Former Duke star Christian Laettner will be in Atlanta for Tuesday’s Duke-Kentucky game, which is part of the State Farm Champions Classic at the Georgia Dome.
Laettner and former Kentucky standout Jeff Sheppard (1994-98), a McIntosh High graduate, are hosting a pre-game party to honor Dick Vitale at the Hilton Garden Inn at 275 Baker Street from 4-6 p.m. on Tuesday. Proceeds will benefit the V Foundation for cancer research.
Laettner spoke to AJC staff writer Carroll Rogers recently about how he got the idea for the event, about making his first appearance at a Duke-Kentucky game since his miracle shot over the Wildcats in the 1992 regional final, and this year’s Duke team. Here are excerpts:
Q. How did the event come about?
A. Jeff Sheppard and I did something really fun last year in Kentucky. He had the “Villains vs. Heroes game,” and I was the head villain. So I called him up two months ago and said ‘Let’s do something before the Duke-UK game in Atlanta’ and have some fun again. He loved the idea.
Q. Where did Vitale come in?
A. We decided to honor Dickie V because where would college basketball be without Dickie V? Dickie was inspirational to me when I was in high school, trying to become a better basketball player. When you’re in high school during the mid-’80s, you’re saying “Man, if I can get in a game when Dickie V is (doing) commentary, that means I really made it.” I think he had that same effect on a lot of players… We’re going to honor Dickie by handing him a check when he’s there. We’re going to have a silent auction. People can take pictures with me and Jeff. I might let them step on my chest if they’re a Kentucky fan. We’re just going to have a good time and celebrate Dickie V and celebrate Kentucky basketball and Duke basketball and one of the greatest games ever played, two of the most historic programs.
Q. What was the event like last year?
A. Jeff had it at Rupp Arena. There were about 9,000 or 10,000 people there and the hero team was all Kentucky players. Rajon Rondo was there and Chuck Hayes, a lot of Kentucky players. Rex Chapman was the coach of the hero team. The villain team, I was the coach. On my team was (Connecticut’s) Rudy Gay, (Duke’s) Nolan Smith, (North Carolina’s) Tyler Hansbrough, (Michigan State’s) Zach Randolph. There are some really funny videos like when I walk out and they all boo me. We had a lot of fun with it.
Q. Has your relationship with Kentucky fans mellowed some over the years?
A. It’s definitely taken some type of twist where we both now acknowledge that there’s a lot of animosity there and that it hasn’t faded away. Some of them reply “Laettner you ain’t so bad.” Some of them reply, “Laettner I’ll hate you until the day I die” or “the day you die.” So the important thing I think is that it creates some type of reaction, and that’s probably better than no reaction. There’s a thin line between love and hate.
Q. Have you been to a Duke-Kentucky game since 1992? (They’ve played three times since.)
A. I have not. I have been to about 10 Duke games but not a Kentucky game.
Q. Will it bring up old memories or just be fun to see these two teams play?
A. Of course, it will. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Some of my friends are teasing me, saying when you walk in on the Duke side you’ll be OK. When you go to the Kentucky side, you better put on a helmet. We’ve been having fun with it.
Q. So much has been written and said about the game in 1992. Every year we see the shot on TV. When it crosses your mind, what images pop into your head?
A. When I think about it, it’s just an overall proud feeling. You feel proud of it because of what it has turned into, the legacy that is has, and the fact that you’re part of that legacy and part of the greatest game ever played, and part of one of the greatest shots they’re calling in college basketball history.
Q. Did you even realize that night you hadn’t missed? (Laettner was 10-for-10 from the floor and 10-for-10 from the free throw line.)
A. During the game, while it was going on, I did not know that I didn’t miss. And no one told me, which was a really good idea.
Q. Do you keep up with any of those guys from the 1992 Duke team, or see them from time to time?
A. Of course. I keep up with (Bobby) Hurley and (Brian) Davis and both Hills (Grant and Thomas) and Marty Clark. Those are the people I stay in touch with the most. We had a reunion last year where we made the documentary. That was good seeing everybody else.
Q. So what are you up to these days?
A. I live in Ponte Vedra, Fla., near Jacksonville. Everything is going good. I have three kids, a 15-year-old girl, a 13-year old girl, and a 6-year old boy. I’ve been doing real estate the whole time. That’s very difficult right now with the economy and market the last four, five years. So I’m hanging in there with that, but that’s a battle. Then besides that, raising my family and I also have had my basketball academy up and running for the last three years. (www.laettnerbball.com)
Q. What do you think of the college game now, like what Kentucky did last year winning a national title, then watching all five starters leave early for the NBA draft?
A. It’s just part of the business now, in and out and lots of turnover. Coaches get turned over and players are in an out and leave too early. How many Final Fours would that Kentucky team have gone to if they stayed for three or four years? They’d be at every Final Four (for four college seasons) just like I was maybe.
Q. Was it strange watching Duke’s first-round exit from the NCAA tournament last year?
A. Yeah it was. Every once in a while there’s a strange year in there. People can expect excellence from Duke and Coach K, but they can’t expect them to go to an excellent level every year. Sometimes they might run into a buzzsaw that knocks them out, and that’s what happened last year (vs. Lehigh). People have to realize what we did during that four-year stretch was beyond remarkable (1988-1992). It’ll never happen again, especially when kids leave so early.
Q. You think that might be Duke’s strength this year, having three seniors. Who has three seniors anymore?
A. That makes a huge difference, and that will make a big difference.
For information and to pre-register for the event, go to www.ukalumni.net/bluesalute. People can donate or bid on auction items, even if they don’t attend the event.
– Carroll Rogers of the AJC staff