Christian Laettner Q&A: Coach K, The Shot and the Fab Five
In our exclusive interview, the Duke legend discusses Mike Krzyzewski's retirement, his famous buzzer beater from 1992 and his selection on the Dream Team.
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How are you feeling about Duke’s chances in the tournament this year?
I think their chances are as good as anyone else's. There's a lot of teams out there that look really good some nights, but then every once in a while, they can lose. No one team looks dominant, and that seems to be happening a little more in the college game with the one-and-dones.
It doesn't seem like coaches have long enough to develop their players. I mostly notice that on the defensive end. Even Gonzaga runs into an opponent every once in a while, on their home floor that just plays really well and gives them trouble. There's lots of parity out there.
How do you think this Duke team matches up with some of the other Duke teams in recent years?
I think it’s like a regular Duke team that you see every year for the last five to eight years. Really good, they have great potential to be great at certain times, and then other times you might be a little surprised with their losses. I think it's just because everyone leaves. My senior year, we wouldn't have only lost twice and been a dominant team if one or two of us had left early.
Is the rise in players leaving college early a good thing for college basketball?
It's really good in some ways that the kids can leave early and make that big money in the NBA, if they can make it. But in other ways, I think it does harm the overall game. Now, does it make it more exciting for the fans? Maybe, because there's even more upsets, there's maybe even more buzzer beaters, because the dominant team isn't winning by 15 or 20 points. But my wish overall would be that everyone should have to stay at least two years, unless you're a guaranteed top five pick.
Every once in a while, there's a player like Dwight Howard, or Kevin Garnett, or Kobe Bryant or LeBron that doesn't have to go to college, they’re ready for the NBA at the age of 18 or 19. But I think of all the kids that have left early and you never hear from them again.
What would qualify as a good ending to Coach K’s career?
I hope they do really well in the tournament because they didn't end the regular season with a victory against Carolina at home, and they didn't end with an ACC championship.
A good ending, I think, would be at least making it to the Final Four. Hopefully then every Duke fan would be content that they sent Coach K off on kind of a winning note. Obviously winning it all would be the greatest gift for him, but they would have to play really, really good basketball six games in a row.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time with Coach K?
I can't pick out one thing. All I can say is that every day of the four-and-a-half years I was around him and having him coach me, it was just the greatest time.
I loved everything he did. I loved when he was hard on us, I loved when he took us in the locker room and yelled at every one of us, I loved when he invited us over to his house for dinner and his wife made chocolate chip cookies. Even if we didn't win two championships or go to four Final Fours when I was there, I still would have loved every second of it.
How did Coach K sell Duke to you as a recruit?
He didn't really have to sell it to me much because I loved Duke and Duke was very hot. I graduated high school in 1988 so Duke were the team that was up and coming and the team that hadn't won it all yet. The team that had a young, intense, very, very good coach. And I wanted to take them over the tipping point, I wanted to be part of the team that got him to the Promised Land.
Do you think Duke is set up to still be a powerhouse after Coach K retires?
It's a question I don't want to answer. It's gonna be interesting to see how Jon Scheyer develops the program and keeps the program going along. I wish him the best, I hope we stay at the level they've been at for the last two or three decades, but I don't know if it can be done.
For me, a Coach K disciple, I think it's all because of him. It's not the university or the colors or the name, Duke, the uniform, it's Coach K, and the way he coaches and how demanding he is. He used to tell us all the time: "Fellas, if we lose, but we play the right way, I'll still be happy and proud of you." I think it all comes down to him, and he's not going to be there anymore. So we'll see if Jon Scheyer is an excellent coach.
Which Duke players from the past 30 years would have fit best into your title-winning team from 1992?
Everyone who's gone to Duke could have fit in with my teams for sure, especially if they're willing to stay a year or two. I was very impressed with Zion. He was very fun to watch and it was when my son was like 14 and 15 and just falling in love with basketball and falling in love with Duke. Everything I try to teach him on the court is Zion stuff - attack the rim off two feet, do all your layups off two feet and try to play powerfully.
So Zion was very impressive, but I can also name 10 other kids. Kyrie Irving only played 11 games in a Duke uniform, but he was impressive. Many, many impressive players have been there.
It's 30 years since the defining moment of your career – The Shot. How often do you watch that moment back?
I don't go and look at it on my own initiative, but sometimes I'm just sitting flicking through Facebook and it might pop up. If it's something like Grant Hill talking about it, or Coach K talking about it, I might watch it, and that's very enjoyable.
It's the greatest thing, you know, when I was 22, and some of my coaches put their arm around me after the Kentucky game, and they said: “Christian, this is historical, this will never go away.” I was only 22. I didn't know what they were talking about, but for sure, it has been that over the last 30 years.
People have talked a lot about your poise in that moment, did you feel as relaxed as you looked?
The only thing I remember is right before the playoffs started, when I was standing in the corner, I said to myself, you know, there's 2.1 seconds left, I don't have to rush. Sometimes you take a last-second shot where you’ve just got to catch it and fling it up kind of blindly at the hoop.
I knew I had two seconds, and I could get a good look. After that, the only other thought I had was: “Man, I hope Grant throws a good pass. I hope I can jump up and get that dang ball in my hands, I hope no one deflects the pass, I’ve gotta go get it big and strong.” And that's the last thing I thought.
That shot at the end of a game in which you went 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. Before tip-off, did you feel like a game that perfect was possible?
The only thing I felt about that game, and the whole weekend, was fear that we were going to lose. The game before was against Seton Hall where Bobby Hurley had to play against his little brother and some other kids from his high school team, an emotional type of game for my point guard, but we were able to win so a weight was lifted. Then it’s: “Oh my God, we’ve got to play Kentucky now.”
