the face.

The slow-motion replay revealed a much more malicious act, one that probably should have earned the transgressor an intentional, if not flagrant, foul.

The boos cascaded down from all corners of the RBC Center in Raleigh that March afternoon-showering the victim, not the perpetrator.

As Greg Paulus pulled the jersey up from his torso to wipe blood away from the area below his right eye, which had just been lacerated by a sharp swing from Javier Gonzalez's right elbow, all he could think about was how he could clean himself up to get back into the game.

All the N.C. State fans could think was another Duke flop. Another Paulus flop.

Gonzalez had actually gotten away with a nearly identical play during the teams' first matchup of the season in January, but that didn't matter to the Wolfpack faithful. Neither, for that matter, did the actual truth of what happened on this particular play, which occurred after Gonzalez became frustrated with Paulus' pesky backcourt defense.

What mattered was that it was Duke, and that it was Paulus.

The N.C. State fans had likely seen the YouTube videos that splice together Paulus' flops, and they had probably heard the chants that their counterparts at Virginia Tech and Miami had directed at the guard earlier in the season. So they pounced on the opportunity to boo the vaunted target, following a path blazed by fans around the country over the past two decades.

If it wasn't clear when J.J. Redick predicted it two years ago, then it certainly is now: Greg Paulus has taken over the mantle as The Most Hated Player in College Basketball, the top villain on the most villainous team in all of college basketball. Fully assuming that unenviable distinction this year, Paulus has taken the brunt of all the Duke hatred that has grown-and continues to do so-out of the program's success and image under Mike Krzyzewski.

"F- You, Paulus"

Paulus isn't the captain of this year's Duke team, nor is he the leading scorer. Both of those honors are held by DeMarcus Nelson. Paulus isn't the most talented Blue Devil, nor is he the one with the brightest future as a professional basketball player. Those honors can be debated between Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson.

But outside of Chapel Hill, where Henderson is Public Enemy No. 1 for elbowing Tyler Hansbrough last year, Paulus is the new villain.

The fan reactions at opposing arenas provide all the evidence necessary for proof. At Florida State and Miami, hundreds of fans joined together in "F- You, Paulus" chants. At Virginia Tech, fans chanted "Teabag Paulus," a not-so-subtle reference to Deron Washington's dunk over Paulus from last year that has been virally distributed over the Internet. And at N.C. State, of course, the fans booed Paulus when he left the game bleeding after taking an elbow in the face.

"It's tough to flop when you're bleeding," Paulus said.

It would be easy for Paulus to say he doesn't hear the fans, that he's able to block it out and focus on the task at hand. But despite his best attempts to ignore the fans, he's heard, and hears, just about everything.

When an entire student section is yelling a coordinated expletive at a player, which is what happened to Paulus during the first half at Miami Feb. 20, he has two choices: He can succumb to the fans or he can use it as motivation.

"It's happened a lot of times this year," Paulus said. "I just try to get up there and knock down the shots and try to think about what we're going to do next.... When people are saying stuff like that it just makes me concentrate more. If I'm at the foul line, the best way to keep them quiet is to hit the free throws."

"In sports, we need a villain"

Fan reactions around the country, specifically in the ACC, have shown who the new villain is. But the question of why Paulus has become The Most Hated Player in College Basketball, and moreover how all Duke villains are chosen, is more complex.

Paulus said he'll leave it up to the fans and media to decide why exactly he's become that guy-"somebody has to be," he said. But the most obvious reason is his overt displays of emotion: the screams after made threes and the floor-slaps when Duke needs a stop,

"It's because they can see that [Paulus] is the heart and soul of the team," said Christian Laettner, perhaps the most infamous Duke villain of all time. "They can see that he's the one that's trying to have the intensity rub off on the rest of the team. Opposing fans are very good at deciding who is the bloodline of the team.... It seems like they love going after the really intense guy on the team. If you pump your fist and get jacked up, they're going to come after you."

Some, however, contend that other factors are at play-that there are race and class issues involved, and that the general targets are the pretty boys who are believed to represent the Duke student body. They point to Duke greats like Grant Hill, Elton Brand and Jason Williams and wonder why they weren't villainized to the same extent as some of their white counterparts.

