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Friday, February 03, 2012

Echoes from Laettner's Shot Still Reverberate 20 Years Later

Gene Wojciechowski's new book The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball meticulously details the circumstances and aftermath of Christian Laettner's game-winning shot against Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final. Wojciechowski begins with the most strategically surprising aspect of that play--Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino did not deploy a defender to contest Grant Hill's inbounds pass--before providing tremendous historical context about a great game that culminated with one of the most indelible moments in sports history.

After hooking the reader with a brief account of the astonishment that basketball observers--including Dick Vitale, Jalen Rose and P.J. Carlesimo--felt about Pitino's defensive strategy on the final play of the game, Wojciechowski circles back in time to describe how Pitino and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski first arrived at their respective schools and how they both rebuilt programs that had fallen on hard times.

Krzyzewski recently set the all-time NCAA record for career wins (breaking the mark held by Bobby Knight, who coached Krzyzewski at West Point), a feat that seemed unimaginable in the early 1980s when Duke alumni and fans demanded that Athletic Director Tom Butters fire Krzyzewski. The Krzyzewski era at Duke hardly got off to a rousing start; in his first three years, the Blue Devils failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and set the school's single season loss record. Krzyzewski's 1-6 head to head record against Tobacco Road rival North Carolina during this period exasperated Duke partisans.

Duke started out 8-0 in 1984 and posted a 15-1 overall mark before losing four straight ACC games. Butters arranged a meeting with Krzyzewski and said, "Mike, we've got a problem. The problem is we've got a public that doesn't know how good you are. We've got a press that's too damn dumb to tell them how good you are. But my greatest problem is that I've got a coach who I'm not sure knows how good he is." Butters then offered Krzyzewski a five year contract extension. The Blue Devils earned their first NCAA Tournament berth of the Krzyzewski era with a 24-10 record and two years later they advanced to the NCAA Championship Game. It is easy to focus on the "lead actor" when telling the story of a famous person's life but without the encouragement of a "supporting actor" like Butters the world may never have had the opportunity to see Krzyzewski's greatness fully blossom.

Pitino arrived at Kentucky right after the program narrowly avoided the so-called death penalty in the wake of 18 violations committed during the Eddie Sutton regime (Sutton was not directly implicated, though it is difficult to believe that he had no idea what was going on under his watch, including the fact that his assistant Dwane Casey--who is now the coach of the Toronto Raptors--sent $1000 to the father of recruit Chris Mills). Pitino, after a quick rise through the collegiate ranks, had recently turned the New York Knicks into a legitimate contender but he was locked in a power struggle with General Manager Al Bianchi. At first Pitino was not sure if he wanted to relocate his family from New York to Kentucky and Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton turned his attention to P.J. Carlesimo, who had just led Seton Hall to an NCAA Championship Game loss to Michigan. It seemed like Kentucky was on the verge of hiring Carlesimo when a funny thing happened: someone decided that Carlesimo's beard was weird and that it would not work to have a bearded Northerner helming the Wildcats. Suddenly, Carlesimo stated that he never really had been interested in leaving Seton Hall and the Wildcats were back to square one. Pitino had turned down the job the first time Newton offered it but upon further consideration Pitino accepted the offer and boldly promised to lead the disgraced program to a national title.

Krzyzewski coached Duke to runner-up finishes in the NCAA Tournament in 1986 and 1990 before capturing his first NCAA title in 1991. Pitino's first Kentucky squad went 14-14 in 1990 but his 1991 team improved to 22-6. Both teams entered the 1992 season with legitimate championship aspirations and those aspirations collided on March 29, 1992 in the NCAA East Regional Final as the teams battled to earn a Final Four berth.

Duke was led by Christian Laettner, who was perceived as a sneering rich kid who played with an edge, the kind of player who you hated if he was on the other team and might have still found irritating at times even if he was on your own team. Laettner actually did not come from a wealthy family and the first time he made it to the Final Four with Duke his parents skipped that month's mortgage payment in order to travel to Seattle to watch him play in person. Although Laettner was wrongly viewed by some as a kid who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the perception of his edginess was quite correct; Laettner grew up playing against older and bigger opponents, so he quickly learned how to take (and give) blows and he would not back down from anyone. Jamal Mashburn, a dynamic offensive player who could both score in the paint and nail the three point shot, led Kentucky. Both Laettner and Mashburn would later make the NBA All-Star team; several other players from both teams eventually played in the NBA, including Duke's Grant Hill, who made the All-Star team seven times and has recovered from a serious ankle injury to still be a productive player in 2012 at the age of 39.

