Coming home to Buffalo for his annual basketball academy always is special for Christian Laettner, but this time it had a different feel.
Laettner's mother, Bonnie, died unexpectedly in November at the age of 74. Laettner's visit this week is the first time has been back since. The memorial service for Bonnie was held Sunday, the night before the start of camp.
“That was rough, but to get back to my home is awesome,” Laettner said after the second day of his camp, held at Nichols School. “This time is a little sad. But I love it, I get to see all my buddies. … It’s just beautiful up here and I miss it. I’m not up here enough. All the family is around, the extended family, because of the memorial. So it just made an awesome week even better than it normally is."
This is the sixth year that the former Nichols School standout turned Duke Blue Devils legend has held his basketball camp at his alma mater.
Laettner, an Angola native, scored more than 2,000 points and led the team to two state titles during his time at Nichols. At Duke, he played in four Final Fours and helped the Blue Devils win two titles. He became famous for hitting “The Shot,” the iconic bucket that lifted Duke over Kentucky in the 1992 regional final. He went on to play on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” and in the NBA for 15 seasons.
The camp is one of about a half a dozen he holds throughout the country in the summer and fall for boys and girls ages 8 to 13.
While other camps may have changed the way they teach to keep up with the current style of play, Laettner likes to focus on the basics. He has the campers work on various drills for most of the day before allowing them to test out their new skills in 3-on-3 scrimmages. The sessions end with jumping rope to improve footwork.
“Even though the game now is all dribbling and three-point shooting, I really teach the basic core, old-school fundamentals,” he said. “Some of the parents really like it and some of the kids really appreciate it. … I teach what I believe in. It may be a little more like the old-school style, but it's just what I know and what I was raised on, so it’s what I do.”
Although the kids may not know his background and career, the parents certainly do. As soon as the session ends, parents come up to him for pictures and autographs, or just to thank him for returning to the place where it all began for him.
“As long as you are getting the parents coming up to you after saying, ‘Hey you're doing the right thing, I like the old-school style you're doing,’ that's the thing I’m going for,” Laettner said.
Laettner, 48, is aided by coaches that have been with him for the past four years in Buffalo. They work with groups of six to nine kids during breakout sessions. He also brought along one of his coaches from Jacksonville, Fla., where he is currently living.
“I brought him this year because I’m getting old and I can’t do them all by myself anymore,” Laettner said. “Usually when I do a camp, I do it pretty much all by myself, just have a little help from coaches. Now that he is here I get a break every once in a while because as I get older, it is harder to just throw my voice all day long. And then you get the headaches a little sooner, so I brought him to help and he’s been a big help.”
There are two days left of the camp at Nichols, and one more camp scheduled in Jacksonville next month.