Two decades after leading Duke to its first national title and 19 years after he hit the most famous shot in college basketball history, super villain Christian Laettner wants back in the game as a coach.
That’s why you’ll find Laettner in Houston the next couple days during Final Four weekend – the Mecca of college basketball coaches – to inquire about Division I assistant coaching gigs in between interviews about “The Shot” and celebrity appearances.
“I’m ready to start meeting people and networking and I’m available if they’re interested in taking a chance on me,” Laettner said earlier this week.
But there are two big obstacles in his way: Laettner’s lack of coaching experience and his image as an egomaniac that wouldn’t be worth the trouble.
“I am a little worried about (my image) but I’m hoping that they’ll realize that you can’t go off image and perception all the time,” Laettner said. “You’ve got to go by one-to-one interaction with people.”
The obvious option would be a return to Durham, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is legendary for giving his former players their big break in the coaching ranks. But Coach K’s bench is already full of former Duke players and others lined up outside the door if one of the three leaves.
One advantage Laettner has in landing a position is his Duke connection to three current Division I head coaches. Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and Harvard’s Tommy Amaker were both Blue Devil assistants when Laettner played and Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins graduated just two years before Laettner arrived on campus.
He might even get an assist from his old college point guard, Bobby Hurley, who will also be in Houston this weekend after just finishing his first season as an assistant coach for his younger brother, Dan, at Wagner College on Staten Island, NY.
One thing’s for sure: Laettner’s already dreaming big.
“Well the ultimate goal is to get a big time head college coaching job,” Laettner said. “If nothing happens in the college ranks, I’ve got to go to the NBA pre-draft camp this year in Chicago and let the people in the NBA know that I’m ready to be an assistant coach.”
Retired from the NBA since 2005, Laettner is now 41 and has spent his retirement being a self-professed “soccer dad” for his three children that loves fishing and lives outside Jacksonville, FL, in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, because “my wife loved the Florida weather and I always wanted to live on the ocean.”
Laettner has dabbled in numerous ventures, such as attempting to buy the Memphis Grizzlies with former Duke teammate Brian Davis in 2006, owning part of a Major League Soccer franchise and being a partner in a real estate business with Davis, the aptly named Blue Devil Ventures.
But with the economic downturn, Blue Devil Ventures has fallen on hard times and was recently in the news when current NFL player Shawne Merriman was reportedly awarded nearly $4 million in a lawsuit after the two defaulted on a $3 million loan that Merriman gave them in 2007.
“Especially with the NFL lockout on the horizon, some of my partners and some people that have invested in me over the years, they really want to make sure they get their money back,” Laettner said. “And I’m trying to do all those things, I’m trying to take care of all the debts I owe. We are getting through it.”
Despite all these endeavors, Laettner said he felt like something was missing from his life.
What else? Basketball.
So about nine months ago he started the Christian Laettner Basketball Academy that trains kids 14 and up about the game and for which he travels across the country to do. In classic Laettner fashion, he has this message for interested customers on his website:
“I offer discounts to all players, teams and coaches who hail from the states of Kentucky, North Carolina and Connecticut. This comes from the compassion and generosity of my heart and soul for causing you all so much pain, agony and hate over my four year career at Duke!!”
Yes, almost two decades after his last college game, arguably the most hated college basketball player ever is still finding a way to get under the skin of college basketball fans.
Some of the hatred was because he was seen as the classic overhyped white player on Duke that always becomes Public Enemy No. 1, like Steve Wojciechowski and J.J. Redick also became.
And another part of it was Laettner’s own doing, as the media and public criticized him for his dirty play, trash talking and perceived arrogance that seeped through the cracks of the floors.
It all came to a head his senior year during the 1992 Elite Eight game against Kentucky when Laettner stomped on the chest of Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake in the second half, for which he received a technical foul and permanently stained his reputation.
It might have been the only mistake he made all day. He went 10-10 from the free throw line and 10-10 from the field, including his legendary buzzer-beater to win the greatest game in college basketball history, 104-103, and propel Duke to back-to-back national titles.
While “The Stomp” was almost completely muted out by “The Shot,” it certainly wasn’t lost on those that already despised Laettner – and definitely not forgotten by Kentucky fans who still cry foul that Laettner wasn’t ejected that very moment and the basis for their hatred of him.
“At what point are they going to let it go, you know what I mean?” Laettner asked. “They may never let it go because it’s something for them to hang their hat on to say, ‘See, we told you, here’s the proof.’
