20 years later, Laettner deserves respect



By Les Johns | Kernel columnist

Without a doubt, I disappointed more of my friends on Monday than on any other day in my life. I got the opportunity to interview UK basketball nemesis Christian Laettner and I made no attempts to inflict bodily harm upon him. I did not punch him or “accidentally” mash his toes.

With the passage of 20 years, Christian Laettner has gained perspective on his place in college basketball history and his standing with UK fans. It is time for UK fans to gain the same perspective.

If you bleed blue then you already know the storyline. The Unforgettables from UK lost to Duke in the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final, a game many consider the greatest college basketball game ever played.

All five starters for the Cats that year (and their coach) have their jerseys hanging from the rafters of Rupp Arena.

Duke was led in that fateful game by Christian Laettner, who played a perfect game of basketball, scoring 31 points while going 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 from the free throw line.

Laettner capped off his perfect night in the greatest game ever by delivering the knockout punch in the form of a last-second game-winning shot that is now shown every March approximately 3,852 times.

Laettner personified the word “villain” to UK fans for the last 20 years by ending the season for one of the most beloved teams ever with his perfection.

“They should be mad at me for what I did to their team in 1992,” Laettner said about UK fans. “Everyone was pulling for that team so much back then.”

Laettner said the Unforgettables were over-achievers that the average fan just fel in love with.

“To have them go out the way they did with me hitting that shot was hard,” Laettner said. “I understand that.”

Although Laettner now better understands the sentimental attachment Cat fans had for that team, that was far from his thoughts in 1992.

“You are so caught up in your own little world – classes, Coach K and Duke basketball,” Laettner said. “You really don’t have time to think about your opponent like that.

“You’re not worried about where they’re coming from or the story behind their team,” he said. “All you’re worried about is that this team can possibly beat us.”

Laettner now seems to embrace “the shot” and the historical context of his performance that night.

“I feel great,” Laettner said. “I get tickled inside and I can’t believe it’s such a part of our sports culture.”

Laettner was obliviously perfect in that game against UK, having no concept of how his performance stacked up historically.

“You’re too young to put it in to historical perspective at the time,” Laettner said. “But as you turn 28, 30 or 35 years old you begin to start to put it in to historical sporting perspective and then you realize how special it was.

“All the adults in my life at the time – my coaches, parents – tried to tell me how big of a thing it was when it happened,” said Laettner. “But when you are 22 you just can’t understand it.”

“Now I realize how big it is.”

Laettner broke the collective heart of Big Blue Nation almost 20 years ago, and aside from video reminders every March during the NCAA tournament has largely stayed out of their consciousness.

That changed Monday night, when he served as the head coach of the team of Villains that played against the Big Blue All-Stars in Rupp Arena in a benefit game for the V Foundation.

Laettner said he loved the idea of the game and agreed to participate as soon as he received the call from Jeff Sheppard.

“This was a great event to throw for the Kentucky fans,” Laettner said. “This gave the Kentucky fans a chance to give it to me a little bit – boo me a little and have some fun with it.”

Christian Laettner led the Duke Blue Devils to their second-consecutive national title in 1992, just nine days after ending the season of the beloved Unforgettables. He was an exceptional athlete who played flawlessly in maybe the best collegiate game ever played.

While in Lexington Monday night, Laettner did not apologize for his perfect game against the Cats on March 28, 1992 – nor does he need too.

Laettner doesn’t need your forgiveness, but he has shown he deserves your respect.