Former Duke star enhanced the college game greatly
by John Furgele
When one becomes interested in sports, it doesn’t take long for passion to develop. Many sports fans follow their fathers (mostly) or their mothers. As it goes, if Mom or Dad was a Yankee fan, most likely, child will follow suit. There is the anti-parent angle as well, that makes the child pick the Red Sox just to be the antagonist. The fascinating element of sport is the hatred. There is also the hate factor. While it’s natural for a Yankee fan growing up in Yonkers to hate the Red Sox or the Mets, why is that they hate the Cubs, or the Cardinals?
Fans tend to hate teams that have rousing success. In the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens remain the most storied franchise with 24 Stanley Cup banners, so it makes sense why they are hated by many. Success can bring that out in earnest and with that, comes not only hatred but passionate hatred. When I became turned on to sports in 1976, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in a four game sweep over the defending champion Philadelphia Flyers. The Habs would go on to win the next three Stanley Cups and with names like Lafleur, Lapointe, Pierre Mondou and Rejean Houle, I became a fan, but most of my buddies who I grew up with in suburban Buffalo quickly hated Montreal.
Baseball has the Yankees, perhaps the most polarizing franchise in all of North American sports. Not only do the Yankees win, their ability to outspend everybody else has made them the most hated in all of sports. But, love them or hate them, they were always able to bring viewers to the TV because America will always watch to root against the villain. The NBA had the Celtics, Lakers and in 1990s the Bulls to polarize and rile up their fans.
For the most part, I’ve always been the guy that roots against the team that wins the most. Sure, I liked the Canadiens, but I usually root against the teams that “win all the time.” In the 1990s, I rooted against the Chicago Bulls and believed that Michael Jordan always got the key call in the key games. I look back with appreciation for those teams now and when you consider what their legacy is, even the hater has to admit that what the Bulls did was pretty darn impressive.
The same goes for the New England Patriots who since 2000 have dominated the NFL, much like the Steelers did in the 1970s and the 49ers did in the 1980s. That’s how sports have always been and that’s why it’s appealing to so many.
Duke University is college basketball’s most hated team. They are loved or hated by most, but unlike most teams/programs, it wasn’t always that way. For decades, Duke was never a power and even though they made title game appearances in 1963 and 1978, they were were indifferent to America. That changed under Coach K and beginning in 1986, the Duke program set sail on what continues to be a remarkable run. Duke, though, still had trouble getting to the mountain. In 1986, they made the Final Four but lost the title game to Louisville. In 1988, they made the Final Four but were knocked off by Danny Manning led Kansas in the semifinal. The Dukies were climbing but had still failed to conquer the mountain.
On Sunday, ESPN is premiering its latest 30 for 30 called “I Hate Christian Laettner,” and it is the arrival of the Buffalo, NY native that helped turn the tide of the Duke basketball program. Laettner arrived in Durham in the fall of 1988, and with him, the Devils reached the Final Four in all four of his years (1989-1992). Once again, however, the Devils had trouble reaching the summit, losing to Seton Hall in the 1989 semifinal and then getting whacked by UNLV in the 1990 final.
Believe it or not, Laettner and I have a connection. We both grew up in suburban Buffalo and we actually competed against each other in sports. Now, let’s be clear; saying I competed against Laettner is the same as seeing an actor in an airport and claiming you’re friends. For the record I also sat next to Lynda Carter at a Baltimore Orioles game. When she was introduced, I leaned over and said, “I knew it was you,” but that doesn’t mean we’re friends. In fact, she only smiled at me and never said a word.
Laettner went to a private school called Nichols in North Buffalo. And, for that reason, many think he came from wealth and privilege. That wasn’t the case at all. His father was a pressman for The Buffalo News, his mother a schoolteacher, so spending summers at the family compound in the Hamptons or in Canada did not happen.
The Nichols School always had trouble finding opponents to play for its sports teams. Despite its relatively small size, they funded many sports. They had football, basketball, baseball, cross country, track and field as well as hockey team and a rink. In Buffalo, there were strict classifications for sports. The public schools competed in Section 6 and the section had championships for all its sports.
There was the Monsignor Martin Association which was the governing body for the Catholic schools of which there were many and then there were schools like Nichols, which were independent and really had no home. In some sections in New York State, the private and Catholic schools were admitted members. This meant that they could compete in the sectional playoffs and the state public championships, but that was not the case in the Buffalo area (Section 6). Those who ran Section 6 felt that the privates and Catholics had an unfair advantage because they could recruit athletes, give them breaks on tuition and so on and so forth.
