Over two decades later and it continues to be the symbol of March Madness. The shot. Duke fans are still celebrating it, while Kentucky supporters collectively cringe whenever it pops up on TV. The greatest play in college hoops history, delivered by arguably the greatest four-year college player ever. But, Christian Laettner will be the first to let anyone know, a lot more went into “the shot” than just the shot itself.
It was March 28, 1992, and two powerhouses, Duke and Kentucky, collided in the East Regional final at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. A trip to the Final Four was on the line. These titanic programs made sure the game lived up to its billing, and when regulation time expired, there was still no victor. On to overtime they went. After exchanging blows in the extra stanza it appeared the Wildcats were on their way to a win after grabbing the lead with just 2.1 seconds remaining. But, the Blue Devils had other ideas. Or at least their head coach Mike Krzyzewski did.
“When we got the timeout after Sean Woods made the shot, Coach K turned to all of us and said we were going to win this game, and he said it with a serious face,” Christian Laettner told Breitbart Sports. “Most of the guys on the team looked at him like, ‘you’re crazy, we’re going to be in Myrtle Beach celebrating the end of the season soon,”
Laettner, though, truly believed.
“Turned out I was the only sucker that believed him because I thought you’re supposed to believe everything your coach says,” he said.
Good thing for Duke their star player was such a sucker.
After breaking the huddle, Grant Hill lofted in a long inbounds pass from behind the Duke basket. Laettner caught the ball. Then came the key to the entire play. He didn’t hoist a wild shot; instead, the savvy senior took the time to dribble before going into a turnaround motion.
“I knew I didn’t have to rush anything,” Laettner said. “I knew I had time where I didn’t have to fling it up there real fast, so I just went into a basketball move, something that gives you a little bit of rhythm, something that makes you feel like it’s a regular old shot. I think all of that helped me make it.”
Make it he did.
The amazing ending not only propelled Duke into the next round and eventually on to a national championship, but it instantly cemented Laettner into basketball lore forever, which he has appreciated even more as the years have passed.
“When you’re 22, you don’t know much,” Laettner said. “You don’t realize the historical significance of things and it’s shocking how it continues to grow and continues to stay big on the front burners of the sports world. It’s very flattering. It’s an honor. I love it more than people can even imagine. I love it and I never could’ve envisioned it. I don’t know why, but it was a great finish to a great game.”
The shot may never be knocked from its perch as numero uno either. While there have been other sensational buzzer beating finishes–Tate George, Tyus Edney, and Bryce Drew come to mind–Laettner’s Kentucky dagger is different. It is special because of the storied programs, because of the late-round game, and because of the players and coaches involved in that most memorable contest.
In the 2010 national title game, Butler’s Gordon Hayward came within inches of surpassing Laettner to claim college basketball’s greatest game-winning shot in the tournament.
Trailing by two, Butler’s Gordon Hayward chucked a half-court heave as time expired. It nearly banked in. But it didn’t. Laettner remained the top dog in March Madness mystique and, fittingly, Duke was the team that benefited from Hayward’s unanswered prayer.
Along with Laettner’s touch, Hill’s precision, and Krzyzewski’s optimism, one more thing went into this recipe that turned out to be delicious for Duke. The team’s collective focus and smarts set up the whole scenario. If Bobby Hurley and others on the floor did not immediately signal for timeout after Woods scored for Kentucky, the Laettner play may never have happened.
“I think that was one of the critical things about the whole situation, the whole play,” Laettner said. “The first thing we did right was call timeout right away. When you go to Duke and you’re in big games all the time you learn to call timeout when needed. We weren’t dejected, we didn’t cry or quit, we immediately called timeout and that definitely saved us a half second.”
A half second that allowed Laettner to dribble.
After his time in Durham, Laettner went on to enjoy a long NBA career. Though nowhere nearly as successful as his college days, he looks back at his time in the pros fondly.
“I loved every second of my time in the NBA,” Laettner said. “My years in Atlanta were a lot of fun. We got to the second round of the playoffs and lost to the Bulls.”
Laettner even made the All-Star game as a Hawk in 1997. Laettner ended up playing for six NBA clubs, scoring over 11,000 points and corralling almost 6,000 rebounds.
In college and in the pros, the Laettner image has been one of a bad boy. The guy you only like if he plays for your team. But other than his infamous chest stomp in that same legendary game against Kentucky, the rap on Laettner always seemed off base. A good man who continues to get rave reviews from family, friends, former teammates, and coaches. Those who really count.
“I think you need to play the game with a little chip on your shoulder,” Laettner said. “I guess I did not do a good job of masking that out there on the court and it might have rubbed some people the wrong way. At Duke we played with an attitude where we would not be defeated, we would not be conquered, we couldn’t be beaten, and I guess I displayed that to the fullest and people don’t always like that. I’m not concerned about what they like or don’t like, I’m concerned about winning so that’s the trade off.”
It is safe to say the Cameron Crazies would give that answer a thumbs up.
Today, Christian Laettner runs the Christian Laettner Basketball Academy for boys and girls ages 6-25. The same passion he had as a player has now transferred over to teaching.
“My father was a coach his whole life,” Laettner said proudly. “I look up to coaches. I loved my high school coach. I loved my college coach, obviously. I really enjoy doing it and giving back to the game a little bit.”
Laettner does a lot of his mentoring in Florida, but he also travels all over the country to run clinics and camps. He has huge camps planned for Minnesota, Buffalo, and Jacksonville in the coming months, as can be seen on Christian Laettner Basketball Academy website.
When not coaching or playing basketball, Laettner is often watching or analyzing the game he loves. He expects a wild tournament this year and he points to Gonzaga, Michigan, and, you guessed it, Duke as teams to watch.
Laettner is particularly impressed by the Wolverines’ Trey Burke and Duke’s Ryan Kelly. As far as his dark horse, Laettner is going with Gonzaga. How can a top seed be a dark horse?
“They are still a mid-major and they are still a Cinderella team, so I think they will surprise some people even though they are a number one,” Laetttner said.
All in all, life seems pretty good for the 6-11 man whom so many love and so many others love to hate. He’s still around the game of basketball in some way, shape, or form every day. He’s enjoying being a husband and a dad, and he still keeps in touch with the old Duke teammates.
Christian Laettner has one of the greatest college basketball resumes in the history of the game. Multiple player of the year awards, an All-American, and a two-time national champ. He was so good that he was the only college player selected to the Dream Team. Even in that game against Kentucky, Laettner’s overall line was superb. He was 10-10 from the field and 10-10 from the line for 31 points. Yet, still today, some only remember him for “the shot.”
According to Laettner, that’s just fine.
“It was a very special moment,” Laettner said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Tyler Dougherty contributed to this story.
Follow Kevin Scholla on Twitter @KevinScholla