Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Shortly after the NBA season began, a friend of mine made a request. It wasn’t to take her hand in marriage or to run an errand after work. It was to write about her beloved Dukies. It was a suggestion – read: demand – to write something about the former Duke Blue Devils that have had some success in the NBA. While UNC fans puked and a nation unraveled at the thought of someone dispelling the notion of Duke’s finest failing in the A, I played with the idea a bit. Personally, I have always been a fan of Grant Hill and Elton Brand, so it was an idea of dual inspiration; not only could this piece poke holes in the somewhat-proven theory, but it could show how those players that have succeeded were able to mature their individual games at the next level. However, something – or someone – else came to mind.

Christian Laettner.

Wipe your mouths, Tar Heel fans. And Kentucky Wildcat fans.

One aspect about the impression that Duke has left in basketball that cannot be denied is the talent of some of those frontcourt players they had in the championship years of the Mike Krzyzewski era. The aforementioned Hill and Brand. Shelden Williams. Corey Maggette. Luol Deng. Carlos Boozer. Shane Battier. Even those who didn’t have distinguished – or at all, good – careers as players such as Danny Ferry and Cherokee Parks. In addition to a savvy coach and heady point guard play, the Duke Blue Devils boasted some of the premier forwards in the NCAA, guys that were much more vital to their ten Final Fours and three national titles than the small ball-handlers.

Laettner may have not been deserving of his spot on the Dream Team that competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics, but he did have NBA talent. The 6-foot-11 Angola, NY native was a collegiate center with good offensive skills; solid rebounding and top-notch shooting ability from all over the field. He didn’t play in the low-post very much despite playing center (and power forward in the NBA), but because of his ability to play away from the basket, he was an ideal player for NBA teams that had trouble against traditional big men such as Karl Malone, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. His college credentials are numerous and his performances on the biggest stage made him a prime commodity for the A when he graduated in 1992.

Something happened along the way after the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Laettner third overall in the 1992 NBA Draft. The attitude that he used against the likes to North Carolina, UNLV and Kentucky did not travel well against the Blazers, Sonics and Bulls. It didn’t sit well with his fellow T‘Wolves, either. In college, despite the public’s attention, players are sheltered away from dealing with external forces such as the media and rival coaches/managers scouting them for trade possibilities. The coach takes on the scrutiny and praise instead. He, as his teammates, was in a cocoon with classmates and other peers that would become lunatic fans and possible groupies after the game. However, for those who get to the next level, everything comes to you, from you and at you. The media – myself, included – comes to your locker for a quote or two to use against you for articles that sound like there’s still bitterness about being picked last at gym in junior high. More and more ‘relatives’ and ‘friends’ come to your door after they hear that you are shooting a commercial for some Fortune 500 company or NBA-affiliated charity. It’s a different world and whether people believe it or not, the adjustment isn’t automatic once you get a roster spot. Laettner was a reluctant participant in the circus, often perceived as moody in the lockerroom, aloof away from the game and unemotional on the court. At his last stop in Miami, Laettner reflected on that for a Miami Herald article:

"If I was smarter and I had the energy and I was more like a Hollywood person, I would flick on the charm and flick off the moodiness as soon as the reporters came in. Well, I wasn't raised to do that. I was raised to play basketball, so I'm not good at that. Magic Johnson was. Michael Jordan might have been."

Stories of him being a difficult teammate surfaced throughout his career. His stature at Duke made him a target in the A as there were very few Naismith Player of the Year winners that could have been sane against Dennis Rodman. He went from being the rock of Gibraltar in Cameron to being a journeyman, having been traded four times in thirteen years. He went from being viewed as a clean-cut All-American to that of a nonchalant, pot-smoking hippie after a drug arrest with the Washington Wizards in 2000. Yet, no one stays in the NBA for that long if there aren’t skills that coaches appreciate. He averaged 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in his career; numbers that were lowered because of back problems in latter years. In addition to the Gold medal in Barcelona, he played in 45 playoff games, made the All-Rookie team in 1992 and was an All-Star in 1996 with Atlanta on the strength of a career-high 18.1 PPG and 8.8 RPG. He just missed the boat of an NBA title with Miami in 2006, but was part of a footnote in 2005; when he signed with the Heat as a free agent, it was the first time in league history that a team had the first three picks of one draft on the roster (Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning were picked ahead of him by Orlando and Charlotte).

Was he ever going to be one of the most beloved superstars in the history of basketball? You be the judge. Despite his talent, he was considered by outsiders (most detractors) as the embodiment of Duke Basketball and Duke University; white, preppy, privileged, un-athletic, whiny and underhanded. Look back to his collegiate career and watch how he griped to referees to get favorable calls while seemingly bending the rules with an elbow here, a nudge there, an occasional stomp to the chest. He wasn’t just despised across the country; he was absolutely loathed in ACC territory. He wasn’t some guy cheating to stay on the team or to compensate for a lack of skill. He was the most successful college basketball player of the last twenty years. As what’s been said about the New England Patriots in relation to the spying scandal, it seemed that to many basketball fans that he didn’t need that edgy attitude to win, but it left a less than endearing mark in their eyes. Some may have felt that that very edginess would have been checked when he arrived in the NBA, going up against a different type of basketball player. The image of the NBA player was the seemingly antithesis of the Duke player despite similar motives; black, thug, grew up poor in the projects or some backwoods town, athletic, aggressive and blatantly disrespectful. Even more, the players run the league in the pros where the coach rules with an iron-fist at the collegiate level. There are many who wanted Laettner to be the gin to the league’s tonic, an early validation to Larry Bird’s ‘controversial’ comment in a 2004 interview about the need of a white, American superstar in the league. Obviously, he didn’t live to those lofty expectations.

So what more can be said about Christian Laettner that hasn’t been said here or elsewhere? He proved the existence of ‘The Duke Curse’? Hard to believe that entirely considering that there are more than 300 other Division I programs NBA scouts have to analyze as much as Duke’s. He was the Ryan Leaf of basketball? Both inherited bad situations and both were uncomfortable with the professional spotlight, yet despite being jaded, Laettner kept playing while Leaf walked away. He couldn’t ball with the pros? Thirteen years at any job means you’re doing something right.

What can be said is this; Christian Laettner became the start of an enduring hatred many people have for Duke. Twenty years from now, Laettner will still spark an ire twenty J.J. Redicks couldn’t (the latter couldn’t touch the former’s accolades as Laettner broke many hearts while collecting them). Fate, karma and/or the basketball gods may have directed his NBA career, but no matter how you feel about him, college basketball could use another lightning rod like him today.

Maybe there’s another Duke #32 somewhere.

Say What?!?!: Staying on the topic of the former Blue Devil, I ran into a blog called The Painted Area while researching Laettner’s pro career. In a September 2006 post regarding recent NBA retirees and their chances of entering the Basketball Hall of Fame, one of the writers brought up an interesting quandary about Laettner’s chances of membership. He compared him to a superstar of another era, Bill Walton, who also dominated the collegiate ranks, yet had a middling NBA career (though for different reasons). The post has some salient points, but as this topic will bring out some strong comments, feel free to share your thoughts on if Laettner should be in the conversation.

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