During the halftime show of the Duke-Arizona State game Wednesday, after ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb called the Blue Devils “alarmingly unathletic” at certain positions, I was perplexed.
I by no means think that Duke is one of the most athletic teams in the country, but is he aware that freshman Mason Plumlee was the runner-up in the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest? Could Kyle Singler, a preseason All-American, play at his level without athleticism? And has he taken a close look at junior Nolan Smith’s moves in transition?
Athleticism may very well be a weakness of the Blue Devils, but “alarmingly unathletic”? Really?
This team has six former McDonald’s All-Americans, and Duke’s big men aren’t from the back-to-the-basket mold—some of them can really run the floor and jump. In two games at Madison Square Garden, Miles Plumlee had six blocks, including one after which he had to duck in order to avoid hitting his head on the backboard. Athleticism is not one of Duke’s strengths like fundamental play, 3-point shooting and defense are. But “alarmingly unathletic” misses the point.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, senior Lance Thomas admitted this notion is frustrating, and Plumlee just laughed when he was asked by a reporter how someone so unathletic, like he must be as a Dukie, could even get up out of bed or tie his shoes. The Blue Devils, Smith insisted, are more athletic than they look.
“We definitely catch a lot of people off-guard,” Smith said. “People might look down the court and just assume that we’re not athletic, but when the game starts and we’re running the ball down their throats and getting transition and getting fast-break points... Just because we aren’t doing two-handed windmills like a Stanley Robinson on fast breaks, they say that we’re not athletic.”
In contrast to Gottlieb’s halftime comments, head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s assessment of the Blue Devils’ athleticism is far more in line with reality. After the NIT Season Tip-Off title game against Connecticult Friday, the first question that Krzyzewski was asked concerned Gottlieb’s comments from two days earlier.
“Actually, we’re pretty athletic. We’re just not as athletic as Connecticut,” Krzyzewski said. “Singler is a really good athlete.... Jon is not leaping tall buildings with a single bound but he’s a real good athlete. But I wouldn’t call us, like, this athletic team, but we’re not amazingly non-athletic.”
Krzyzewski even went so far as to take a shot at the former Oklahoma State point-guard-turned-critic. Let’s not forget that the ESPN analyst shot 46 percent from the free-throw line while playing for the Cowboys.
“He should be an expert on alarmingly non-athletic,” Krzyzewski said. “So I’ll have to take a look at that a little bit closer because it comes from an expert who actually knows what it feels like to be alarmingly non-athletic.”
Before Gottlieb made his most recent remarks about Duke, I spoke to former ESPN.com Page 2 contributor Bomani Jones, who was recently on campus for the “Sports, Race and Power Conference”. Our conversation focused on how the race of athletes affects the coverage they receive from journalists and how race is a factor when both commentators and the general public alike call the Blue Devils unathletic. I strongly agreed with Jones when he said that the fact that Duke’s roster has just three African-American players and this perception of Duke as an “unathletic” team are related.
It’s not something that is often overtly stated, but the perception that Duke needs to recruit big, black players is real—try checking Blue Devil message boards or taking a close listen on campus, where the idea is often uncomfortably expressed in jokes. And it’s a view that should disappear.
“There’s been this perception that Duke’s team is too white, and that’s not what it is,” Jones said. “The problem is that the players haven’t been good enough. Contrary to popular belief, that is not the same thing.”
All this isn’t to say that Gottlieb is some sort of undercover racist, and I am aware that as a Jewish athlete, he was the subject of some gruesome and unfair treatment on the part of insulting fans during his own playing days.
But I do think that Gottlieb should address these claims and explain what makes the Blue Devils “alarmingly unathletic”.
For one, “unathletic” isn’t even a real word: Try looking it up in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. (“The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary. Click on a spelling suggestion below or try again using the search bar above.”) And for another, an alarming lack of athleticism is just not evident when you look at the Blue Devils play.
Duke doesn’t have the most athletic team in the country, but Gottlieb’s assertion was incorrect and in my mind improperly founded.
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