April 23, 1943 – Nov. 26, 2017
Bonnie Laettner, mother of basketball great Christian Laettner, became a celebrity in her own right during the height of her son’s stellar career at Duke University in the early 1990s.
Television cameras sought out her reactions in the crowd during games. Reporters frequently quoted her. She staunchly defended her son against unfavorable treatment in the media.
She became so well recognized that fans mobbed her as she left a Sunday church service in Philadelphia in 1992 on the morning after her son scored the winning basket at the last second in overtime in the legendary Duke-Kentucky game in the NCAA East Regional final.
She told Buffalo News sports columnist Bucky Gleason earlier this year that, although she was at the game, she did not witness the famous feat. She said she had her eyes closed during the final minutes.
“You know when I saw the shot?” she said. “When it was re-enacted on ‘Saturday Night Live’ by Chris Farley.”
She died unexpectedly Sunday in her winter home in Fort Mill, S.C. She was 74.
The former Bonita Turner was born in Toronto to parents of Polish and Ukrainian heritage. Her father left to fight in the Spanish Army during World War II and never returned. She and her brother came to Buffalo with her mother in 1950.
She was valedictorian of the Class of 1961 at South Park High School and contributed poetry to the first edition of the school’s literary magazine, “The Pride of South Park.”
She then became a dictation clerk in the city room at The Buffalo Evening News, where George Laettner was a copy aide. After he began his apprenticeship as a printer at The News, they were married in February 1964.
Mrs. Laettner went to the State Labor Relations Board later that year to challenge a rule requiring her to leave her job when she was expecting her first son, Christopher, and won the right to continue working until just before he was born. She returned and worked until the birth of her first daughter, Leanne, in 1966.
After the Laettners moved to Angola in 1966, she decided to become a teacher. She studied for a semester at Hilbert College, then earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees in education from SUNY Fredonia.
She began teaching in the Lake Shore Central School District in 1974 at Farnham Elementary School and went on to teach third grade at Highland Elementary School until 1998.
In a 1991 story, Sports Illustrated noted that when her second son was born in 1969, she “liked Marlon Brando so much that even though she had named her first-born Christopher, she went with Christian on the birth certificate ... in tribute to the characters Brando played in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and ‘The Young Lions.’”
She pushed to transfer Christian from Most Precious Blood Elementary School, where his father was volunteer basketball coach, to Nichols School, where they scrimped to pay the tuition and Christian did janitorial work at the school during the summer.
A basketball star at Nichols, he was pursued by college coaches and Mrs. Laettner had opinions about where he should go. First she favored Notre Dame. Then, when he narrowed his choices to the Atlantic Coast Conference, she liked North Carolina for its coach, Dean Smith. When he announced that he was going to Duke on a full scholarship, she cried.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski soon won her over.
“Coach K would set up games on Saturday and Sunday,” George Laettner said. “We’d drive down Friday after work and see the games. Coach K would accompany us. And on Sunday we’d drive back.”
Attending the games, however, was so suspenseful that Mrs. Laettner often couldn’t bear to watch.
“She would be saying novenas in the bathroom during Duke’s games,” her daughter Leanne said, “anything that would take her mind off what was happening in the game.”
Mrs. Laettner often said, "When Christian started at Duke, I had brown hair. Four Final Fours later, and I had white hair."
That didn’t keep her from going to Barcelona, Spain, when her son was chosen as the only non-professional player on the U.S. Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics.
Jack McCallum wrote in his 2012 book, “Dream Team,” that “Bonnie Laettner positively plunged into the Olympic experience, trading pins and cheerleading like mad at the arena. She developed a close relationship with (Clyde) Drexler’s wife and at one point almost got involved in fisticuffs at a game to protect Gaynell’s seat when she left to change a diaper.”
After her son began playing in the NBA, she stopped going to his games.
“It was just way too stressful,” her daughter Leanne said.
She continued, however, as manager of his fan club. She also appeared in the 2015 ESPN "30 for 30" film about her son after the producer overcame her objections to its title, "I Hate Christian Laettner," by convincing her that it would attract more viewers.
In retirement, she and her husband wintered for about 10 years in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., before moving their winter home to South Carolina. They also spent a few weeks each winter at a time share in the Bahamas.
She wrote short articles about her family experiences which appeared in Angels on Earth magazine, “Chicken Soup for the Sports Fan’s Soul” and “Chocolate for a Woman’s Courage.”
“She was our family historian,” her daughter Leanne noted. “She would write down all our little funny stories.”
She regularly read to her grandchildren’s classes in their schools, creating voices for the characters. She also enjoyed flower gardening, doing puzzles, going to the beach and playing board games with family members.
Survivors include another daughter, Katherine Culpepper; a brother, Don Turner; a half-sister, Darleen Hamerski; and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held in the Buffalo area next summer.