Winner of countless titles and honours with the Duke Blue Devils, the controversial and much maligned figure pulled the trigger one night in March 1992 for a shot – The Shot – that could be heard all over the world.
Alfred Hitchcock once said: "The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture."
In his scripts and on the silver screen, the master of suspense always paid particular attention to the evil characters that drove his narratives. Psycho was compelling because of Norman Bates, while James Mason in North by Northwest and Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt are the archetypal Hitchcockian villains, both oozing charm – villains who we, the viewer, delight in hating.
The same goes for sport, where the love of a team or player tends to come hand in hand with hate of others. Christian Laettner is a case in point. For all the records he set while taking Duke from underdog to top dog, he remains the most hated player in college basketball history. The continued frenzy around Laettner is so captivating that, in 2015, ESPN dedicated an entire documentary to him and his paradoxical legacy.
The title of the 30 for 30 film – I Hate Christian Laettner – doesn't beat around the bush, giving an indication of how the most clutch player in NCAA history was perceived by those around him.
Laettner was, admittedly, the perfect villain, wrapped up as he was in unbearable charm. Too privileged. Too good looking. Too strong. Too tall. Too cocky. Too condescending. Too white. Too nasty. Too unapologetic. The list of 'too's' goes on as long as his imposing 6'11" (211cm) frame. Interviewed in the documentary, the American journalist Gene Wojciechowski sums Laettner up in one short sentence: "He's one of the top 10 players to ever play college basketball, and the No.1 a**hole of all time."
Record-breaker and ultimate competitor
It's rare for the villains you read about in books or watch on TV to triumph in the end, however discerning and attractive they may be. But Christian Laettner, on the other hand, always had the last word. With each of his successes the public's aversion for the man both on and off the court increased – to the point that it went stratospheric with the masterpiece he delivered on March 28, 1992.
On that unforgettable evening, Laettner produced one of the greatest individual performances ever seen on a basketball court, in one of the biggest matches ever played, in one of the most captivating conclusions to any final ever seen. Laettner was never so great – or so hated – as he was that night.
Sure, it helped that Laettner played for Duke, the most despised university in the United States. And their star player became a focal point of that animosity. In the colours of the Blue Devils, Laettner became the only player in NCAA history to make four Final Four appearances in a row, winning two national championships in succession – in 1991 and 1992. During his four years at college in Durham, North Carolina, he broke all NCAA records – including most points scored, most games played, most games won, most free throws made and most free throw attempts.
Given few college stars today complete their studies before being snapped up in the NBA draft, Laettner's records may never be beaten.
But why was this record-breaker such a lightning rod, when Grant Hill, the other big star at the time at Duke, never had such an effect on people? Maybe, it was just because he was Christian Laettner – a role he took on with relish. A role that invariably included trash-talking and dirty play such as jersey grabbing, throwing elbows and, at times, even drawing blood from knocking opponents down…
"I would rather win a lot of basketball games and be very intense than be everyone's best friend. I couldn't stop people hating me, so I used it to my advantage," he says. "I would tell myself, 'I'm going to make you hate me even more'. But I wasn't going to waste my time wondering why they hated me or what I could do to make them love me."
992: Duke retains their title and still sits on the NCAA.
Image credit: Getty Images
Even his team-mates hated him
Outside Duke, there were few people who could stand him. The general public certainly couldn't. Neither could journalists, coaches and, of course, his opponents. One day, tired of being subjected to a barrage of discreet but painful elbows from Laettner, UConn's Rod Sellers cracked. While Laettner was on the ground fighting for the ball, the Connecticut centre piled in and smacked his opponent's head into the floor – not so discreetly, but certainly painfully. "I just wanted to kill him. In fact, I still do," Sellars said.
