Original Old School: Laett’ Game Heroics

by March 20, 2010

One of the world’s greatest sports spectacles tipped off on Thursday. With that in mind, we take a look back at one of the defining games in NCAA basketball history. Duke, Kentucky and a game-winner for the ages. If you missed it a few years ago when it ran in the mag, be sure to peep it now.

SLAM 108: Duke-Kentucky Classic.

by Michael Bradley

If you have to attack something big, it helps to break it down into smaller challenges. Many of them. Of course, to those of us crammed into Philadelphia’s Spectrum that fateful late afternoon in March of ’92, it could not be reduced to a pile of rubble. The job was too big.

That’s how it is when you have no control. You can’t see a solution, only the large, seemingly insurmountable problem. Sitting behind the Duke basket, looking across the arena to a destination which seemed so far away and so small, I had thoughts of nothing but desperation. What do you want? There were 2.1 seconds left in the greatest game I’d ever seen, and even if it had ended in a 103-102 Kentucky win, it would have been one of those I-was-there-and-you-weren’t moments.

To my left, the Kentucky fans were in full throat, convinced Sean Woods’ running banker in the lane had finally done the job. It was easy to root for them, despite the school’s history. These weren’t the Wildcats of cranky Adolph Rupp or corporate wonk Joe B. Hall. They were “The Unforgettables,” a team made up of Bluegrass State prep heroes whose dreams of playing for the Blue-and-White were realized largely because the NCAA’s probationary hammer had come down hard on the program in the wake of Eddie Sutton’s fast-and-loose days. Guys like John Pelphrey and Richie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus were role-playing types who had been forged into heroes by necessity and Rick Pitino. Woods was there, too. And so was Jamal Mashburn, a reminder that Kentucky wouldn’t always be so cuddly. The talent spigot had been turned on again.

“The so-called ‘All-Americans’ had transferred,” says Pitino, who had come to the program’s rescue two years before. “What was left behind were people nobody wanted. There was a group of three Kentucky kids who bled the colors of the university. They had dreamed about playing there since they were born.”

Everybody else in the gym was rooting for Duke, or at least it seemed that way. That’s what happens when you’re the defending National Champs and represent a prestigious private school. That goes a long way in Philly, where the Main Line is loaded with preppy, well-heeled fans who both attended and paid their children’s tuition at such schools. But even they, who were so used to getting their way, couldn’t see a solution. The 1992 NCAA East Regional championship was Kentucky’s. Those 2.1 seconds were just for dramatic effect. After all, the job was too big.

“We’re going to win.”

That’s how it started. Well, actually it started with Woods, a fearless point guard who had driven around Duke assist machine Bobby Hurley and banked in a 13-footer over the fingernails of Blue Devil center Christian Laettner to give UK a one-point lead with 2.1 left in overtime. “I wanted to get the ball up there, so that if I missed it, there would be a chance for somebody to tip it in,” Woods says. “I wanted it to hit the back of the rim, but I gave it some extra oomph, because of the excitement. It hit the square in the middle.”

Woods’ shot had seemingly capped a wild overtime ride that featured two huge baskets by Pelphrey and an old-fashioned three-point play by Mashburn. Duke had countered with a Hurley triple and six points by Laettner (four free throws and a bucket). Each punch and resulting counterpunch had brought the assembled throng to a heightened state of frenzy.

It had been that way the entire game, really. Duke led throughout much of the first half, but there was no impression the Blue Devils would run away with the thing. On the contrary, there was a sense of concern, since the game was being played at UK’s frenetic pace. “Kentucky was a run-and-gun team that scored so many points,” Laettner says. “I didn’t know if we could hang with them. That was the only way to beat us that year. You couldn’t slow it down on us or do anything else.”

