Laettner to mingle with Kentucky fans at charity event

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

12 comments Add your comment

JacketFanMarcus

November 9th, 2012
1:50 pm

Oh man, I still hate Duke and UNC so bad!

Man, I hope Georgia Tech can bring back the gool ‘ol days of Lethal Weapon 3 and Bobby Cremins.

jgsbirds

November 9th, 2012
2:38 pm

i will always love christian laettner! i’m not a duke fan, in fact i root for UTC (chattanooga) and alabama in college sports and all the atlanta teams in pro sports. but in my humble opinion i think laettner was the best college player to play the game. i know a lot of people are going to laugh at this statement. but if you look at his career the statement is hard to argue. i know his team won at least two national championships and were runners up another year. i should look the exact facts up real quick but i know he had an incredible run and made so many huge plays.

unfortunately his ability in the pros didn’t turn out the way i thought they would…i think he was too unselfish on the court for the nba style of play. i thought he had a great run with the hawks–nobody in atlanta seemed to like him a s a player but i sure did. he was so smart, could shoot it with anybody, played decent defense (team) and simply knew what it took to win games. he was one of my all time favorites with the hawks. obviously i liked nique the best, really liked mookie and steve smith, eddie johnson too–but laettner was right there with all of them…good thing he’s doing for the kentucky fans–i know that shot still kills them today!

Mike

November 9th, 2012
2:54 pm

UGA is the team that represents this state.

Hankie Aron

November 9th, 2012
3:52 pm

Mike- As an enormous UGA fan what does that have to do with this article?

Go Duke!

November 9th, 2012
4:22 pm

As a Duke alum I must say I’ll never never never get tired of watching THE definitive buzzer-beater. More importantly, like so many other products of Coach K’s program, Laettner is a genuinely great guy. Evidence that at its best, sports aren’t just about winning. And don’t work UK fans, there’s always room for #2

spider

November 9th, 2012
5:27 pm

is this game a sell out? this is the first i have heard about it, what are the details?

LouisvilleFANinATL

November 10th, 2012
11:22 pm

I feel bad for Laettner, because we all know how UK fans are. As a Louisville fan, I can tell you first hand, UK fans are some of the most obnoxious people you will ever meet.

the other jwill

November 11th, 2012
7:38 am

Louisville fan, Kentucky fans are a pleasure to deal with compared to fans of the evil empire in Chapel Hell.

JIMBOB

November 11th, 2012
7:29 pm

I was a huge gt fan, but Laettner is definitely among the best college players ever. He was a pretty solid NBA player too, but I guess something about him rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way. Kind of strange because he seems like a good guy. In addition to the shot against UK, we shouldn’t forget about his shot against Uconn.

NNANCY

November 12th, 2012
12:16 pm

I LOVE DUKE………LAETTNER’S SHOT WAS PART OF HISTORY……. GO DUKE
KENTUCKY COACH GRADUATED FROM CLARION UNIVERSITY, IN PA WHERE MY SON
GRADUATED AND KNEW HIM. MY SON ALSO GOT A PHD FROM DUKE, AND COACH K
IS THE BEST. SHOULD BE A GOOD GAME……..

RJV

November 12th, 2012
1:31 pm

I am a Duke alum, and I was at the 1986 title game in Dallas between Duke and Louisville. It was a crushing defeat, with Duke having led until the last minute. I could not have been more impressed, however, with the Louisville fans. After the game, many expressed their compliments on Duke’s play and were supportive. They didn’t have to do that but they did. Total class act. Been a Louisville fan (after Duke of course) since.

Yunel

November 13th, 2012
4:10 pm

Duke and Kentucky are the best.

Now, can I come back and play for the Braves again?