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He looks like Ted Cruz. I spoke to a few people for this article and all of them, even a Canadian, mentioned Ted Cruz immediately. My editor mentioned Cruz when he replied to my pitch. It’s the first thing anyone mentions, the unnerving sight of a young, beefy version of arguably the most widely hated politician in America playing basketball on national TV. His name is Grayson Allen. He plays guard on the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Cruz thing is part of it (the unfair part). No man could have done anything to keep themselves from looking this much like Ted Cruz—from being forced to carry the weight of that rancid visage and the internal world of slime it has come to represent for everyone who lays eyes on it. Grayson has, of course, lived a life that is far away from Ted’s. Instead of debate club, he concentrated on basketball. Instead of forging his mind into a machine for irritating the libs (and also everyone else), Grayson merely shaped his body into a basketball shooting machine. He tried, lord knows he tried.
In a podcast interview with fellow Duke alumnus JJ Redick, Grayson tried to downplay this. He said that people told him he looked like all kinds of disliked people while he was playing for Duke University, including Joffrey Baratheon. But you can feel him knowing that there’s really only one guy he looks like, one guy he can never hide from.
This is an article about how people feel about Grayson Allen. People loathe him. In a different world, I could be writing a story about how this is an injustice, that we should give Grayson a chance. Sure, he went to Duke. Sure, he looks like Ted Cruz. But c’mon, he doesn’t deserve the vitriol that stirs in people. He is a man cursed by God and that’s OK. But, some of us do not overcome. Some of us are born with Ted Cruz’s face and it seeps into our souls.
When Grayson Allen, 6-foot-4 shooting guard out of Jacksonville, Florida (of all places), first stepped onto the court for the Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team in 2014, he stood in the footprints of giants. Under coach—and top-dollar speaker available for your next corporate retreat—Mike Krzyzewski, Duke always seemed to find themselves employing the talents of, for lack of a better word, the most irritating white college basketball players in human history. Jay Bilas, Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Steve Wojciechowski, John Scheyer, JJ Redick, three separate Plumlees, a whole canon of white guys getting celebrated by retrograde elements of college basketball media for “playing the right way” or whatever; a constant, rotating presence of a certain kind of human energy that synced with Krzyzewski’s lightly authoritarian, deeply moralizing coaching aims.
After this player is tagged and established in the public imagination, a metaplay like no other in sports begins. Opposing fans will boo this player mercilessly, like maniacs, unleashing all of their pent-up frustration with the structures of society on this one dude—chewing him up, spitting him out, tossing back flagons of beer as they celebrate his failures and downplay his successes. The player, being a jock somewhere in the ages of 18-22, apt to summoning power in the hatred of strangers like Doctor Strange does from devils and demons, will take this negative energy and proceed to feed it back to the crowd, strutting around the court like Little Lord Fauntleroy, devouring their hatred and demanding more for their engine. This goes on until the player retires, and either becomes an NBA role player, a Coach K assistant, or a real estate grifter who played on the Dream Team for some reason.
Grayson didn’t… love this arrangement. If there is a tragic element, it’s that no one really asks to become a loathed Duke white, and that, before Grayson, everyone else was able to make something from the invective that came their way. When he appeared on that aforementioned episode of JJ Redick’s podcast, the two of them commiserated over their shared status as a hated white Duke guy. Redick said it kind of sucks and Allen, not skipping a beat, immediately added, “You look like you had more fun with it than me, though.” He talked about the deluge of social media bile, his life as a meme, and he sounds… sad. Bummed out. It was a stressful arrangement for a young man, especially one who was, like all young men nowadays, inundated by unnervingly specific comments online. “I never thought about it,” he said, reflecting on his decision to attend Duke out of high school. “I never thought it was going to be me.”
You feel bad for a second. Perhaps Grayson deserved better from this world. But then, you remember…
…that this guy could not stop tripping people.
“When he just started tripping people, it was weird at first,” Brown Recluse, Esq., a lifelong UNC fan and contributor to the late and lamented FreeDarko basketball writing collective, tells me. “It was more just like… what’s wrong with this guy? And then it became, ‘Seriously, what is actually medically wrong with this person?’ He kept doing it. And the one clip where he’s going nuts, having a temper tantrum on the bench. This guy maybe isn’t super-stable?”
“People think I’m upset at the call, trying to act like I didn’t do anything. It was the opposite,” Allen told Redick. “I thought I was good, going into my junior year, turn a leaf, nothin’s gonna happen, nothing going on and then… this happens. So that moment, going to the bench, I already know what it’s going to be like after the game, I know when I open my phone what it’s gonna be like on Twitter and Instagram. I know that I’ve gone somewhere that I told myself for a whole offseason, a whole summer, a whole pre-season… I told myself this was somewhere I wasn’t gonna go. In my head I wanted so much to not be hated for that season that I didn’t want to do anything wrong, and then that happens, and I was already under all this pressure. I didn’t realize how fragile I was in that moment, because I had snapped. Because I knew that was gonna happen. Because I hated playing knowing that I was being watched every second, knowing that I was this most hated guy who everyone viewed a certain way. I hated that. Then I do a thing that adds to that.”
A thing that… he had done many times before, though. That he was known for doing, by this point. And look, judging the emotional reactions of 20-year-olds is tricky ground, but he is reflecting back on this later in his life, on a podcast, speaking to someone about shared struggle, and he still finds himself using the phrase “This happens?” Nothing happened, man. You did something! And, look, maybe the backlash is too much but you did that shit! Tripping people on a basketball court is dangerous!