Laettner’s right. Duke had been transformed from the lovable underdog that had slain the mighty UNLV bandits in the ’91 national semifinal into a leviathan, losing but twice (to North Carolina and Wake Forest). Laettner and Hurley were the best players at their positions in the land, and Grant Hill wasn’t exactly shabby at the forward spot. Thomas Hill, Brian Davis and Antonio Lang made significant contributions to one of the best teams of the last 25 years. Kentucky’s players felt confident, but they knew what they were getting into. “Make no mistake whatsoever,” Pelphrey says. “We understood who they were. We understood their personnel. And we knew these guys would play for a long time after we hung them up.”

Duke led 50-45 at the half and had a 79-69 advantage when the real fun began. “We had pressed them throughout, and we thought they would eventually get tired, and we would make a run,” Pelphrey says. Sure enough, Kentucky fought back. And at one point, things almost got out of control. After UK freshman Aminu Timberlake fouled Laettner, Timberlake hit the deck. Laettner, not too happy with some of the physical play going on, stomped on Timberlake’s chest, drawing a technical and some outrage. “I was losing my balance, and I put my foot on his chest,” Laettner says. “I wasn’t trying to hurt him, and that’s why the ref only gave me one technical foul.” While Kentucky fans screamed for Laettner’s head, the game rollicked toward its conclusion.

After regulation, it was 93-93. Kentucky led three times in OT before Woods’ shot. Duke was in front twice. And then it was 103-102. The Devils called timeout, and coach Mike Krzyzewski made his prediction. “We’re going to win.”

“I think we believed it, because Coach has a commanding presence, and whatever he said in that huddle, we came out of it feeling like we had a chance to win,” Grant Hill says.

The Pass

After assuring his team that it would win, Krzyzewski had a question for Grant Hill: “Can you make a good pass?” Hill said yes, and that part of the problem was solved. “That was a positive,” Laettner recalls simply.

SLAM 108: Duke-Kentucky Classic. In the Kentucky huddle, there were no questions about whether the game could be won. In most of the players’ minds, it had already been decided. Pelphrey thought about how probation had stripped UK of the SEC title it had won the previous year. About how the people of Kentucky had supported the team through Pitino’s difficult first year, when the Wildcats finished 14-14. “I thought we would have a ring [as East Region champs] that no one could take away from us,” Pelphrey says. Woods, meanwhile, felt some vindication, since he had struggled earlier in the year in some late-game situations. He was also impatient. “I wanted to hurry up and get the dad-gum game over,” he says. “People didn’t realize what we had gone through for the past two or three years. There was an urgency to get some satisfaction.”

Pitino prepared his team for the first part of the play with a decision that some still question: the Wildcats would not have anybody guard Hill. The reasoning was that having an extra man trying to intercept—or at least deflect—the throw was preferable to hoping a defender could distract the passer and playing one-on-one at the other end. “We wanted to make them hit the ‘Hail Mary,’” Farmer says. It’s not like Pitino concocted this one on the spot. UK had had success defending plays like that all year. “We worked on that play many times during the season, and usually we would steal the ball, because we were playing five-on-four,” Pelphrey says. “I like those odds with two seconds left.”

Not that Laettner was worried either way. “Grant could have made that pass if someone had been guarding him,” he says. “It wouldn’t have been as precise, but it still would have been as good.”

The Catch

The Blue Devils respective responsibilities went this way: Hurley was supposed to head toward GHill, bringing a man with him. Thomas Hill and Lang were to fake short and go long. And Laettner was to come from the far corner to the foul line. It didn’t matter that there would be at least two players around the pass. Since Mashburn had fouled out, the main challenge to any jump ball thrown Laettner’s way had been removed. Though he stood 6-11, Laettner was never considered a human pogo stick. “We always joked with him that he wasn’t an athlete,” Lang says, laughing. “He was a pretty good athlete, but we didn’t like to say it.”

The Wildcats understood their situation. Pelphrey went 6-7. So did Feldhaus. Timberlake was 6-9. “Duke had two out-of-bounds plays,” Woods says. “[The long pass] was one of them. We never thought that with two guys on him that the ball would get there.” So, it was Laettner going for a long pass against Pelphrey (in the front) and Feldhaus (in the back). “When I was standing in the corner, getting ready for the play, I said to myself, ‘Go get the ball big and strong,’” Laettner says. “I knew I had time to make a move and dribble.”

