Christian Laettner makes for a great Litmus test. Go up to anyone and ask: “What do you think of Christian Laettner?” If they say, “He hit THE SHOT,” or “Oh, you mean the best college basketball player of all time?”, that means they went to Duke. (If they don’t know who you’re talking about, they still might’ve gone to Duke, because fun fact!: most Dukies don’t know anything about Duke basketball, no matter how much blue paint they cover their bodies in.)
What’s more likely, though, is that you mention Laettner’s name and whoever you’re with spits, or starts ranting uncontrollably about how dirty he was, how much of a bastard, how he stomped on a Aminu Timberlake’s chest earlier in the game and should’ve been ejected before he even had a chance to hit The Shot, how he was a crushing disappointment in the NBA. Then you know they went to any other school, because nobody who isn’t a Duke fan likes Christian Laettner.
Laettner is everything folks love to hate about Duke basketball, all sneering privilege, obnoxious confidence, and unlikely athleticism, contained in a gangly and peculiar 6’11 body. And he was good. He was, in fact, better than good — he shot an insane 58% from the floor and 56% from three as a senior, plus eight rebounds and 21.5 points per game. Alongside Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, Laettner led Duke to two national championships in a row. He was the only college player on the Dream Team, which, interestingly enough, is an achievement that’s more often mocked than lauded nowawdays.
Like so many debates in the sports world, though, both sides are right in the battle over Laettner. Even the most militant Duke fan has to recognize that Laettner was an asshole, in the same way they can’t deny the greatness of Michael Jordan just because he went to Carolina. And haters have to cop to Laettner’s efficacy as a player; otherwise, they deserve to be thrown into the same corral where sane observers put people who say there’s any current NBA player they’d rather have on their team than LeBron James.
In the way of many pivotal moments, Laettner’s shot has been so strained over the years through cultural filters and prisms that the first memory many have of it might little resemble the actual play. Take a second and watch the video. Hill’s pass, hurled like a baseball, remarkably on point; Laettner’s reaching grab, only possible because of his insane length; the fake right, and then the turn left, and the fadeaway heave that looks so awkward and untrustworthy; the way the ball kind of emerges from his hands, less like he shot it and more as though it felt the need to leave; how everyone on the court stands and stares as the ball falls, then has their own individual conniption when the shot goes in. Antonio Lang, a sophomore forward, pumps his fist and collapses from the weight of it all, and then there’s the famous shot of Thomas Hill appearing to be sobbing, though he actually isn’t. (Whether you believe his testimony or not, you can see later on in the video that he looks dry-eyed.) The rest of Duke’s team mobs Laettner, and the Kentucky players wander stunned, dazed, and again, it doesn’t matter where your allegiances lie: you have to feel for them.
Without that shot, the game still ranks as one of the best ever, the type of 104-103 13-rounder in which the house and barn and fields are all razed to the ground. And that shot capped a 10-10 FG, 10-10 FT night for Laettner. 31 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists. Bobby Hurley had 22 and 10 assists; Grant Hill had 11 and 10 boards. For Kentucky, Jamal Mashburn put up 28 and 10 rebounds without a single turnover. Overall, it’s the kind of game that seems fully formed in my consciousness even though I was two years old at the time. If I did, in fact, watch it, I imagine I didn’t appreciate it properly.
Laettner has likely achieved some form of immortality for this game. As much notoriety as it is canonization, this immortality means is demonstrated by how we’re still talking about his shot twenty years later, watching it on loop as either a comforting tonic or a form of self-flagellation. In sports, some things happen, and then they keep happening forever.
And here’s the real beauty of it, the beauty of the whole messy unfurling thing: in March 2012, the Kentucky Wildcats wait for their shot at a National Championship bid, already basking in the glow of a Final Four. The Blue Devils lost to Lehigh.
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