In an interview last year with the Greensboro News-Record, Krzyzewski said that the racial element might not be the "main point" but still a "legitimate" one.

The newest piece of anti-Duke material on the Internet is a joke application for the "Duke University Flopping Camp." Among the questions asked on the one-page document are: "Do you lack athletic ability?," "Does your offensive 'game' consist of standing outside the three-point line?" and "Are you a lil' floor-slapper?"

It also asks, "Are you white?"

"There are misguided issues of class and race," said Will Leitch, editor of the popular sports blog Deadspin. "This is sometimes the price you pay for success-it's not necessarily a fair price.

"In sports, we need a villain.... The thing I think people attack is the impression that they're these pretty-boys who never had to work too hard and get away with things. But there's a funny irony in that because those are actually the guys that are working the hardest, the scrappers."

"It comes with the territory"

When Redick cast his prophecy about Paulus during his senior season, he was well aware of Duke's position in the college basketball landscape.

For most programs, the Blue Devils' 2007 record of 22-11 and an NCAA Tournament appearance is considered a successful year. Not for Coach K and Duke. In Durham, that's the type of season that sets off alarm bells and has everyone from ESPN analysts to anonymous bloggers sounding off about the decline of Krzyzewski's program.

It's that expectation of success-and by and large the Blue Devils' ability to deliver-that has put Duke on the current pedestal it shares with a select few teams across all of sports.

"The No. 1 reason across the board why people hate Duke is that Duke has been too consistently good for too long," Leitch said. "There are other factors, but the success is No. 1 through 5, there's no doubt whatsoever."

Some have argued over the years, though, that the Duke hatred goes beyond the success. Not only have the Blue Devils been good, but they've been the type of good that frustrates everyone who is not a Duke fan. They shoot well, they take charges, they play with emotion and, yes, with a bit of arrogance.

They're the type of team everyone wants to beat. Except historically, that hasn't happened very often.

"It's respect," said Duke assistant coach Chris Collins, himself a veteran villain. "It's become that when Duke comes to town it's a big game, and that's because of what's happened over the past 25 years. I view that as a compliment and as respect-that people are excited to play us, that crowds are fired up."

In books like North Carolina fan Will Blythe's "To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever" and in essays like the "Anti-Dook Manifesto" on truthaboutduke.com, Duke haters have explained it in other terms. In their rationalization, they say it's more than just the success. It's an attitude of unparalleled entitlement, at least in the world of college sports. They paint Duke University as the arrogant school composed of preppy carpetbaggers and the school's basketball team as the most obvious public representation of this image.

"It comes with the territory," Laettner said. "It comes with being so good. People think we're spoiled good ol' Duke boys. Duke in general is a lightning rod, and the basketball team specifically because it's had so much success.

"If you stunk every year, or even once in a while, you wouldn't be that team or that person that has the target on their back all the time. That's just human nature-when you're successful, people go after you."

"They're going to hate you"

There was a time when Duke was an underdog, the team most fans cheered for in the late 1980s as the Blue Devils challenged contemporary powers like Louisville, UNLV and Michigan for supremacy in the NCAA.

That all changed with Laettner-and to some extent Bobby Hurley, the Robin to Laettner's Batman-as Duke reached four straight Final Fours and won two straight national championships in 1991 and 1992. The Blue Devils were no longer the lovable upstart. They were the standard-bearers.

Laettner became an easy target for opposing fans, and he did nothing to dispel the image of privilege that the Duke haters so despise. When opposing fans hurled obscenities, slurs and epithets in his direction, Laettner reveled in it. He fed off the energy, seemingly teasing the fans with his arrogance. There wasn't much opposing fans could do; all Laettner and the Blue Devils would have to do is point to the scoreboard at the end of the game.

"You can't stand up there and cry and say, 'Why don't you like me?'" Laettner said. "It's not too hard to fathom why they'd be booing and why, if they had arrows, they'd shoot them at you. When I was there we took down a lot of teams. I'm not saying I want [the negative attention]. I would love to be loved by everyone. But if you're consistently beating them, they're going to hate you."

