Bucky Gleason: Gold nuggets from the silver anniversary of Duke-Kentucky classic - The Buffalo News

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Bucky Gleason: Gold nuggets from the silver anniversary of Duke-Kentucky classic

A few months ago, somebody suggested tracking down people who had direct and indirect connections to the Duke-Kentucky epic in the 1992 NCAA Tournament East Region final. The greatest game in history ended with Christian Laettner taking a long pass from Grant Hill and hitting the winning shot at the buzzer.

It was a natural story for Buffalo.

Laettner grew up in Angola and graduated from Nichols School before becoming a star at Duke and playing 13 seasons in the NBA. Duke point guard Bobby Hurley's first job as a head coach was at the University at Buffalo, and he took the Bulls to the Big Dance in his second season before going to Arizona State.

Basketball fans knew the story before it was revisited last week, but it's fascinating to hear players and others involved share individual views about the game 25 years later. During the course of more than a dozen interviews, there were numerous nuggets from behind the scenes that were left on the cutting-room floor.

For example, Laettner didn't miss a shot that day and finished with 31 points, but nobody seemed to know he was having a perfect game on offense. Players were too consumed in the game to notice. Millions of people watching on television were unaware, too, because play-by-play man Verne Lundquist never told them.

Why?

“I was never conscious of the fact, honest to God, that Christian had not missed because my statistician had not told me," Lundquist said. "We were so caught up in the back-and-forth and trying to portray accurately what was going on that I never mentioned it. Alexander Wolff from Sports Illustrated called me a year after the game and said, ‘I just watched the tape, and you never mentioned that Laettner hadn’t missed.’ I said, ‘That’s because I didn’t know.’

“When I got to the box score, I looked down and said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I looked at David, my statistician and said, ‘Why didn’t you let me know this?’ He said, ‘Well, I just got caught up in it all.’ That’s the reason it was never mentioned during the game. I did not know.”

* Laettner averaged 21.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game to lead Duke in both categories during the 1991-92 season. But who was their second-leading scorer that season? Many for years assumed it was either Grant Hill or Bobby Hurley. Actually, it was Thomas Hill, who scored 14.6 points per game and scored 19 points in that game. Hurley had 22 points and 10 assists.

"I was considered the worst player on the team," Hill said. "Seriously, if you read the paper and heard people talk about the team, I was the fifth option. For me, it was like, ‘If I’m the worst player, I know we’re going to win.’ I always had confidence. I never thought we would lose a game if I was the worst player. I was the second-leading scorer on the team and played with a lot of freedom."

* On the morning of the Duke-Kentucky game, Laettner's father, George, also found the court – traffic court. He was pulled over by Philadelphia police and cited for driving erratically while switching lanes. He was temporarily lost while trying to navigate Broad Street near City Hall in the rain.

"My case is the first case on the docket," he said. "A paralegal comes up to me and says, 'Laettner. Hmm. Are you any relation to Christian? It was before the game. I said, 'Yes, he's my son.' The judge comes out and asks if the ticketing officer was there, and she didn't show up. Case dismissed."

* On the morning after the game, Laettner's mother, Bonnie, also was stopped by the fine people of Philadelphia – after church. She wore a neck brace after undergoing surgery and had become a celebrity of sorts, thanks largely to TV cameras that monitored her reactions during games.

"The people in the vestibule just mobbed her," George Laettner said. "They were saying, 'Oh, my God, we saw you on TV last night, and Christian's shot!' And we were like, 'What's going on here?' These people were going nuts. This was in church, after Mass. It was crazy, absolutely crazy. A lot of things happened that weekend."

* Bob Wishnie, a cameraman from the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia who was shooting video behind Laettner when he made the shot, and captured the iconic clip of him turning around and celebrating after it fell, also was behind the camera for another great moment in sports history: The most memorable shot of Tiger Woods' career.

In 2005, Woods made a miraculous chip from off the 16th green at Augusta National in which he landed the ball perfectly past the hole, watched it trickle toward the hole before making one final Nike turn into the cup. Woods ended up beating Chris DiMarco in a playoff for his fourth green jacket.

Lundquist was on the call for both.

"Same guy," Lundquist said. "It was the main game camera that got the shot going in from mid-court. But it was the reaction shot that I just love: Christian turning immediately to Bob’s handheld camera. He was on a chair under the basket shooting from the other end of the court. Bob was on both shots. Amazing."

* Sports writers have their own systems for covering games. The vast majority doesn't keep a traditional scorebook or use a scorecard that's handed out before tipoff. For reasons he couldn't explain, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan used the scorecard for that game. It remains a keepsake.

“I must have had some premonition because I usually don’t cover a game using a scorecard with the baskets and fouls and so forth, but I did that day," Ryan said. "I was writing a column, and I was sitting between Tony Kornheiser and Mike Lupica. I have the scorecard. I had Coach K sign it. On the back, I wrote, ‘Greatest game?’ "

* Lundquist announced Grant Hill's birth when he was working as a sports anchor in Dallas. He had a good relationship with Hill's father, Calvin Hill, who played for the Cowboys from 1969-74. Lundquist told Calvin Hill to let him know when his expectant wife, Janet, had the baby.

"He called me Oct. 5, 1972 and said she gave birth today to Grant Henry Hill," Lundquist said. "I announced it on the 10 o’clock newscast. On Sunday, they played the Pittsburgh Steelers. Calvin Hill took a toss from Roger Staubach, rolled out and threw a 50-yard touchdown pass (it was actually 55 yards) that hit Ron Sellers perfectly for a touchdown. The Cowboys won, 17-13. It reminded me of the same kind of pass. Grant’s was 70 feet, and his father’s was 50 yards."

* Laettner’s parents have been told numerous times that parents have named their sons “Christian” after their son. No surprise there, but they also have heard from two couples who named their children “Laettner.”

* One player who took exception to how Laettner has been portrayed was none other than Kentucky captain John Pelphrey. ESPN produced a "30 for 30" documentary called "I Hate Christian Laettner" that explained how and why Laettner became a lightning rod in sports, especially in Kentucky.

"It’s so interesting how, 25 years later, they’re still trying to paint him as a villain," Pelphrey said. "And he’s not."

The Shot: 25 years later, remembering Christian Laettner's swish for the ages

 

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