Duke entered the 1992 East Regional Final as a solid favorite against Kentucky but Pitino thought that his team had a good chance to pull off the upset based on three factors: (1) Even though Duke had the more talented team, Pitino believed that Mashburn would prove to be the single best player on the court; (2) Kentucky's unique style--based on applying intense defensive pressure and shooting a lot of three pointers--would pose problems for Duke; (3) Duke had not played in many close games, so if Kentucky stayed in contact and gained confidence then the Wildcats could go on a game-winning run in the closing minutes. Pitino felt that if he employed the pressure defense too early in the game then Duke's starters would have enough energy to fight through it--thus gaining confidence while also deflating Kentucky's confidence--but if Kentucky could keep the score close without the pressure defense and then apply pressure in the final 10 minutes the Blue Devils might get rattled and/or fatigued.

The game unfolded according to Pitino's plan. Kentucky took an early 20-12 lead and only trailed 50-45 at halftime. Duke pulled ahead 67-55 by the 11:08 mark of the second half and at that point Pitino called a timeout in order to instruct his players to apply the pressure defense the rest of the way. Kentucky sliced Duke's lead to 67-63 in a little over a minute. Two minutes later, momentum could have--and should have--swung Kentucky's way after Laettner stepped on fallen Kentucky player Aminu Timberlake, an action that was worthy of ejection; however, the game officials elected to simply hit Laettner with a technical foul. Kentucky's players neither appreciated that ruling nor the fact that Laettner seemed to have singled out the one player--a skinny, well-mannered freshman--who would not respond confrontationally (that is the kind of move that Kevin Garnett and Kenyon Martin later became well known for in the NBA, taking a verbal and/or physical shot at a younger, smaller opponent while studiously avoiding confrontations with tough guys who would not tolerate such conduct).

The game was tightly contested the rest of the way and the outcome would not be decided until the final 2.1 seconds of overtime. If you are a true basketball fan then you have already seen Grant Hill's full court pass followed by Christian Laettner's game-winning shot many times but Wojciechowski's The Last Great Game does an excellent job of not only recreating one of the seminal moments in college basketball but also giving the reader an understanding of the thoughts, emotions and motivations of the participants from both sides of this dramatic contest.

Although Laettner's shot ended the game, it did not end that season and does not end the book; the Blue Devils still needed to win two more games to complete their run of back to back titles and Duke accomplished this by knocking off Indiana and the upstart, Fab Five-led Michigan Wolverines. Wojciechowski takes the reader behind the scenes of both of those games as well.

Should Pitino have put a defender on Hill to contest that fateful inbounds pass? Wojciechowski exaggerates a bit when he deems this "the eternal basketball question" but he is right this question is not easy to answer. Pitino's thinking at the time was that if he put a defender on Hill then Hill might run the baseline and Duke could employ an old strategy of Dean Smith's, placing a screener in the defender's path to try to draw a foul. Pitino considered the long pass to be a low percentage play whether or not it was contested and thus preferred to sandwich Laettner with two defenders; unfortunately for Kentucky, those defenders--concerned about being called for a foul--played very tentatively and gave Laettner plenty of room to catch the ball, take a rhythm dribble and launch a very controlled shot.

Pitino, who led Kentucky to a National Championship in 1996, casually dismisses the strategic question: "People make too much of it."


1) On page 61, the text states that Christian Laettner "made his official Duke playing debut November 19, 1998, at the Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts." Laettner's freshman year began in 1988, not 1998.

2) There are multiple references to a 1988-89 Duke senior named "Smith" but his first name is not directly mentioned in the text (it is indirectly referred to in a quote) nor is he listed in the book's Index (John Smith is the full name of the player in question).

3) On page 114, the 6-8 Billy Owens is referred to as a guard. While Owens did handle the ball like a guard, he played forward at Syracuse and should thus have been described as a forward (in the NBA, Owens played both forward and guard but the book is referring to his college career).

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM



At Saturday, February 04, 2012 6:24:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Alas, I was rooting for Kentucky that day so it was one of my worst memories in all my years of watching college basketball.

Laettner had a great game, and a great college career. He was lucky not to get kicked out of the game, but pulled it together and made a tough turnaround shot.

Kentucky also played terrible defense on the play but Laettner still must be given credit for making the shot.


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