Even his team-mates had a hard time stomaching Laettner. "Everyone hated Christian – we hated him too, and we were team-mates, know what I mean?" said Grant Hill: "He was just cocky. He had this air about him, like, 'I'm better than you'. I don't know if I ever played with a personality quite like Christian. He was the most difficult team-mate to play with. He was always trying to provoke you. I quickly realised that that was Christian – being a bully, for lack of a better word."
The antagonism reached fresh heights with Bobby Hurley, the diminutive Duke point guard. During a match against Georgia Tech in 1990 the two men came close to blows on the court, under the dumbfounded gaze of their opponents, team-mates and Duke's legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewsky. "I never ran into a situation where a team-mate of mine was telling me how to play my game," Hurley said at the time. "He might have had some good things to say, but he needs to work on his delivery."
Bobby Hurley (Duke).
Image credit: Getty Images
Such was his confidence, Laettner would unrepentantly tell his own team-mates how to improve their game – to the point that he would swear at them, push them, even hit them. To him, this was to gee them up, motivate them, improve their game. He couldn't understand why Hurley took it so badly. Before the Final Four in 1992, he told the Los Angeles Times: "Bobby has always responded in a very vindictive way. He thinks I'm getting on him just to yell at him personally. But it's to get him to play better. Bobby takes it as a personal affront sometimes."
Tough love from big brother
If Laettner was a bully, it was arguably only because this was how his childhood had conditioned him to be. His older brother, confusingly named Chris, always did his best to cut him down to size. "I was rough on him," Chris admits in I Hate Christian Laettner. "I would mock him, I would taunt him, I would make fun of him. And this went on for years. I used to punch him and the next day he'd be all black and blue. And I'd say, 'You tell mom and I'm gonna hurt you even more'."
"We played air hockey, football, any sport you can think of," Laettner said when arriving in the NBA in 1992, "and since Chris was four years older than me, he always beat me. I hated to lose, because every time I did, I would cry, and he would laugh at me. I used to hate him for making me cry, but the overall thing was he was making me hate to lose, which is a good quality in my profession."
He funnelled all that anger when he was at Duke, and instead of aiming at his brother, he targeted Bobby Hurley, who he deemed a little soft. "Christian may have thought of it as being a big brother, but Bobby didn't need a big brother," Krzyzewski says. Looking back at his actions, Laettner has since admitted he may have taken things too far. In an interview with Esquire in 2015, he made an apology of sorts:
"There were definitely times I pushed them too hard. I was 20 years old then and I had tunnel vision. But if you recall, before we started winning championships, in '87-'88, the perception was that Duke can't win the big game, they can't win a championship, they can get to a Final Four but can't win it, and Coach K had a monkey on his back, and all that junk. Yeah, there were times where I might have crossed the line a little bit, but we were just pushing each other."
And in a way, he was right. The constant tormenting never seemed to hurt the team's performance. On the contrary, it translated into win after win after win. There was clearly method to his madness. "Winning cures all," Laettner says in the documentary, referring to Duke's first national championship win over Kansas in 1991. "And when I got up from the pile, the first person to jump into my arms, hug me and say, 'I love you', was Bobby Hurley."
False rumours and gossip
Laettner held a winning card up his sleeve: a complete imperviousness to the bile raining down on him. This explains his total disregard for the animosity he instilled during each of his performances. His biggest strength was not caring less. He had a take-it or leave-it approach. As the French poet Charles Péguy once said: "Those who are quiet are the only ones whose word counts." This is why Laettner never bothered to explain or justify himself, even in the face of rumours. For instance, the one which stuck to him from the outset – that he had a privileged background.
This was perhaps understandable, given Duke's status as a private and prestigious establishment, largely white and affluent, which to this day is considered to be a magnet for rich, well-to-do kids. In becoming the emblem of the elite North Carolina university, Laettner also unwittingly embodied this image. But it was far from the truth. "He was probably the poorest kid at the place," recalled Gene Wojciechowski.
