ESPN's award winning 30 for 30 series knocked it out of the park again with a Rory Karpf directed documentary about one of the most successful, yet highly controversial, basketball players in NCAA history, Christian Laettner. Aptly titled with the tongue-in-cheek I Hate Christian Laettner, the film takes a look at the shooting-star's rise to fame playing for Duke University between 1988 and 1992, leading the Blue Devils to four consecutive Final Fours and winning consecutive NCAA titles his junior and senior seasons. Needless to say, it wasn't that Laettner had a troubled career, but rather it was his career that troubled so many college basketball fans. While the film takes a deeper look at some of the reasons "people just loved to hate him" — whether for his arrogance, his aggressive style of play, or just for being the good looking pretty boy he fully admits to being — it's time to turn the tides back in Laettner's favor. Here are our 10 reasons to love Christian Laettner, because he was absolutely better for the game of basketball than we remember, and there's (almost) no reason to hate him at all.
1. His epic buzzer beater against Kentucky
It was March 28th, 1992 — Laettner's senior year at Duke — and they were up against a 103 – 102 Kentucky lead in the NCAA East with 2.1 seconds left on the clock. Coming off a time-out, Grant Hill completed a perfect pass down the court to Laettner who, standing right on the foul line, faked right and spun left to sink the game winning shot right at the buzzer. Still, there’s an entire faction of haters who believe Christian shouldn't have been playing for those final seconds of the game at all — with 8 minutes left of the second half, Laettner blatantly stepped on the chest of Aminu Timberlake, who had fallen to the ground. Over the years Laettner claimed to have thought he was fouled backwards into the goal post by Timberlake earlier in the game, and stepped on his chest in retaliation, but apologized for the rude stunt on Twitter as the documentary aired. Regardless, his game winning shot ranks as No. 17 on ESPN’s "100 Most Memorable Moments of the past 25 Years" and tops pretty much every list of the tournament's greatest moments.
2. He was, not even arguably, "10 Kinds of Handsome"
Christian Laettner was a blue-eyed, floppy haired, 6’ 11” golden boy. Girls flocked to watch him practice, and screamed for him like he was Justin Bieber at every game. He was voted as one of People Magazine's Most Beautiful People in 1992, the only college basketball player to ever be so. There isn't a single article that mentions Christian and not his baby blues a beat later: ''The 21-year-old… wore a brown leather cap and a blue warm-up suit to match his blue eyes." — Detroit Free Press; ''In talking to (him), you keep noticing the eyes. So blue, so expressive, so often a gauge to his inner feelings… When he's happy, carefree, the eyes sparkle, gush with warmth" — Raleigh News and Observer. He was also nominated as 1991 Man of the Year by the Harvard Lampoon, an honor typically bestowed on comedians.
3. He wasn't a white collar prep like we assumed
He came up during a time when Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" was blasting over the airwaves, the Fab Five was running shit, and even Spike Lee was rocking UNLV's Runnin' Rebels gear. As a private university, Duke was likened to Ivy League status, and Christian took a lot of flack for being viewed as the white kid with all the advantages that grew up in a cushy suburb like teammate Grant Hill — even though he came from a blue-collar upbringing and put himself through Duke on a sports scholarship. He even worked summer hours ripping up and laying down carpet in a gym (that now bears his name) to pay-off four years of room and board costs for his high school.
4. He single-handedly ended the UNLV dynasty (with a free-throw)
In March 1991, the hardscrabble UNLV team entered the NCAA tournament undefeated, a record the team would hold for the next 13 years. It would be Christian Laettner's unwavering grasp on the fundamentals of the game that would usurp the Runnin' Rebels coulda-woulda-shoulda back-to-back championships. With fewer than 13 seconds left in the game, Laettner sank two free-throws that won Duke a spot in the finals — UNLV's first defeat in 46 games. Coach Krzyzewski remembers Laettner cockily reassuring him, "I got this" before he even had a chance to give a pep talk to his star player.
5. His perfect shooting performance in the Elite 8
It's hard to hate a guy who has the talent to back it up. He scored 28 points in the 1991 game against UNLV, and had perfect shooting performance in the Elite 8 — he went 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 from the free-throw line (there are those fundamentals popping up again that seem to cause so many star players to flounder these days).
6. He deserved his spot on the Dream Team
In 1992, Christian Laettner was famously picked over Shaquille O'Neal for a spot on the USA's Dream Team, the greatest basketball squad ever assembled. Some say Shaq got his payback when he was drafted No. 1 overall that year to Christian's No. 3, however, but people often forget how easily Laettner was able to shut Shaq down in their college match-ups. In a 1991 game, Duke beat out LSU 88–70, Laettner schooled Shaq so intensely the fans in the stadium were chanting "One-two-three-four: Shaq can't play this game no more!"
7. He wasn't a bully, he made his team stronger
His attitude on the court was so fiercely passionate, he could elevate the level of teammates, and diminish his opponents. Of course, that includes a tenacious level of play often confused for cheap… but what great ball player doesn't have a reputation for throwing sharp elbows? Some of the incredible archival footage included in the documentary shows a young Christian getting mercilessly bullied by his older brother in the 80s — a precursor to the tough love he often showed his Duke teammates. (There's also footage of a massive brawl that broke out between Nichol's High School and South Park — while Laettner and team were being led out of the frenzy by police escort, his fist was seen raised in victory after the 68 – 49 Nichol's win, a champion until the end.) When Laettner later struggled during his NBA career, Coach Krzyzewski remembers advising Timberwolves coach Sidney Lowe that: "Laettner is like fire: if you can figure out how to control it, he'll heat up the whole building. If you can't, he could burn the whole building down." That’s a lot of power and deserves respect.
8. He crushed the mystique of the Fab Five
Not only was Laettner the key player during a golden age for the NCAA, but he made the rivalries bigger and more epic just by stepping on the court. After scraping by Michigan's infamous Fab Five, which included future NBA All-Stars Chris Webber, Juan Howard, and Jalen Rose, in a December overtime game, the two teams met again in the Finals. Laettner repeatedly choked throughout the first half, but after an intense pep talk from teammate Bobby Hurley, he roared back to help blow out Michigan by more than 20 points in the second half. The comeback still doesn’t sit well with Webber or Rose — who both seem to maintain a certain vitriol for their college rival.
9. He shut down the bigots
Christian's closest friend and teammate was Brian Davis, and the two were inseparable off the court. Rumors the two were romantically involved were fueled by the pair's unabashed affection for each other. Nothing deterred their bravery in the face of opposition, not even angry and bitter fans who would fill stadiums with chants of homophobic remarks. Rumors of a relationship even followed Davis after he left college. But what's most impressive is how Christian decided to defend himself against all the claims — by not acknowledging the bigoted comments at all, dismissing the relevancy of sexual preference in the first place.
10. He was better than we remember
People might call him the most hated man in college sports history, but he should certainly take the cake for giving very few fucks. Laettner seems unnaturally comfortable with all the animosity being thrown his way, even chuckling about the ubiquitous "I STILL HATE LAETTNER" t-shirts people wear to this day. Maybe that's because he was better than we remember, or, maybe more accurately, than we like to admit. He's arguably one of the five best NCAA players of all-time, leading his team to four straight Final Four appearances and consecutive titles. He still holds the record for most points scored in NCAA Tournament history (407) and the most games played (23), most free throws made (142), and most free throw attempts (167). He was also a pretty decent pro, was named an All-Star in 1997, and averaged nearly 13 points and 7 rebounds per game during his 13-year NBA career.
Lesson learned: Don't hate on greatness!