PLYMOUTH, Minn. — Still a grandiose beanstalk of a figure, he’s the easiest person to pick out among the hundred-plus in the Wayzata East Middle School gymnasium. Gray hairs, a few more facial lines and a little less muscle tone are all that differentiate him from grainy, early ’90s-footage from the 1992 Final Four. Back then, before HDTV and Twitter, Christian Laettner and Duke claimed a second consecutive national championship 10 miles down Interstate 394 at what was then the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
Dressed in a royal blue Christian Laettner Basketball Academy t-shirt and tear-away Blue Devils warmup pants that look like he hawked them from Carlos Boozer’s closet, the 6-foot-11 former polarizing hoops icon and current husband, father of three, entrepreneur, basketball camp adviser and Muskie fishing enthusiast instructs a horde of seated Timberwolves and Lynx clinic participants — grades second through sixth — on some of the game’s intricacies.
Catch the ball with two hands before dribbling. His father, George Laettner, would chew him out after youth games in Angola, N.Y., if Christian didn’t do that. This brisk Saturday morning in the Twin Cities, the 1992 Olympian and hall of famer tells a few dozen parents listening in to do something similar.
"Do not let a young basketball player do THIS," Laettner implores in that tenor-laced voice of his, halfway shouting as he corrals a bounce pass with one giant paw and immediately begins dribbling. "And they all do it."
This is minutiae, and these are kids who come up to Laettner’s kneecap and need to shove the ball with two hands just to hit the rim on a 10-foot basket. One of them, a girl with coke-bottle glasses and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, sits wide-eyed, wearing an "I (heart symbol) Laettner" shirt.
This had to be dad’s doing. By the time she was born, the guy speaking in front of her was close to retiring after a 13-year, productive but largely uncelebrated NBA career.
This isn’t exactly the Laettner her folks remember. Not the one who inspired a generation of polarization centered on Duke hoops and his own persona and, at one point during his three-plus years with the Wolves, allegedly pointed at every stall in the Target Center home locker room and said "loser" before motioning toward his own and proclaiming "winner."
When your life story is laid out in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary entitled "I Hate (Insert Name Here)," you’re a pariah for the ages.
There’s still a twinge of the "I’m above this" streak that used to glean gallons of venom from all corners of the country, save for Durham, N.C. and some pockets of the Buffalo, N.Y. area. "If we could get this all knocked out at once," Laettner tells reporters micing him up between camp sessions, "that would be great."
But the image of laid-back, 45-year-old Laettner grinning while coaching up youngsters at a 2-on-1s station doesn’t exactly jive with the picture of snide, 21-year-old Laettner talking trash to Shaq and bullying Bobby Hurley.
"Hey," Laettner says, "people mature. They learn. They get better at things. You’re different when you’re 45 than when you’re 25."
Sidney Lowe remembers the start of whatever metamorphoses Laettner might’ve undergone the past two decades. Minnesota drafted Laettner third overall in 1992 — three months after Duke’s national title game victory over Michigan’s Fab Five at the Dome. His first NBA press conference took place at a hotel in San Diego, where Laettner was training with the United States’ Olympic "Dream Team" — its only member that hadn’t yet reached the NBA.
Midway through Laettner’s rookie season, Lowe took over as head coach for fired Jimmy Rodgers. And it didn’t take him long to see what all the fuss was about.
"It’s perception, because it’s the way he was," Lowe said. "By that, I mean, he really did care what people thought of him. He wanted to gain an edge over you. So that’s what he put on, because he wanted you to know, ‘It’s a battle tonight. We’re going to compete tonight. Right now, I’m not your friend. I’m not going to smile.’"
Laettner tends to take the neither-confirm-nor-deny approach when asked about the "loser, loser, loser" story — perhaps the most infamous Laettner tale in these parts.
If it did happen, he says, it wasn’t in front of his teammates.
"I can imagine that possibly it happened," Laettner said. "It might have. When you’re being interviewed every day and you’re tired, you can make mistakes and say the wrong things, especially when you’re young. When you’re young, you don’t realize everything, and you’re a little naive."
Laettner was called much worse than that during four years at Duke that saw him play in four Final Fours, take scissors to nets at the last two and cap it all off with a John R. Wooden Award. In college and the Association, he was as despised for his transcendent abilities at power forward — encapsulated in "The Shot" against Kentucky in the 1992 East regional final of the NCAA tournament — as he was his edgy personality, perceived "white-boy privilege," male-model looks and overboard tenacity, which were highlighted earlier in that same game when he stomped on Wildcats forward Aminu Timberlake.
The ESPN film breaks down the reasons for such animosity. It also points out what Laettner says are misconceptions about him.
"I don’t need you to love me, I don’t want you to hate me, but just don’t judge the book by its cover," Laettner said. "I’m different now than I was when I was 20 years old."
Minnesota drafted Christian Laettner third overall in 1992.
One of the most common misnomers: Laettner was a star college player who could never hack it in the NBA.
The numbers say something different. Each of his first five years in the league, he averaged between 16 and 18 points and seven and eight rebounds per game.
Laettner shot 47.4 percent from the floor and had 17.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game during 3 1/2 seasons in Minneapolis.
"I think people looked at him as a savior for the franchise at the time and thought he was going to score 30 points and average 10 rebounds per game, and that’s not the kind of player he was," said Western Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner Bill Robertson, the Wolves’ director of communications during Laettner’s rookie season. "There was a lot of pressure."
But even since Minnesota dealt him to the Hawks in 1996 — the first of six NBA trades involving Laettner — he’s maintained close ties with the Land of 10,000 Lakes. His wife, Lisa, is from Mound. He’s lived in Mound and Stillwater. In addition to his basketball academy and a few other business ventures, Laettner started a muskie-related company called the Muskie Life.
"My biggest regret in life, well one of them, is that I wasn’t muskie fishing from ’92 to ’96 when I was not married," Laettner jokes. "I was a bachelor. I could have spent a whole month up at the Lake of the Woods by myself, but instead, I was wasting my time golfing at Indian Hills Golf Club (in Stillwater)."
Today, Jacksonville, Fla., is home for Christian, Lisa, daughters Summer and Sophie and son Tor. But he comes back to Minnesota a few times every year to fish and help out at hoops camps like he did this past weekend. Sunday night, Laettner watched the Wolves’ loss to Charlotte from a Target Center suite.
But the day before, he’s more in his element, harping on basketball fundamentals and begging parents to push their children as hard as his dad and older brother Chris used to push Christian.
One note, though, he adds. When doling out criticism, be gentle.
"I didn’t always deliver it gently to my teammates," Laettner says, that brash, sideways grin slipping across his face, "and that’s why that movie came out about me."