"People thought I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth and I didn't have that work ethic," Laettner said. "But that just shows you that perception is not always reality. My parents were hard workers and very blue collar." Without the work scholarship awarded for his basketball skills, Laettner would never have gone to a prestigious faculty like Duke. But he still never did anything to refute this misguided image of himself.
The same could be said for the rumours that started to circulate suggesting he was more than just close friends with his co-captain and roommate Brian Davis. In a flash, it had blown up and become a national talking point. The "fake news" came from a Sports Illustrated profile on Laettner entitled 'Devilishly Different' written by the journalist Curry Kirkpatrick. In the summer of 1991, during a discussion with the two Duke players, Kirkpatrick had asked Laettner what he was up to for the holidays.
"I just wanna hang out here with Brian," Laettner replied. He looked at Davis and the two men broke out in laughter. "It was just a joke, but from that everyone started to think that we were together," he told GQ magazine two years ago.
Again, it didn't exactly dispel the rumours that Laettner often held Davis' hand on campus, that he was known to have kissed him after slam-dunks in matches, that he bought Davis a car after graduating, that Davis described him as "the prettiest man walking", that Laettner told the local media that, "All I want to do is be with Brian… That's it: basketball, school and Brian." In any case, the following season, homophobic chants accompanied Laettner wherever he played. During a particularly heated match in 1992 at Baton Rouge against LSU, the jeers and insults poured down.
But Laettner didn't bat an eyelid. Instead, he simply replied by doing what he did best – by inspiring the Blue Devils to victory and totally dominating the game in which he came up against a certain Shaquille O'Neal. "Brian was just my best friend," he now says. "I did not react at the time because it didn't matter to me. But it was just the stupidest thing ever and went beyond the pale." The rumour would hang around for a few years before fizzling out once Laettner got married and had three children.
Christian Laettner sous le maillot de Duke en 1992.
Image credit: Getty Images
As big as The Beatles
The homophobic abuse directed at Laettner was doubly revealing. Not only did it highlight the need of his haters to find new angles of attack, it showed how Laettner seemed to feed off letting them get on with it. Insults were like water off a duck's back. This admirable indifference was the aspect of his personality that struck Rory Karpf, the director of I Hate Christian Laettner, most. "The thing with Christian is that he really does not care what you think about him." Although this may not have been strictly true, as his sister Leanne claimed this cocky insouciance was a "defence mechanism" for her brother, a way for him to deal with the negativity.
While the country was feeding on a ferocious animosity for Duke's great white hope, Laettner was very much the big man on campus of his own university, where his popularity was immense. Narrating I Hate Christian Laettner, Rob Lowe says the Blue Devils were like the Rolling Stones – and Laettner was their Mick Jagger. Even at training, the arena was crowded. Girls screamed as if they were at a rock concert. Today a big cheese at Goldman Sachs, Ashok Varadhan was head manager of the Blue Devils between 1991 and 1993. He remembers the delirium provoked by every outing of his team: "It was like travelling with the Beatles. They were pop stars."
This was especially true during the great 1991-92 season. As defending champions, Duke dreamed of a rare double – something not seen in the NCAA for two decades. It was now or never: Laettner and Davis' final year before turning professional; Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Antonio now with two seasons of experience; Thomas Hill, one; plus the talented freshmen Cherokee Parks and Erik Meek coming in to add more depth. Coach Mike Krzyzewski was presiding over one of the greatest teams in college history.
Duke had only lost two matches in 27 before flying through the three first playoff matches. The only obstacle standing between the Blue Devils and another Final Four was the Kentucky Wildcats, who they faced in the legendary Spectrum Hall in Philadelphia for the regional final on March 28, 1992. Kentucky were the team of plucky upstarts and home to the four senior players dubbed "The Unforgettables" by coach Rick Pitino. But the real star of the group was the sophomore Jamal "Monster Mash" Mashburn, who would go on to become a consensus first-team All-American the following season and have a successful 12-year NBA career. A great team, no doubt, but one that could be made to look like David against the Goliath that was Duke.