Allen proceeded to explain that a few of his trips were a reaction to getting fouled himself, as a form of impulsive retaliation, as if to say, yeah, I was out for revenge. “Everyone who is a competitor wants retaliation in some sense. There are all these basketball plays that people do, that they get someone back two plays later, a hard foul or something within the game. But me, I did it a second later, something cheap.” He said he then shifted his approach by doing the standard thing of repaying force with force later in the game, so that people won’t put two and two together so easily and roast him on Instagram. You know, like a normal guy.
But the problem here isn’t time. It’s that the difference between smacking a guy across the arms a little hard and tripping someone is several degrees of danger. Again, tripping someone accelerating at full speed is dangerous! They could break their nose or mess up their ankle or extend their arms to keep from falling and break their wrist. It’s intentionally propelling someone into an uncontrolled movement that can easily end with them getting hurt. But hey, he said it was all a big learning opportunity and he “didn’t injure anyone,” so it’s pretty much all good, right?
Katie Heindl, author of the popular Basketball Feelings newsletter, tries to give Grayson the benefit of the doubt. She tells me about his interview with Redick, the clear loathing he has for the way people hate him, the tragic nature of the loathing he creates. She wonders aloud if this is a learned behavior or a vicious instinct. Katie is one of the most empathetic people I know, certainly the most empathetic sportswriter. She tries really hard to give him some justification. But she can’t stay off the fence. It’s too obvious. “I watched that clip a few times. He winds up,” she says.
Alex Caruso’s tumble resulted in a fractured wrist that took him out of the game for a few weeks and visibly affected his shooting upon his return. The Bulls, who were on a roll before Alex, one of the league’s best bench players and a stout defensive guard (sort of a male pattern baldness-afflicted John Starks), stumbled to the finish line. When the Bulls faced the Bucks in the playoffs, Allen was, once again, a conduit for invective, maybe on a scale he had never really experienced.
“Grayson Allen, in Chicago, in this playoff series, has what was, most likely, the largest, most captive amount of haters in front of him that he’s ever had before,” John Wilmes, a community college professor and Bulls fan from Chicago, tells me. “This is when he had the best games of his NBA career.”
John is correct: Allen scored 49 total points in two games in Chicago, feasting off open threes whenever the defense collapsed on Giannis, seeming to devour the hatred of the crowd. “He didn’t play as well in Milwaukee, let’s note that,” says Wilmes, a conspiratorial tone arresting his speech. “He played really well in Chicago, when he’s got 38,000 people who absolutely hate him, watching him. So his whole thriving on resentment thing, and the way that recalls the man who he physically looks like, Ted Cruz, and brings a Nixonian ethos to the NBA, in the year 2022, makes him uncanny in a very unpleasant way.”
Now, a reading of Grayson Allen’s actual words suggests that he doesn’t think of himself as a Nixonian figure; he doesn’t thrive off the energy of his haters. But John makes a decent point. Grayson has been mostly unremarkable in the NBA. Which is fine. You need some unremarkable guys on the squad. But here he is, in the moment where he is absorbing the most in-person hate he has in his entire life, and he manages to break out and take the game by force for his squad? It’s suspicious, at the very least. It suggests that maybe his choirboy posturing on Redick’s podcast is not totally sincere; that his relationship to hate is not as pure as he claims.
I cannot see deep into the inner silos of his mind, of course. But what does it say that everyone seems to have the same feeling about what fuels him? Is there really a collective unconsciously conspiring against him, or is he actually an imp boy scouring the world, hunting for mischief, like it appears?
Henry Kissinger doesn’t call himself a war criminal, does he? Why would Grayson make it a habit of telling people that he plays with hate in his heart?
I ask Brian Schroeder, a Bulls fan who also writes about the NBA Draft, if he thought Grayson Allen was going to make it in the NBA. “No.” The reply comes immediately. “Maybe like… better than Jimmer [Fredette] because he’s taller, has more of an NBA role, doesn’t have to have a 40 percent usage to be useful in the NBA. Maybe a bench role, like he was in Memphis. Just like… a guy. Unfortunately, the Bucks have used him well–he’s been better for them than Dante DiVincenzo, which is unfortunate. He’s large enough to compete defensively, he plays hard.”
There is some admiration, just a sliver. “On one hand, he has improved since college, and has really worked hard to make himself a good rotation player. On the other hand, he is a rat dickhead. He does this stuff on purpose. You know he likes doing it. And I guess Patrick Beverley does that too, but… Patrick Beverley doesn’t look like that.”
“Fuck Grayson Allen, is how I feel about Grayson Allen,” says Kevin Ferrigan, another Bulls fan. “He’s a dirty, rotten piece of crap and I hate him with my life.”
Kevin was watching the game where Grayson knocked Caruso out of the air. “I screamed. Said some choice words. I forget exactly what they were, but I think it was something along the lines of, ‘That piece of shit.’ My wife heard me, and was like, ‘What?’ And I had to explain.”
“Oh, just enraged,” adds Wilmes, recalling his feelings as he watched Grayson send Caruso thundering into wood. “I definitely make it a point not to complain about dirtiness or officiating too much in the NBA. I find it really annoying when fans do that, when players or coaches do that, when broadcasters do that. I try to play my cards pretty carefully. He’s in a small category of players with, in the last decade, Matthew Dellavedova and Zaza Pachulia, where I just feel like the players’ union shouldn't even represent him.”
“As a member of a union myself, as a college educator, I wouldn’t want someone being represented by my union who was trying to hurt me. It just doesn’t seem like good union practice to have, among your ranks, someone whose self-interest you’re advancing, who is impeding the self-interest of everyone else in the union every time he clocks in.”
Harsh words from John. But, there is a caveat. “Now, to be clear,” he says, “I dislike the Boston Celtics so much that I am willing to root for him at this point.”
Justice only takes you so far in the world of sports loathing, I suppose.