Nichols did a lot of traveling. They played schools in Rochester, Syracuse, and even ventured Canada to compete. When I was in high school (1982-1986) at Grand Island, we played in the NFL, the Niagara Frontier League, which in my time had ten teams. I never knew why, but the NFL admitted Nichols as a member during my high school career. The Vikings (their nickname) were allowed to play in our league, win titles, but once the regular season ended, they were still not allowed to play in any Section 6 championships. But, for Nichols, they now had 10 other teams to schedule games from and despite the public-private difference, the friction was minimal.
I graduated two years before Laettner and once again, to say I was an athlete is really a stretch, but as a 10th grader, I played junior varsity basketball. We had to play at Nichols which had a small, hole-in-the-wall gym. They were good and they had this eighth grader that Coach Gene Masters said was pretty talented. He was 6 foot 6 at the time and his name was Christian Laettner. I was a guard and played about half a game back then and I do remember him blocking one of my shots. He was an impressive player, but little did we know at that time how he would blossom.
The next year, the now 6-8 or 6-9 Laettner was a high school freshman and a starter on Nichols’ varsity team under coach Jim Kramer. Nichols graduates about 95 kids per class, so they were playing NFL teams that had classes in the 400s or 320 (my class). The Vikings also had the Torgalski brothers. The older was Ron (a junior) and younger Rick was a freshman. Ron Torgalski was the point guard and he was very good, good enough to play at Division III Hamilton College and make their Hall of Fame. Rick was quick and these three did lots of damage in the NFL. Because they were small, they only played about 8 guys, so even when they were blowing you out, there was a good chance that Laettner or one of the Torgalskis’ would be on the court.
As a high school junior, I was playing out the string. In context, I played for a 4-15 Grand Island team that had 14 players on it. I only played in blowout situations and I think I totaled about 20 minutes of playing time the entire year. Depending on the coach’s mood, I was either the 13th or 14th man off the bench, so believe me when I say that my basketball prowess was minimal at the very best. In fact, after my junior season, I retired from high school basketball and as a senior became the public address announcer for our games. Without me, Grand Island went 11-11 so clearly it was addition by subtraction. I did play about five of those minutes against Laettner in a blowout loss at Grand Island in 1985. I had the ball on the left elbow, and the ever cocky Laettner came out to challenge me, then backed off and said, “I’ll give you that.” Naturally, my shot clanged off the right side of the rim.
We played Nichols twice a year and each season, Nichols competed for the league title in what I would call a very good high school basketball league. At that time, there were three high schools in the city of Niagara Falls—Trott Vocational, LaSalle and Niagara Falls—and all were very good. The problem with the NFL was that the classes were all over the place. In the mid-1980s, there were four classes in New York State high school basketball, A, B, C, and D, with A being the largest and D the smallest. Nichols was a C school, while Grand Island and Niagara Falls were A schools. Trott was also a C school with Tonawanda and Lewiston-Porter being B schools, which went against most leagues which grouped As with As, Bs with Bs and so forth.
New York State has two state championships for basketball. They have the NYSPHSAA, the public school championship for members of each section. New York has 11 public school sections, and each section has playoffs, regionals and a Final Four that gathers at Glens Falls for the NYSPHSAA Championships. For a public school to win a state title, they have to win their sectional title, then at least one regional game, then two more at the state Final Four.
In addition to NYSPHSAA, there is the Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) for the New York City public schools and the Association of Independent Schools (AIS). Nichols was an AIS member.
The week after the NYSPHSAA championships, New York has what they call the New York State Federation championships. This is what one would dub a tournament of champions. The NYSPHSAA, CHSAA, PSAL and AIS champs would gather again at Glens Falls to see who is the best of the best. For the public schools, this is often a tough assignment. They just experienced the high of winning a state title, and now they are asked to try and win another. These Federation clashes are legendary because in New York, we know that many of the great teams and stars come out of the PSAL and it was always fun to see Kenny Anderson (Archbishop Molloy) play against the King Rice led Binghamton HS. In 1985, Binghamton won the NYSPHSAA title and then lost at Federations, but in 1986, they won both the NYSPHSAA and Federation titles. I’m not sure which title means more to the Binghamton players, but the fact that New York has two state championships up for grabs each year is indeed, a little odd.
As a freshman, Laettner and the Torgalski brothers led Nichols to the AIS and Federation titles at the Class C level. They repeated as Federation champs the next year and by then, the Dean Smiths, Coach Ks and Jim Boeheims were descending upon Western New York to look at the now 6-11 Laettner. Nichols was still playing in the NFL, but wanted badly to be admitted to Section 6. In a surprise move, the section admitted the Vikings but made them play up at the Class A level. Ron Torgalski was gone, but Nichols still had Rick and some very good role players. They made it to the Section 6 Class A final against legendary coach Romeo McKinney and the South Park Sparks, a Buffalo city school. In that final, Laettner threw an elbow that didn’t go over well. A brawl ensued and the game was called with a few minutes left in the 3rd quarter. Nichols was up by 19 or so and were declared the champions. They didn’t make it to Glens Falls and soon after, Nichols was booted out of Section 6, not because of Laettner’s elbows but because of the backlash of the public-private rivalry. Many thought that the Catholic schools would apply for membership and if they were denied, a court battle would emerge.