In the event, the match proved to be extraordinary, and Christian Laettner quite legendary – for the right and wrong reasons.
Putting his foot down against Kentucky
Let's start with the bad stuff – because before The Shot came The Stomp…
In the second period, eight minutes from the end of the game, Laettner lost his cool when stepping on the chest of the prone Aminu Timberlake. It was a petulant piece of retaliation – and misidentification – from the Duke star, who wrongly believed the Kentucky forward had knocked him over a few minutes previously. It was an act that could well have rewritten Laettner's legacy.
"I thought it was stupid because it could have cost him the ability to play, so it could have cost us," Grant Hill told the Buffalo News in 2017, at a reunion for a handful of key protagonists of the 25th anniversary of the game.
"Was it a mistake? Yeah, it was a mistake," Laettner admitted. "And it was stupid. And it could have cost us. Stuff like that happens all the time in practice. But you have to turn your cheek. It was a mistake by me on many levels. I could have been kicked out."
Funnily enough, what perhaps rescued Laettner was the reaction of Timberlake, who jumped straight up, laughed and sarcastically applauded his opposing number 32 for his provocation. This probably defused the situation and saved Laettner's bacon. "It looked worse than what it was," Timberlake said. "He did stop short. It wasn't like he was trying to hurt me or anything. It was soft. He just stepped on me in frustration."
If it cost Duke, it didn't cost them their star player. The officials declined to eject Laettner, instead only charging him with a technical foul. But the gesture would stick to him and further tarnish his image. It was also a turning point in the game – a line where it went from very good to great.
High quality, end-to-end, edge-of-the-seat stuff, the match became exceptional in the closing moments. Duke believed they had killed the game off when leading 80-69 but a 15-5 run brought Kentucky back within a point with 4'30" remaining. The game was at Philadelphia, the hometown of Rocky, and the media had played on this to promote the encounter. Kentucky were cast in the Rocky role as underdogs punching above their weight in this narrative – and they came up not only against Duke's Apollo Creed but Laettner's Ivan Drago in one.
Jeff Morrow, the Wildcats coach, remembered how everyone involved in the team had copied Sylvester Stallone's character by running up the famous steps outside the Museum of Art – known as the Rocky Steps ever since the film. On March 28, as the team absorbed and responded to the blows inflicted upon them by the champion, there was certainly something of Rocky Balboa about Kentucky.
At the end of regulation time, the two teams were tied on 93 points and it was turning into a classic. Vern Lundquist, at the microphone for CBS, set the tone: "This match has already been monumental but, with the overtime that awaits us, the best is yet to come." If his analysis was on point for the viewers, the players clearly felt very differently. As Laettner explained at the Buffalo News reunion: "You're not saying, 'This is an unbelievable game,' during the game while you're playing. You're saying, 'God, dang, this is tough. We have to keep fighting and hope that they miss some shots.'"
Timeout with two seconds remaining
There was still no daylight between the teams entering the final minute of overtime, the scores locked on 98-98. The last 60 seconds proved to be a duel between Laettner and the Wildcats. First of all, he sunk an improbable shot: off balance and surrounded by two defenders, he somehow managed to score off the backboard to give Duke a 100-98 lead. It was as if he just couldn't miss. Which, to be fair, he couldn't. For at this point, Laettner had 27 points: 9-9 from the field and 8-8 from the free throw line. "When he made that, I was like, 'Wow, this guy is making everything'," said Hurley, who himself had squandered a chance to win the game as real time expired.