Laettner has been smart enough to keep it low key on the few occasions he’s entered the Bluegrass State since that game and says he’s got a little extra helped lined up if he comes to Kentucky to teach basketball camps and clinics.
“I already have some cop friends that are willing to provide some protection,” he joked.
Just how ruthless was Laettner in college? He was even criticized for the way he treated his own teammates, especially Hurley. Laettner now says he took things too far when pushing his point guard to become a better player.
“I’ve always loved Bobby from day one,” Laettner said. “Now, does that mean I always treated him properly? No, that does not mean I always treated him properly.
“I regret some of it. To tell you the truth, I hope he realizes where it comes from now. I have always loved him and I’m showing it to him more and more as we get older.”
What made Laettner this way on the court?
He readily admits he played with a chip on his shoulder. Well, maybe it was more like a boulder. Part of what drove him was the constant perception he was “soft” and also, he says, “having a little too much of a competitive streak and not being able to turn that off and on.”
In fairness, Laettner is hardly the first player to have been criticized for his competitive nature going too far. Michael Jordan was infamous for the way he treated his teammates – including the time he once punched Steve Kerr in the face during a Chicago Bulls practice.
Related: Duke’s 10 most detested moments ever
And like Jordan, many think Laettner’s attitude is what made him a special player.
“Part of what made him so great was his personality and how confident he was in himself,” Hurley said. “And it definitely translated to him never being intimated, to always stepping up in big spots and him making huge plays.”
He certainly made huge plays. On top of “The Shot,” Laettner hit another tournament buzzer-beater vs. Connecticut in 1990 to send Duke to the Final Four. For anyone else, it would have been the shot of a lifetime.
By the end of his four-year career, Laettner had become the all-time leading scorer in NCAA tournament history, a two-time national champion and was eventually named the 12th best player in college basketball history by ESPN in 2008 – one spot ahead of Jordan.
Laettner was selected third overall in the 1992 NBA Draft by Minnesota and needless to say, he didn’t handle losing 63 games his rookie year well after winning two straight championships in college. The local media almost immediately shredded Laettner for his attitude problem that was evidenced when he berated officials, talked back to coaches or ripped his teammates for their effort.
Said Laettner: “Well I definitely think I made some mistakes… But does everyone make mistakes as they are growing up, maturing? Yes. And I was never very good at the media game.”
He became an NBA journeyman that played for six different teams and was labeled a draft bust despite the fact he made one All-Star Game, played 13 seasons and averaged nearly 13 PPG during the course of his NBA career before calling it quits in 2005.
In retirement Laettner’s been laying low in the Jacksonville area and raising his family, reappearing each March to do interviews about the turnaround jumper from ’92 and appearing in a hilarious Vitamin Water commercial in 2009 that spoofed “The Shot” with former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who was on the other end of it.
So what is Laettner like these days as a person?
Despite butting heads while they played, Hurley now defends his former teammate and mentions a time Laettner recently traveled to New Jersey to help raise money for St. Anthony High School, which Hurley’s father coaches in New Jersey and was recently profiled on “60 Minutes.”
“Coming up and spending a day at St. Anthony and playing a round of golf with some people who potentially would donate money to the school tells a lot about him and he didn’t ask for anything,” Hurley said. “I consider him a friend and definitely someone that helped.”
The visit shouldn’t come as a surprise since Laettner has always been very charitable, like when he donated $1 million to his old Buffalo high school in 2001 and another $2 million to Duke’s basketball program in 2005.
What might be more surprising to people is that after the controversial Fab Five documentary aired on ESPN several weeks ago that led to rebuttals from Hurley, Krzyzewski and Grant Hill, Laettner didn’t fire back like people expected – and hoped. Instead, he took the high road and joked to a newspaper, “I don’t expect them to love me. I can’t even get Grant Hill to love me all the time.”
Where was the arrogant kid with the potty mouth everyone was used to?
“Well that just shows you how wrong people are about me,” he said.
So what could a head coach expect if they hired Laettner: A mellowed-out former athlete or the fiery competitor from Duke?
“A little bit of both but I’ll never lose that competitive fire or that competitive instinct to want to win,” Laettner said.
While he’s very optimistic about finding a coaching position, Laettner is up front about crossing two schools off his list of suitors already. When asked if there might be a spot on Pitino’s bench for him, Laettner replied: “That’s a very long shot. I don’t think I’ll get any offers from Kentucky or Pitino any time soon.”