The Buffalo News polled sports staffers as to the top 10 male and female athletes from Western New York. Here’s No. 5 among men:
Name: Christian Laettner.
High school: Nichols.
Born: Aug. 17, 1969.
Career overview: While leading Nichols to state basketball championships in 1985 and 1986, Laettner became one of the country’s more sought-after recruits. He chose Duke, where he crafted his legend on the most decorated team in college basketball during the early 1990s. He is the only player to start in four consecutive Final Fours, winning the NCAA title with the Blue Devils in 1991 and 1992. He averaged 21.5 points his senior season and won the three major national player-of-the-year awards – Wooden, Kodak/NABC and Naismith Award. He was a member of the 1992 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team, affectionately called “The Dream Team,” which won the gold medal in Barcelona. He was selected third in the NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves and went on to play 13 seasons with six different NBA teams, averaging 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Memorable Moment: The Shot. It’s become the iconic play in college basketball and the epitome of March Madness. It was Laettner’s senior year at Duke and the Blue Devils were looking to win back-to-back championships. In double-overtime against Kentucky in the East Regional Final, Laettner took a three-quarter court inbounds pass from Grant Hill, turned and sunk a jump shot at the buzzer to give Duke a 104-103 win.
When asked by the New York Times in 2009 if that shot was the best moment of his career, Laettner said no.
“For me, personally, on the inside, the best moment was winning my first championship,” Laettner said. “But in terms of being on the front burner of people’s minds, it’s the Kentucky shot that they remember the most and the one that even is at the foremost of my memory, solely because of March Madness. And March rolls around every year. So every year it won’t escape people’s memory. Because as long as the NCAA is around and Duke basketball is around, it’s going to be there. It’s just a great feeling to be embedded in people’s history of sports and basketball. It tickles me to no end, and I’m proud of it and I love it.”
Memorable Moment II: Laettner was the only collegiate player on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. In a 2010 article for MassLive.com as the 1992 team was being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Laettner recalled his time with that team: “I was the bag boy, the waterboy,” he said.“It was an adjustment for about one minute of the first practice. I loved every second of it, playing one-on-one against those guys in practice and trying to learn. The biggest adjustment was the speed. Even the big guys were hauling.
“As a thrill in my career, the Olympics rank right up there with my two NCAA championships at Duke.”
I Hate Christian Laettner: The Shot wasn’t the only memorable moment from that epic game. Earlier there was “The Stomp,” when Laettner picked up his foot and stepped on Kentucky forward Aminu Timberlake, who had fallen to the floor. It’s one of the points addressed in the ESPN 30-for-30 film “I Hate Christian Laettner,” which first aired last March. Laettner, who took the title of the piece with humor, discussed that infamous stomp in a conference call with reporters before the film debuted.
“You always wish you could do things better, be more mature,” not act in “such an abrasive manner sometimes,” he said. “But I was on a basketball team that was trying to win championships. We had the reputation of being soft, rich white boys, and I wanted to dispel that. …
“So I got really rough and really tough, and really competitive, with everybody, with the opposing teams, with the refs, with the opposing fans. At the same time, if I was a little too rough on my teammates to make sure that we won every game that we could win, that we won championships, then I apologize for that. But we won and that was the only thing that was important to me.”
Post-career: He owns Christian Laettner Basketball Academy, putting on skills camps across the country. In 2001, Laettner, who resides in Atlanta, donated $1 million to Nichols to help build the school’s new gymnasium.