In the fall of 1987, Christian Laettner’s college choice had come down to three schools: Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.
North Carolina was the giant—fat on tradition and success. Virginia, for all its greatness in the Ralph Sampson era, was the third wheel. Duke, remarkably, was the underdog.
That isn’t to say the Blue Devils were patsies. Mike Krzyzewski had led the program to a title-game appearance in 1986. So too had Bill Foster in ’78 and Vic Bubas in ’64.
But compared to Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana and the other titans of the college basketball world, Duke still felt small and undistinguished—urchins rapping at the palace gates.
As it so happened, Laettner dug Duke’s Cinderella reputation, later telling ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski:
I didn't want to go to the already established team. I wanted to go to the team that was looking like they were heading there, but just needed a little more help. I didn't know that I would be that help, but I knew I wanted to be part of the process.
Laettner would leave Duke four years later as perhaps the most disliked player in college basketball history. In that same short period of time, Coach K’s Blue Devils would go from plucky upstart to detestable hegemon.
Yeah, Laettner was that good.
The transformation began with the Blue Devils’ first national championship in 1991 and culminated on March 28, 1992, when Laettner hit a game-winning shot that many partisans still feverishly claim he shouldn’t have been permitted to take.
The 1992 East Regional final, staged at The Spectrum in South Philadelphia, pitted the SEC champion Kentucky Wildcats and their star, Jamal Mashburn, against the ACC champion Duke Blue Devils led by Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley.
Duke was the top seed. Kentucky was the second. Neither team had been seriously challenged in the prior rounds.
The game leading up to the climax was almost as good as the climax itself.
Down 67-55 with just over 11 minutes remaining in regulation, Kentucky ran off eight straight points on the strength of a devilish full-court press.
Less than two minutes later, with Duke still ahead five, UK reserve Aminu Timberlake fouled Laettner on a shot attempt in the lane. The force of the play sent Timberlake tumbling to the ground.
Laettner, still upright, jabbed Timberlake in the stomach with his foot, drawing a technical foul. Many felt, and still feel, the belligerence warranted an ejection.
In that moment, Duke as we know it was born. Duke the Goliath. Duke the chosen son. Duke the bully.
Timberlake, who played just five minutes that night, would later characterize the play as an expression of vanity and rank, telling Sports Illustrated, “It was just a chippy, I'm-Christian-Laettner-and-you're-not thing to do.”
Two decades later, the impression still lingers.
And yet there was basketball to be played—some of the best the college game has ever seen.
With time winding down in regulation, Kentucky’s Deron Feldhaus connected on a layup to tie the score at 93.
In overtime, Bobby Hurley’s three was met with a John Pelphrey two, which was met with two Laettner free throws, which was met with a Mashburn free throw, which was met with yet another pair of Laettner free throws.
When Kentucky’s Sean Woods hit a miracle bank shot with 2.1 seconds left, the game appeared all but over. Trailing 103-102 with the ball under its own basket, Duke called for time.
Krzyzewski instructed sophomore Grant Hill to heave the inbound pass toward Laettner, the senior, who would be crouched in wait at the Kentucky free-throw line.
He did. Laettner was.
The 6’11” forward snared the pass with his back to the basket, threw a quick shoulder fake at the defender, dribbled once and flicked a perfect turnaround jump shot over his left shoulder.
The ball passed through the net a half-second after time expired, sending Duke to its fourth consecutive Final Four.
For the game, Laettner scored 31 points on 10-of-10 shooting and 10-of-10 from the free-throw line.
Nine days later, Duke beat Michigan for the national title.
In the aftermath, a T-shirt began to circulate among Kentucky fans that read “DUKE NO. 1” with footprints over the “D” and “E,” insinuating both that Laettner should have been tossed for stomping on Timberlake and that “UK” was the rightful national champ.
They were the first embers of a national obsession with Duke basketball that still burns—sometimes glowing, other times angry, always present.
For the kid who came to Durham dreaming of dynasty, there could be no greater tribute.
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