So, Laettner went to get the ball, big and strong, just like he said. And he caught it, just like he said.

The Shot

SLAM 108: Duke-Kentucky Classic. Laettner didn’t know he was perfect to that point. Maybe Krzyzewski did, but he wasn’t letting on. “I had no idea I hadn’t missed a shot, and the coaches were smart enough not to tell me,” Laettner says. We in the stands certainly didn’t know. A great game? Yes. Infallibility? No. Nine-of-nine from the field. Ten-of-ten from the line. “He was 6-11 and an outstanding shooter who could shoot the three-pointer, put the ball on the floor, take a couple dribbles and pull up or take it all the way to the basket, too,” Farmer says. “He was a difficult matchup.”

Laettner was more than that. Way more. His résumé is one of the most impressive in college basketball history. He won two titles at Duke and scored more points in NCAA tourney games than anybody in NCAA history. He piled up 2,460 points, pulled down 1,149 boards and led Duke to 123 wins during his four years. “I don’t know that there’s a player who accomplished what Christian accomplished in the last 35-40 years of college basketball,” Grant Hill says. “I mean, he was unbelievable. Unbelievable talent, unbelievable ability, unbelievable confidence.”

One of the things that few people realized about Laettner was his toughness. Let’s face it; he was a tall, soft-spoken dude with great hair and a look that screamed “Wonder Bread!” But then-Purdue coach Gene Keady, hardly a softy himself, once told me, “He’s as mean as a snake,” after having coached Laettner on a summer touring team. When Laettner positioned himself for that last play, he certainly wasn’t thinking about messing up or worrying that he might let people down. In fact, in his sophomore year, Laettner hit the game-winning shot that beat UConn to win the East Region title at the Meadowlands. “People don’t realize how competitive he was,” Lang says. “He’d rip your head off. Anything he played he hated losing, even pickup games in the summer.”

So Laettner was confident, and once he’d caught the ball he knew he could get a clear shot. The last thing Pitino had told his team was not to foul anybody. Could there be a worse way to lose a regional title game? “The last thing we wanted to do was put Christian Laettner on the line,” Woods says.

Laettner came down with the ball, faked right, dribbled once to gather himself and turned to his left unmolested. Pelphrey actually moved away with his hands up, as if to let the referees know he had no intention of touching Laettner. Feldhaus raised his arms straight up but lowered them as Laettner shot, again not wanting to give anybody a chance to call a foul.

The fallaway jumper was perfect. Duke had its win, 104-103. And Laettner had further cemented his legacy.

“You always work on buzzer-beaters,” he says. “When you’re a kid in the driveway, you say ‘3-2-1’ and then shoot. At Duke, the last thing I did every day was practice jumpers from the top of the key with the clock going down. I did it alone first and then with a defender there.”

The Aftermath

Lang and Pelphrey are close friends. The former Kentucky star is now the successful head coach at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, where Lang lives when he isn’t coaching ball in Japan. They see each other three times a week, because Lang works out at USA, and the two men’s children play youth sports together. And yet…

“We never talk about that game,” Lang says today.

You can’t blame the Kentucky players for not joining in the celebration of the game. They know its place in history, but they still can’t get past the fact that they had redemption in their hands, only to have Laettner take it away. Farmer, now the Commissioner of Agriculture in Kentucky, admits that he still struggles with the memory. “We thought we had the game,” he says.

The Duke players, of course, relish the memories and the victory. Says Lang, “It was our destiny.”

The rest of us, especially those who were lucky enough to be there, still can’t quite believe what happened. The impossible had become magical. Something which seemed so big had been taken apart with precision and reassembled perfectly. Mere mortals are left to marvel at the results, while the gods reap the rewards.

Laettner sums up the postgame emotion beautifully. “It was the most exciting, absolutely chaotic 20 minutes of my life,” he says. “It was the greatest feeling of utmost joy and happiness.”