When Laettner graduated, the torch was briefly passed to Hurley. Hurley begat Collins, Collins begat Steve Wojciechowski, and a few years later Redick picked up where they left off. Paulus is the most recent reincarnation.

"The guys that get it are the ones who thrive on it the most," Collins said. "For the most part the guys who have been the targets have been guys who have enjoyed it and have used it to push their games to new levels."

The top villain isn't an official title, nor is it really something that's discussed much between the different generations. But it's an exclusive club that fans latch onto while the players are at Duke and never let go.

At last year's ACC Tournament, Laettner was one of a handful of players honored in the 2007 class of ACC Basketball Legends. Fifteen years removed from his college basketball career, and two years after his retirement from the NBA, Laettner strutted onto the court, confident as ever. The Blue Devils had exited the tournament prematurely three days prior, leaving a decidedly anti-Duke crowd in the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.

Predictably, the boos emanated from every section. Laettner didn't miss a beat from his days as a Blue Devil, though, giving the crowd exactly what it wanted. He smiled, touched his lips with two forefingers and blew a kiss to the crowd.

"Cheap heat"

Throughout the years, the Duke villains have heard it all. Fans have yelled things about what they think about Laettner and Redick's sexuality, and their pet name for Collins was "Chrissie."

While there have been plenty of jeers directed at Duke players that have bordered on inappropriate over the years, the level of vitriol and organization of the fans seems to have increased recently.

"You always have your different venues that go a little bit more out of bounds than other places," said Collins, who believes most of things fans say today are the same as a decade or two ago. "What's changed is the information era with the Internet-more pictures online, more ways to learn more about guys."

That was precisely the case in Blacksburg, Va. this year. In the past, the Hokie fans might have forgotten the Washington dunk on Paulus, but now they've all watched the replay on YouTube over and over. It's been e-mailed to friends and posted on blogs like Leitch's, providing ammunition for anyone and everyone who wants to hate Duke.

If they want to generate traffic, blogs and other new media can resort to what Leitch calls "cheap heat." That is, it's become easier than ever to add a little more Duke bashing- an extra reference to the Washington dunk here, a call to action about the upcoming game against the Blue Devils there.

"I don't think it's singular to Duke-it's the way the league is and the way the culture is," Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg said. "There's a fine line you want between passion and ownership in fans. It's part of our society. People step over the line, people think they can do or say anything. It's sad but that's our society."

Paulus said fans have only crossed the line a few times this year, usually when they direct their taunts at his family. But in general, besides public-address announcements like the cease-and-desist one made at Miami this year, there isn't much that can or will be done.

"I wish it could be monitored a little more, but you can't have police sitting in every aisle monitoring fans," Laettner said. "That's part of the game. That's why people love going to sporting events-to yell, drink some alcohol and let off emotion by screaming a little bit."

"Without a doubt, one will emerge"

The Duke Villain is a position that Paulus, like his predecessors, has accepted and prospered from.

Some of the cheers even make him laugh. Later in the away N.C. State game this year, several fans close to the Duke bench heckled Paulus about his affinity for drinking Shirley Temples.

"I thought that was funny," Paulus said. "I don't drink [alcohol]. I like a Shirley Temple. I laughed at that one."

And still, despite Duke not winning a national championship since 2001, the easiest response is simply to succeed in the face of the hate. When the four-letter chants against him peaked at the Miami game, Paulus was just stepping to the free throw line. Shooting into the teeth of the Hurricanes student section, he calmly sank both free throws.

"Winning on the road is a great, great feeling, especially in a hostile environment," Paulus said.

With a little more than a year left, Paulus has yet to anoint the next Most Hated Player in College Basketball. Without a doubt, though, one will emerge. And some day, he'll walk into the opposing arena, get elbowed in the face and be booed.

"Paulus is this year's version," Leitch said. "In four years, it'll be someone else."

Discussion

Share and discuss “THE MOST HATED PLAYER IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL” on social media.