Athletics in The Old North State: 5 Dominant Athletes from Duke and UNC

Athletics in The Old North State: 5 Dominant Athletes from Duke and UNC article feature image

Pictured from left: Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Michael Jordan.

The state of North Carolina is home to some of the most prestigious and successful universities in the nation, two of the most prominent being Duke and the University of North Carolina.

Many sports greats have walked the campuses of these two universities, leaving their legacy at their respective schools. Whether it was Michael Jordan roaming Morrisson Hall in his days as a geography major, or Christian Laettner studying outdoors at the Stagg pavilion, these stars came from humble beginnings.

Let’s look at some of the most iconic and dominant athletes from Duke and North Carolina.

Tier 1: Household Names

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan

Do I need to go through Michael Jordan’s extensive list of accolades?

Jordan is heralded as the best professional basketball player ever, if you ask anyone over the age of 37. His NBA accomplishments include five MVPs, six NBA Championships and six NBA Finals MVP awards.

During his tenure as a Tar Heel, he won ACC Player of the Year and ACC Athlete of the Year honors in 1984 and an NCAA Championship in 1982.

Jordan’s impact supersedes his time as a player. In the years following his playing career, he purchased a stake in the Charlotte Bobcats (Hornets). He has since sold his stake in the franchise.

Jordan was also known for betting on the golf course and on the team bus with his teammates. I bet he is excited about the legalization of North Carolina sports betting!

Grant Hill

Grant Hill

In my opinion, Grant Hill is one of the best professional basketball players to come out of Duke University.

Plenty of talent from Duke is currently in the league, such as Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving and others. However, Hill’s 16.7 points per game and multiple All-Star selections put him at the top of the list of retired Duke basketball players.

His time at Duke was very impressive, as well. His number, 33, is retired by the Duke Blue Devils, an understandable determination when you consider his contributions to to program. He was a two-time First Team All-ACC member as well as ACC Player of the Year in 1994.

Tier 2: Recognizable Athletes

Christian Laettner

Christian Laettner

One of Grant Hill’s teammates was Christian Laettner. Laettner’s fame peaked during his time at Duke. Many opposing fans hated Laettner, a hatred that extended past Christian’s time as a Blue Devil.

ESPN released a 30 for 30 documentary on Laettner and his time at Duke, fittingly titled, “I Hate Christian Laettner”. In this documentary, a slew of stars highlight why they hated Laettner, in addition to why they believed spectators hated him, as well.

One specific instance that reflected poorly on Laettner was when he stepped on the chest of Aminu Timberlake in the 1992 regional final. He was assessed a technical foul. Of course, The Blue Devils went on to win the National Championship that season.

Mia Hamm

Mia Hamm

You have to consider Mia Hamm when you are talking about Tar Heel greats. Hamm is a staple of the United States Women’s National Soccer team to this day for her contributions to the squad from 1987-2004.

Hamm was only 15 when she made her debut for the USWNT. Until 2013, she held the record for the most international goals scored by a woman or man. As of 2024, she has the third-most international goals scored.

The only word to describe the Lady Tar Heels during Mia’s reign is dominant. She helped UNC win four NCAA Division-I Women’s Soccer Championships in five years. Mia redshirted during the 1991 season to focus on preparation for the 1991 FIFA World Cup. In 1993 and 1994, Hamm was named the ACC Female Athlete of the Year.

Tier 3: A Lesser-Known Legend

Erin Matson

Erin Matson

I wanted to find someone that dominated a lesser-known sport. After some research and conversation with friends, Erin Matson was brought to my attention. Erin Matson played field hockey at UNC and led her team to four NCAA Championships as a player in addition to five ACC Championships.

She performed so well as a player that UNC athletics brought her on to coach the field hockey team. Her 2023 season was her first, and she won the National Championship, bringing her National Championship total to five in six years. She is 6-for-6 with ACC Titles. Talk about a dynasty.

Honorable Mentions

I want to acknowledge that this is not a definitive list of the most influential Duke and UNC athletes. I am not pretending that Vince Carter, J.J. Redick, Kenny “The Jet” Smith and Shane Battier don’t exist.

However, these two institutions have contributed to sports in far greater ways than just on the hardwood. Collegiate athletics in North Carolina are truly a breeding ground for greatness!

Sports betting is coming to the Tar Heel State! Stay up to date on the latest news about the best North Carolina sports betting apps.

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