Laettner had the game, the looks, and the pedigree to be a great player. Buffalo, New York does not produce great talent in basketball and football. There are always exceptions like Laettner and tight end Rob Gronkowski, but to see Laettner get recruited by all the bluebloods in college basketball, love him or hate him, it was a huge deal. Laettner in many ways was a poor man’s Larry Bird. Many forget how athletic he was. He could move, shoot and his basketball savvy and IQ were off the charts. He also pitched in high school and at 6-10, that could be imposing. Bob Lanier is probably Buffalo’s greatest basketball player, but Laettner is not far behind. Cliff Robinson played at Buffalo’s Riverside HS and though he flies under the radar, it should be noted that he played 19 seasons in the NBA.
Laettner went to Duke and because he was great athlete, played right away. He was a clutch player in high school, and we all know that followed him to Duke. Everybody remembers the classic winning shot against Kentucky at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. I was playing euchre in Rochester, NY when he made the basket and I remember as soon as he caught the ball that he would make the shot. What amazes me is how composed he was. With two seconds left, he caught the ball, dribbled once, faked right, went left and shot. The ball never touched the rim, it was nothing but net.
Two years earlier, in the East Regional final, he broke the hearts of Connecticut fans at the Meadowlands on a buzzer beater to get Duke to the 1990 Final Four. With 2.6 seconds remaining, he inbounded to Brian Davis, got it back, dribbled once doubled clutched and scored. And, that ball was all-net too. Of course, Duke would lose by thirty points to UNLV in the NCAA title game, but Laettner was only a sophomore and we know what happened during his junior and senior seasons.
Laettner became a household name because he played four seasons of college basketball, something that wouldn’t happen today. Not only did Laettner stay for four, so too, did Grant Hill, who would become an NBA star. By Laettner’s junior year, he was feted as one of college basketball’s best players and because of his looks, style of play and the fact that he played at private school Duke, was becoming the hated man of college basketball. The National Semifinal epic against UNLV put Duke—and Laettner—on the map for good. He scored 28 points, made the key free throws as Duke beat the 34-0 defending champion Rebels to propel them to the title game where he tallied 18 points as Duke beat Kansas for the school’s first national title.
The 1991-1992 season, which saw Duke win its second straight title, was the end of an era. They beat Michigan’s Fab Five in the title game and as good as the Fab Five were, they would never win a title nor would their key players play four seasons of college basketball. College basketball became big business and chasing the NBA dollar became what many players wanted most. Laettner was a great basketball player who went to college for four years, whereas guys like LeBron James and Kevin Garnett skipped college, and entered the NBA draft right after high school. Now, players do the one-and-done and head to the NBA at the age of 19. Despite cries to make players play two or three years in college, the genie is out of the bottle and that won’t return college basketball to its glory days.
Laettner was the 3rd pick by Minnesota in the 1992 NBA draft and many say that he never dominated at the NBA level like he did collegiately at Duke, but the college and NBA games are vastly different. But, to say Laettner was a not a good pro is a colossal understatement. He played 13 seasons and except for one , played in most of the games, and for his career averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game In his first five seasons he was a 17 and 9 guy, so he more than held his own at the highest level of basketball in the world.
It’s easy to see why Laettner and Duke were hated in the 1990s. Even today, Duke is a magnet, loved by many, hated by more, but 23 years later, you look back on what Laettner and Duke did and it has to make you smile. If you lived it, you know what I mean, if you were too young, it will serve as a great history lesson for you. I rooted against Duke in all of those games. I wanted UNLV to go undefeated because I was sick of hearing about the 1975-1976 Indiana Hoosiers coached by Bobby Knight. I wanted Kentucky to beat Duke in the ’92 regional final and was rooting for the Fab Five to beat them in the ’92 final. It was easy back then to root against them, but today, I’m glad that Duke won those games. Maybe that’s because Laettner and I were from the same area and even though I never said a word to him, his high school and my high school played in the same athletic league. I guess that means something. When you see a Buffalo, NY guy make it to the highest level, you root for him by affiliation if nothing else.
It was easy to hate Christian Laettner back in the 1990s; in 2015, the hate should be gone and the appreciation for what he did celebrated.