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Laettner, Hill reflect on time at Duke
Christian Laettner is 42 years old.
He's married with three children, has the same slow gait so many 42-year-old former athletes possess and has long since replaced the Brandon Walsh "Beverly Hills 90210" haircut from his Duke days with a more adult style. There are streaks of gray starting to sprout from his brow. He likes to spend time with his young kids on the weekend. He wears sweaters from J. Crew. He lives in the suburbs.
He's a 42-year-old man.
And yet, sitting with Laettner at New York City's Time Warner Center, it's hard not seeing that same 22-year-old who dominated college basketball throughout the early 1990s.
"I was how I was in college because I had to be. I played angry. I played hard. I stepped on guys' chests, I hit a game-winner against UConn. I hit the shot against Kentucky," he said. "There were targets on our backs. There was always a target on mine. Nothing was ever given to us, and as a senior on that '92 team, I had to live up to what was expected of me.
"If that meant I wasn't the most popular guy in opposing arenas, I was perfectly fine with that."
March 28 marks the 20-year anniversary of Grant Hill throwing the basketball 75 feet to Christian Laettner at the Philadelphia Spectrum in 1992. Laettner famously caught the pass, took one dribble, spun around and hit the most memorable 15-foot jumper in college basketball history. Hill, a sophomore when he threw that ball, has played 18 seasons in the NBA, has overcome numerous near career-ending injuries, and still logs serious playing time for a running team.
But Hill is remembered most for that one pass.
"I think people identify me a lot with that pass and what we accomplished in college. For both of us — and maybe it's due to the fact that we both stayed for all four years — people identify us with what we did in school," Hill said during lunch with Laettner. "Even now, people stop me and the first thing they want to talk about is Duke and the past. At the end of the day, people identify me with that pass the most."
Laettner, almost peeved at such a notion, chimes in.
"That's a shame. He shouldn't be remembered most for that pass," Laettner said. "He should be remembered as the guy who was putting up LeBron James-like numbers in the NBA before anybody had ever heard of LeBron James. Before Grant broke his ankle twice and almost died from an infection, he was doing stuff that only Oscar Robertson had done before him.
"I was on the Pistons with Grant for a few seasons, and if we had better teammates on that team, he would have averaged a triple-double for the year. But we just had some selfish people and bad coaches. Had we had the right guys in that locker room, we would have been a lot better. Grant's one of the best players of his generation. That play should not define Grant Hill the basketball player."
Laettner and Hill were in New York earlier this month promoting a truTV documentary, "Duke '91 and '92: Back to Back." But it might as well had been Durham, N.C., circa 1991, the way they were reminiscing. As they walked together on a rainy afternoon in New York City, people still pointed and whispered.
That's what they were.
"My senior year was crazy," Laettner said. "We were defending champions, we were on national TV just about every weekend, and we were winning. Teams always brought their best when they went up against us, and we always matched it."
"Christian was like Paul McCartney," Hill said, laughing as he references The Beatles. "I was like Ringo (Starr), I guess. I was just happy to be part of the band, playing the drums. Actually, come to think of it, I was probably more like a roadie."
Their stories are wild.
The packs of screaming girls every time they stepped foot on an opposing campus. The "Laettner Lovers" waiting for them in the hotel lobbies. The night they had to pack point guard Bobby Hurley into an equipment bag and stick him on to the team bus just to avoid a riot.
"I don't know if really we do it justice, telling the stories now," Hill said. "Remember, this was before Facebook. Before Twitter. It was absolutely crazy. And not just on campus, it was everywhere. I remember a few days after we had just won the championship in 1991, we went up to the University of Virginia for a weekend. Somehow, we got involved in a pickup hoops game with the guys from Bell Biv Devoe. They were huge at the time."
Laettner reveals a sly grin.
"So we had a bet with them that if we beat them in a game to 21, they'd invite us on stage at their next concert. Well, we won," Hill said, smiling. "It just so happens that their next concert was at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill. Sure enough, during that show, they brought us all up on stage. There we were, on UNC's turf, dancing with BBD's backup dancers. Christian, Brian (Davis), Tony (Antonio Lang), myself — we're just out there dancing with BBD, having a blast. I'm 20 at the time? Maybe 19? And I remember looking out at that crowd of UNC students and fans, them watching us dance on stage with Bell Biv Devoe, and it hitting me like a ton of bricks, 'Wow, this is big. This is serious.' And that was just the start of it, really."
"Even I was up there dancing. It was a really fun time, man," Laettner said, shaking his head.
If Laettner still seems a bit protective of the younger Hill, it's not entirely his fault. That's the nature of their relationship. The face and co-captain of the 1992 Duke championship team, Laettner instilled the principles of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski upon his younger teammates. He wasn't just a big brother type for Hill, though. He was that way with all of the younger Duke players.
It was hot-shot high school recruit Bobby Hurley who likely felt the most impact of Laettner's tough-love method of leadership. The two stars' relationship got off to a somewhat rocky start during Hurley's freshman season.
"My whole freshman year at Duke, it was drilled into me that nothing was given to you and you have to earn it, and this is a dog-eat-dog world, and blah blah blah, and blah blah blah," Laettner explained, nearly 25 years after his first season under Coach K. "And you buy into it, 100 percent. You end up loving it. That's the way it should be, right? Just because you're good in high school doesn't mean the coach owes you playing time during your freshman year. I bought into everything Coach K preached to us. His whole philosophy."
Laettner takes a sip of water. "Lo and behold, a month into my sophomore year, we're playing pick-up and this little Bobby Hurley kid isn't doing that great. When the coaches weren't around, he wasn't playing well at all. We all were in agreement, 'Who cares? We've got other players who'll play point guard and we will do just fine.' And then, sure enough, even before we start stretching, Coach grabs the ball and does this ceremonious gesture where he hands the ball to Bobby like it was a torch. He just handed the reins to the entire club to this little guard who, quite honestly, had not been playing all that well."
