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Many reasons to love ESPN's "I Hate Christian Laettner"

I love every episode of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.

But the latest installment, “I Hate Christian Laettner,” is very special.

If you missed the Sunday premiere narrated perfectly by pretty boy actor Rob Lowe, it plays throughout the month on one of the ESPN channels so there is no excuse for missing it.

Like every “30 for 30” episode, this beautifully-written film directed by Rory Karpf puts the subject matter in historical and cultural context to make it more than just a sports movie.

It isn’t surprising that the former Nichols School star had no problem with the provocative title.

As the 90-minute documentary illustrates, Laettner was a provocative player who got under the skin of opponents and his teammates and didn’t really care what anyone thought of him except his family and friends.

The film really needed a sub-title to truly capture its spirit even if it had been cumbersome: “I Hate Christian Laettner: How One Player Became a Symbol for Duke’s Superiority.”

And no question, Laettner expanded Duke’s image as a basketball school by leading the Blue Devils to two national titles.

He helped make a pilgrimage to its Cameron Indoor Stadium part of many a basketball fan’s bucket list. I crossed it off my bucket list last year when Duke hosted Syracuse in my alma mater’s first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It was a hoot walking around Krzyzewskiville and seeing clever signs from Duke students that said (Syracuse Coach) Jim “Boeheim Still Uses Internet Explorer.”

Even if you hate how good Duke is, you have to admire what its coach, Mike Krzyzewski, has done for college basketball and the nation as coach of the United States Olympic team.

That doesn’t prevent many people from rooting against Duke. I still recall the 2007 NCAA tournament game in Buffalo when fans rooted for VCU in its first-round upset of the Dukies.

The Laettner documentary does an exquisite job explaining how and why Duke became what the New York Yankees and New England Patriots have become in other sports: The team people either love or love to hate.

The documentary also reminded me one of the reasons why I decided to leave the sports department in the 1980s to cover television.

I hated seeing some athletes being vilified and watching others less deserving become heroes. I often tell my friends that one of my motivations for leaving sports was watching how former Buffalo Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson was treated.

He was one of the nicest guys in the locker room, who would patiently answer reporters’ questions after wins or losses. But he got a reputation for hanging his head after making a bad play and never could shake that media-driven image.

But back to Laettner.

As the documentary points out, he brought a lot of the hate on himself because of the unapologetic way he played and because of his rough treatment of teammates, including University at Buffalo Coach Bobby Hurley.

The funny thing is that on the UB sidelines these days, Hurley might bring some hate on himself now because he often appears to be acting just like Laettner.

The documentary explains there were several reasons to hate Laettner, one laughable to anyone who works at this newspaper. People thought he was an upper class kid even though his father worked as a printer at the Buffalo News and his mother was an elementary school teacher. It was a case of perception becoming reality.

The other reasons for hating him, according to the film, were his whiteness, the fact he was a bully, his greatness and his Hollywood star looks.

The number of athletes who are handsome and hated could spawn several sequels. I'm sure Buffalo fans would love  “I Hate Tom Brady” and "I Hate Dan Marino" and many sports fans would love “I Hate Alex Rodriguez.”

Beside good looks, many superstars have something else in common with Laettner. They are arrogant, cocky, have a nasty streak and play with an edge as he did.

Anyone who played a sport or covered sports could just as easily admired Laettner as hated him for the style he brought to the game.

He played the way many of us teach our children to play sports, with one big misstep: His kicking of a Kentucky player several minutes before he hit perhaps the most iconic shot in college basketball history.

That was detestable. But, hey, college kids make mistakes.

He took far worse than he gave.

One of the stunning moments in the film was when Laettner played a game at LSU after a Sports Illustrated story ran in which he innocuously said one of the three things important to him was teammate Brian Davis.

That led to audible gay slurs from the LSU crowd, a striking reminder of the intolerance of the 1990s and what was tolerated by college officials.

The crowd turned something beautiful about sports – Laettner’s friendship with an African-American player – into something ugly: gay slurs.

Laettner's restraint and performance that night was admirable. Davis admired his teammate for many things, adding that Laettner “loved black people.”

By the end of the film as Laettner played basketball with his son and ping pong with his daughters and sat at the kitchen table with his wife, there was a lot to love about Laettner. His decision to be part of the show was a good public relations move because he did a good job explaining himself and his behavior.

Some of the most moving moments came from Coach K’s wife, Mickie, who noted how special he was to the family and her husband. She held back tears as she talked about Laettner.

By then, I’m guessing it was hard for many former haters to keep hating him.

It was much easier to hate the journalists and authors who used crude words in the title of their books and videos to express their hatred of Duke.

One of the haters, author Andrew Bagwell, totally lost me when he suggested that Laettner was “pretty good in college” but had no business being on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team.

“Pretty good?”

The best reporters in the documentary, including Gene Wojciechowski, Ryan McGee and Jay Bilas, agreed that Laettner was one of the top 10 college basketball players of all time.

I loved every moment Wojciechowski and McGee appeared and hated every time Bagwell showed up.

But, hey, the culture of the media has changed, too. Haters often get more attention than those who provide more thoughtful analysis.

Saying that Laettner was “pretty good” is like saying “I Hate Christian Laettner” is pretty good. It is easily is one of the top 10 “30 for 30” installments of all time.

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