Kentucky didn’t really care about defense, they just wanted to outscore you, and when you're the center, you don't want to play those games where they’re just going to chuck up threes. Fear was a very, very big factor in my emotions for that whole weekend, and maybe it helped because that threat of losing brought the best out in me and maybe allowed me to play that well and not miss a shot against Kentucky.
You played against the Fab Five that year. What did you think of the less-than-complimentary things they said about you in the ESPN documentary?
Well, I didn't appreciate it. I only watched it once and I heard them say things that are not complimentary, so I did not enjoy that and I will avoid that further until the day I die.
But they were a tough team to play. They played really good against us, but I was able to get on track in the second half and my team was able to carry the load when I was struggling. That’s a very important thing. The power of our team was that even if one of our better players was not having a great game, the rest of us would pick up the slack.
You were considered a villain during your playing days. Did you embrace, or even enjoy that image?
I didn't enjoy it. I didn't embrace it, but you have to be single-minded when you're playing for Coach K. Every time he meets with you, he's saying: “Be tough, fight, play intensely.” I'm sorry to say it, people don't like these words nowadays. but basketball is bully ball. You have to be a bully out there, or you're going to get run over. I tried to play the game at a fierce level so that we wouldn't lose.
Besides that, I don't worry about anything else, if there's misconceptions. You can interview plenty of people who say: “I love the way he played, I love being his teammate. I enjoyed coaching him.”
What do you think your legacy is as a player?
I don't ask for much, but all I can ask for is that when I'm dead and gone, people will say: “Man, he was a good basketball player.” I don't need to have anything more said about me than that, or less. If they just said on my tombstone that I was a good basketball player, that'll be enough for me.
I've exceeded my father's expectations and I've exceeded my own expectations, which people might not realize. I go to Vegas once a year with my dad and play golf with him and hang out, and he says: “I'm proud of you and how you played the game.” And, jeez, that's really all that matters.
It's 30 years since you were selected for the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics. How was it walking into that dressing room?
I said: “I’ve got to act like a rookie, know my place, keep my mouth shut, be willing to get hazed a little bit.” They're gonna make you get their coffee and their donuts and their cigars, carry their dirty laundry and be the last man on the bench, so that's what I had to do.
It was a chance for me to be around 11 players that I looked up to, to be on the same team with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, two 6ft 9in players that had guard skills, could hit threes and dunk it on you. I enjoyed every second of it, and I got to win a gold medal.
There was a lot of talk around your selection ahead of Shaquille O’Neal as the only college player. Did you feel like the best college player around that time?
No, I didn't think I was the best college player in the world, I thought my team had the best year and we just won back-to-back championships. Everyone knew Shaq was going No. 1 and he was going to be the most dominant player in the NBA, and maybe the history of the NBA. But I put in my time, I played for USA Basketball the previous three summers on the World Team, the Pan-Am team, and then my resume played in my favor.
Did you watch The Last Dance?
I did not, because I didn't want to see anyone say anything bad about anyone. I don't want to see someone I look up glorified too much, or slammed. I have to make myself not watch the 30 for 30, I Hate Christian Laettner, because I get too emotional when people say nice things about me, and then you don't want to see the parts where someone says something negative about you. I love watching it and it makes me cry at certain points, when I see people that I love say really, really nice things, but I only watch that once every three or four years with my children.
Were you aware at the time of the controversy around Isiah Thomas not being selected for the Dream Team, and was it ever discussed?
I was aware of it before they picked me. The only thing I noticed is that maybe one time in the locker room before everything started, I was sitting off to the side of the locker room, and those 11 guys are talking about stuff quietly and I might have heard them say something about it and giggle. And then after that they never mentioned it again. It seemed like after they discussed it for five seconds among themselves, after that the skies were clear and there was no more thinking or talking about that. Let's do what we need to do and win the gold medal.
There was a famous game in practice between the Dream Team and some college players, what are your memories of that?
I think we played against them on two days. On the first day, I'm practicing with the Dream Team and I see all the college kids walk into the gym, all these guys like Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, my teammates from two months ago! They're all looking like: "There's Jordan, there's Magic, there's Bird, there's Ewing." And you could see the excitement, they couldn't believe they were they're seeing some of their idols and that they were going to get a chance to play against them.
And then the next second, Charles Barkley went baseline and dunked on Karl Malone who's one of the biggest, strongest guys you'll ever play against. And now they're like: "Oh my God. Now we've got to go and get dunked on by all these pros." That was an awesome five seconds of seeing them up there and go from awe to fear.
Is it true that the college players won that game because the Dream Team coaches benched Michael Jordan?
I think part of that is true. I do remember Jordan being on the bench, and the college kids played real good, and as soon as they were up by two they called the practice and that was it. They wanted the Dream Teamers to not be too comfortable.
It might have been a ploy, it might have been some thinking by Chuck Daly, I didn't notice it. It wasn't hitting me in the face that they were beating us and that shouldn't happen. I just thought maybe Jordan was tired, John Stockton had a broken foot, Larry Bird was hurt, I had a sore back. There was lots of stuff going on.
What was the most important thing you learned from that experience?
That I’d better get on my horse and start running in the NBA because their transition game was just incredible, especially on the Dream Team. You've got Jordan Pippen and Clyde Drexler out there, and as soon as they score, they turn around and start playing unbelievable defense in their transition game. So the thing I learned is that how much you've got to be willing to run in the NBA, because those guys are very fast, very athletic and very strong.