But this was just the beginning of the epic denouement. On the next possession, Mashburn scored with the bonus to give Kentucky a 101-100 lead. Laettner was then fouled and calmly converted both free throws to hand Duke a 102-101 advantage. With 7.8 seconds of overtime remaining, Rick Pitino called a timeout ahead of what everyone believed would be the final play. Sean Woods then took the ball near the left wing, dummied Hurley and hit a running one-hander in the lane over Laettner. After the ball banked off the glass and fell through the hoop, the Wildcats bench erupted. Woods celebrated like he'd just despatched Duke with the killer blow: Kentucky were back ahead, 103-102. For the fourth time in 45 seconds, the score had changed hands. For good, this time. At least, that's what everyone thought.
With just 2.1 seconds remaining, Laettner asked for one last timeout. Duke found themselves in a doomed situation, for there was hardly enough time for them to travel full length of the court from the backline. "I thought it was over. I thought it was over," Vern Lundquist stressed at the Buffalo News reunion. "Not many times do you see somebody score with 2.1 seconds left on the clock, and you have to go the full distance of the court."
"I joked that I was getting ready for Beach Week and all that," Grant Hill recalled, saying the team was in "disbelief and trying to digest what happened." Hurley added: "With the amount of time on the clock, the circumstances, your first instinct is to say, 'It's not meant to be'."
But Mike Krzyzewski thought otherwise. "Coach said, 'Here's the situation: We're going to win.' He started laughing, like he had a little laugh," Thomas Hill recalled. During what seemed like the longest commercial break in the history of mankind, Krzyzewski calmly delivered his final brief. "Coach K did a magnificent job once we got to him," Laettner said. "The first thing he did was he said, 'Somehow, some way, we're going to do this. We're going to win this.' In my mind, I'm thinking, 'That's right.' It was affirmation."
Mike Krzyzewski (Duke)
Image credit: Getty Images
Extraordinary lucidity from Duke's most devilish star
Duke needed three miracles: a perfect deep ball to cross the length of the court, a clean catch, and a decisive shot leaving the hands before the buzzer. Grant Hill was the best candidate to make the inbounds. What was needed was a real, over-the-shoulder quarterback pass and his father, Calvin, played 12 years in the NFL. Hill loved trying these kinds of things in training. Asked by Krzyzewski if he was ready to put his neck on the line, Grant remembers his reply: "'Yeah, I can make the pass.' Then he asked Christian if he could make the shot."
"Christian doesn't say he can do it," Krzyzewski recalled. "He says, 'Coach, if Grant makes a good pass, I'll catch it.'" Hill's extraordinary pass travelled 25 metres along almost the entire length of the court towards Laettner at the opposite foul line. His back to the basket and his arms stretched high above his head, our All-American antihero somehow managed to catch the ball around three metres off the ground. The first part of Duke's mission impossible was complete.
Did Rick Pitino commit a grave mistake by not placing a player in front of Grant Hill to interfere with his inbounds pass? Instead, the Kentucky coach preferred to focus on the last shot and put two men on Laettner. "The coach was right," Aminu Timberlake says in the ESPN film. "OK, we let the pass go, but we still had five defenders against four players." In any case, Timberlake recalled to Buffalo News that there was no question of challenging Pitino's decision: "You have to remember that this was a trusted leader, a Hall of Fame coach. He led us from nothing to something. The trust was there. He could have told us to sit in the stands to confuse him, and we would have listened."
The clock started the moment Laettner received the ball. He only had two seconds to turn and shoot. But with extraordinary lucidity, he had the presence of mind to fake right and dribble once to facilitate his 180-degree turn. "My first reaction was, 'No – just turn and shoot it!' But it was the right thing to do," Grant Hill said.
For his part, Pitino had made a second understandable error of judgement – reminding his players, above all, not to foul a player who'd been sinking his free shots for fun that night. "Unfortunately, we were so scared of the fault that we stayed too soft in defence – even if it's clearly easy to say that today," Kentucky forward Deron Felhdaus told ESPN in 2017.
"When I let it go, it felt real good."