As Laettner speaks, Hill perks up, hanging on to his every word.
"I almost fell over when he did that," Laettner said. "Everything Coach K preached to us from the last year, that I fell for 100 percent, just went down the drain. It was shocking to me. And I never let Bobby forget that moment. Never. I rode him hard for a real long time. And half of it was purely from that one gesture, because I was jealous that it hadn't happened to me, or that I felt like Coach K lied to us in some way.
"The other half of it, though, was that I knew how important Bobby was to our team. He was the quarterback who had to get the ball to our athletes running up and down the court. He was the guy who had to get the ball to me where I could be most successful. You're only as good as your weakest link, and Bobby was one of our weakest links his freshman year."
Hill added: "Christian was obviously demanding on Bobby, but he was demanding on a lot of people. Myself, Marty (Clarke), even the walk-ons — he'd get in your face if you messed up. There was tension there, but it was all because he wanted to win. We always knew that. The great thing with Bobby and Christian was that it never carried onto the court. They may be arguing before a game or in practice, but Bobby would always find Christian at the three-point line in perfect position, and vice versa. The chemistry on the court was unmatched. It was 'iron sharpens iron.' And, really, that's the Duke way."
Last year around this time, ESPN Films released "Fab Five," a Jalen Rose-produced documentary about the early '90s Michigan Wolverines. A few weeks later, HBO Sports came out with "Runnin' Rebels of UNLV," a documentary about Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV squads from the same era. In both films, the early '90s Duke Blue Devils were painted as privileged, cocky and smug.
If the truTV documentary, with Laettner and Hill as co-executive producers, comes off to the others as Tupac's "Hit 'Em Up" did to Biggie's "Who Shot Ya?", it's truly not the case. In fact, "Duke '91 and 92: Back to Back" was already well in production by the time those two films came out last year.
Hill, however, did want to capture the heart of those Duke teams and not have their place in history defined by other portrayals. The film is an idea that he and Laettner had been talking about for years. "With the 20-year anniversary of that '92 season coming up, it's something we thought fans would enjoy. We loved making it. We learned a lot making it, too."
In "Fab Five," Rose referred to the African-American players from those Duke teams as "Uncle Toms." The following week, Hill wrote an impassioned op-ed in the New York Times, stating, "It was a sad and somewhat pathetic turn of events, therefore, to see friends narrating this interesting documentary about their moment in time and calling me a bitch and worse, calling all black players at Duke 'Uncle Toms' and, to some degree, disparaging my parents for their education, work ethic and commitment to each other and to me."
Hill, a year later, said he thoroughly enjoyed the "Fab Five" film; he just didn't agree with those comments from Rose. This film doesn't address those comments head-on.
Though he didn't have much to say about the "Uncle Tom" comments, Laettner was vocal about another from "Fab Five," one that celebrates and glorifies a team that never beat Duke.
"Coach K would say to us, 'If you don't respect the other team, you're already halfway to a loss,' " Laettner recalled. "So he would never allow us to act that way. We could tell they were having loser thoughts at the beginning of the championship game because they were more concerned with taunting us and calling us names than figuring out what to do in a high pick-and-roll situation.
"That's why I always stress that it comes down to the coach. Coach K would never allow us to disrespect our opponent. It's like the UFC, man. Any night, someone can get lucky, and just ruin your life's dreams."
"It's true," Hill said, nodding.
"And they disrespected us," Laettner continued. "And that's why we beat them by 20. In the film, Jalen Rose says, 'I don't know what happened.' I'll tell you what happened, man. You disrespected us and we shoved it where the sun don't shine. You don't know what happened? I'll tell you what happened. We kicked your ass."
As Laettner got fired up, Hill sported a smile, a mile wide.
When I asked about the universal hatred for Duke players by opposing fans, Hill explained, "When you go into these arenas, and the fans are all booing Duke players, you'll notice that they're always booing the white players. Whether it be Christian, Wojo, or J.J. Redick — it's always the white guy. And the people doing the booing? They're the white people in the stands! And I never understood that. I don't know. I hate to bring race into the equation, but I always thought that was so odd."
"I mean, with Duke, there's been so much success over so many years," Laettner said. "In terms of all the white people booing the good white player, maybe that's a jealousy thing, I don't know. J.J. Redick? He never did anything on or off the court to warrant that reaction from fans. He didn't deserve to be hated. Now, me? I'm a different story. I stomped on a guy's chest. I played a certain way. All J.J. Redick did was play good, sound basketball. Why would you ever hate him?"
Laettner then leaned forward.
"Listen," he said. "The biggest reason for the Duke hate is because of the overall high level of success. Why would anyone hate the New York Yankees? It's because they're so good. That's why. It's the same thing with Duke. Right? We've just been so good for so long."
As we started to wrap the interview and Hill began preparing for a flight he was set to catch in a few hours, Laettner pulled me aside.
"That shot? We didn't have the foresight to realize what that game meant at the time. We were just 20-year-old kids, you know?" he said. "Our 50-year-old coaches all said, 'You guys have any idea what you just did?' And we were like, 'Whatever. Where's the pizza?' When you're young, you don't realize it. You don't get the magnitude. As you get older, though, you do. It's like having a child that goes on to be something really special 20 years later. When it's born, you don't know what it'll become. But as it grows, it develops into this beautiful thing, and you're just filled with pride over it."
Christian Laettner's not that 22-year-old kid running around the Spectrum, refusing to hug anyone, after nailing the game-winning shot vs. Kentucky.
He's older. He's wiser.
But he's definitely still Christian Laettner.
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