When the ball left the hands of Laettner, there were still three-tenths of a second on the clock. In sport, there are few things comparable to the moment when, on a decisive shot, the clock hits zero and time is suspended. The match is effectively over, in that there will be no more plays, but for a few tenths of seconds drawn out to seem like an eternity, anything can still happen while the current, final, play continues.
For Laettner, his shot seemed to be in the air for ever as time came to a standstill. But deep down, everyone knew what was happening. After all, Laettner was clutch when it mattered most. Big plays were like a second language to him. Everyone had already seen this play out in his and Duke's favour – two years earlier against UConn in the 1990 regional final. In overtime, too – when Duke, by some extraordinary coincidence, were trailing by a point with just 2.6 seconds remaining. Laettner had played the inbounds from the sideline right in front of the Duke bench, received the return, passed his man and swished a jumper as time expired. The Blue Devils won and qualified for the Final Four.
"I'm not sure I was ever around someone who had a combination of belief in themselves and such a strong desire to win," Hurley says in the ESPN documentary. He admitted at the time to Sports Illustrated that he was Plan B to take the shot. "But I'm not really an end-of-game, the-buzzer-sounds kind of guy. I've made some big shots, but I never hit a shot as time expired. You can't teach that. Christian loves those responsibilities."
If Laettner was the bastard everyone made him out to be, then he was a cold-blooded one. The blood of villains, after all, runs cold. Recalling his shot, Laettner said the whole moment went in a blur: "When I let it go, it felt real good. 'Oooh, that has a chance.' But I didn't know it was in for sure. You learn not to say, 'That's in for sure.' But when I took the shot, I was like, 'Oooh, it feels good. It looks good. I hope it's in.'"
The distraught Wildcats coach Rick Pitino also knew that the writing was on the wall. "Yes, the shot looked good," he said after the game, adding: "Since we are talking about a guy who hadn't missed anything all match, it was not a surprise."
An explosion erupts inside the Spectrum
Swish. Laettner scored. Duke had won. And, even more than ever before, all those outside Duke University had another reason for hating Christian Laettner. The feverish Devils fans were gathered behind the basket. "I saw them all, basically, and when Chris scored, it was like a canon had been fired," recalled Grant Hill. "That was the loudest sound that I've ever heard in a basketball arena. It was an explosion," Vern Lundquist said. The announcer was astute enough not to utter a word for the next two minutes so that everyone, in front of their TV sets at home, could savour the intensity of the moment. This spontaneous combustion was so monumental that Laettner's decisive shot became known as "The shot heard around the world".
Christian Laettner : The shot heard around the world.
Image credit: Getty Images
The joyous scene turned to delirium for Duke. Laettner ran towards Grant Hill, sidestepped him and was then buried under a pile of bodies. But the most famous, most poignant reaction came from Thomas Hill. Head in his hands, his face torn by emotion, he stayed rooted next to the bench with incredulity etched across his face while his team-mates engulfed Laettner.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, were devastated. Some players would never pick themselves up from this cruel blow. The journalist Rick Bozich, who was following Kentucky, remembered the atmosphere in the locker room: "When I went in, I didn't feel like I belonged there. No one was saying anything. They were all crying, the emotion was so raw, and they were so hurt by losing the game. I just thought I had enough to write. I didn't need to ask them any questions about it."
With this second legendary buzzer beater, Christian Laettner had just completed his masterpiece. 31 points. 10 for 10 from the field, 10 for 10 from the free-throw line. A perfect 100 per cent record capped with the winning shot at the death. In 2017 he tried to put into words what he felt at that precise moment: "If you have a movie or a song that gives you chills up the back of your neck or down your arm or goose bumps, and you get that warm feeling for 10 seconds, it's almost like you're so happy that you want to have tears of joy. That moment on the court, it was that times a hundred. And when it's brought up now, it's still that times five. It's an explosion of adrenaline, joy and happiness. I still get chills."
Struggles away from Coach K in the NBA
His most famous buzzer beater would prove the crowning moment of Laettner's career. As a pro, things didn't get any better than his final game as an amateur. On his Twitter bio, Laettner has affixed just two words: The Shot.
Duke went on to win its second consecutive Final Four title, beating Chris Webber's Michigan Wolverines – a rematch against the former Fab Five freshmen with their baggy shorts – in the final, with an out-of-sorts Laettner bouncing back from a terrible opening half to wrest control and net back-to-back championships. But the duel against Kentucky remains the physical pinnacle and emotional Everest of his final season. Today, when American TV shows put on reruns of NCAA sequences, they usually home in on two moments: Michael Jordan's victorious shot for the title in 1982 and Laettner's buzzer beater against Kentucky.
What came next was far less glorious. After the honour of being selected for the Dream Team in the Barcelona Olympics in the summer of 1992 (a college player had to be selected and he was preferred over Shaquille O'Neal, to the surprise and dismay of… just about everyone) alongside the likes of Jordan, Magic, Barkley and Bird, Laettner headed to the NBA. Despite a long career (he didn't retire until 2005) and several prolific seasons, he never experienced the same individual and collective success as he did in the NCAA. Drafted by Minnesota Timberwolves, he quickly discovered the downside of playing for a team at the bottom of its division and conference. "I got to admit that was hard – it wasn't fun losing so much," he said. "It makes you realise how lucky I'd been to have played for Coach K and the Duke basketball programme."
Coach K, the man to whom he owed so much, was perhaps the man who loved him the most outside his family. Their connection was far more than the usual player-trainer relationship. Laettner spent hours with the Krzyzewskis. In the ESPN documentary, Coach K's wife says: "There will never be another Christian Laettner in our lives. He means so much to us – not just because of what he accomplished with us, and for us, but because he brought out the best in Mike. He made Mike a much better coach."
The Krzyzewskis have three daughters. For Doug Collins, Laettner's coach at Minnesota, "Christian was the son Mike never had." For his part, on graduating, Laettner admitted that he would "miss playing for Coach K more than playing for Duke". And so it proved. In the NBA, Laettner didn't find anyone who came close to Krzyzewski. In 13 years as a pro, he would play under… 13 coaches.
"That turnover doesn't contribute to being very successful," Laettner told GQ in 2015. "So if I had to do it all over again, I would've been more of an ass. At 24, I would've called my agent and said, 'Don't put me on any team unless it's a Pat Riley team or a Larry Brown team or a Phil Jackson.' I wish I would've done that. But at 24, you don't want to be telling your agent what to do. Because my ego was big, but it wasn't that big."
Christian Laettner face à Michael Jordan en NBA, en 1998.
Image credit: Getty Images
Forever a Blue Devil of a Christian
To his credit, Laettner did make the All-Star Game in 1997 when at the Atlanta Hawks. But as a pro he won no titles and only made ripples compared to the tidal waves he produced in college. In the NBA, he turned out for Minnesota, Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, Washington and Miami. But deep down he remained, forever, Duke's Christian Laettner.
Now aged 50, he is still to this day hated by vast swathes of the public. And despite his best efforts to make the masses warm to him a little more, for some there is just too much water under the bridge. The abuse upon which he thrived back in the day now simply wears him down. "When I was playing at college level or in the pros, I tried to use [the hate] to my advantage. But when you're done playing then it does start to… I'm not going to say hurt, but you don't want people running around saying they hate you."
No longer able to answer his detractors on the court while reducing the haters to tears, Laettner now tries to make them laugh. And it turns out he has a good talent for self-mockery as well. In 2015, for the release of the ESPN film, he tried, with moderate success, to get the hashtag #NoLongerHateLaettner trending on Twitter. The documentary has allowed people to understand his personality better without necessarily overturning his bad-boy image. He's gained respect, if not affection. But that's perhaps just as well – for he always sought appreciation over love.
Written by Laurent Vergne, translated by Felix Lowe
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