Like most people with any amount of good taste in the early 1990s I grew up rooting against Christian Laettner and those Duke Blue Devil basketball teams. Yet for some reason my interest was peaked when anticipating the new 30 for 30 installment I Hate Christian Laettner.
Maybe it was the 90210 sideburns and haircut he sported that turned me off. Or maybe it was all that winning that Duke did. Whatever it was, the road down memory lane Sunday was a reminder of all the animosity we once shared for a player and program that appeared in four-straight Final Fours and won two national titles.
It’s not one of the better 30 for 30’s, considering the subject matter and that it’s narrated by Rob Lowe, but it’s a worthy look at what made one of the greatest college basketball players so polarizing among fans.
That’s the main storyline here, the exploits of Laettner in college before going on to be named a member of the 1992 Dream Team and becoming the third overall pick that year by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The film explores the “5 Points of Laettner Hate” as broken down into the following categories: Privilege, White, Bully, Greatness, Looks. Essentially all the things that bothered basketball fans about a private-school kid out of Buffalo who came off cocky, overly confident, and entitled as part of an elitist institution in those days.
One of the fascinating moments in the film comes early on when high school footage from 1987 shows Laettner and his college prep team at Nichols School getting into a brawl with an all-black team from South Park High School after he threw an elbow while grabbing a rebound.
It’s a glimpse at the Duke persona before it hit the national stage.
In reality it was a bully of an older brother and a blue-collar upbringing in the lower middle class that was the foundation for Laettner, who still owns records for the most games played and most points scored in NCAA Tournament history.
I remember where I was during his improbable game-winning shot from the foul line against Kentucky in the Elite 8 in 1992, after Laettner got away with stomping on the stomach of Aminu Timberlake as he lay idle on the court.
Such throwback footage does well with telling the story.
There’s a look back at game between Laettner and Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning in the Elite 8 in 1989 and a couple clashes with Shaquille O’Neal and LSU. There’s also the national championship matchup against Larry Johnson and UNLV in 1990, in which the Rebels won by 30 points, and the semifinal matchup a year later won by Duke by two points.
There’s footage of the 1991 national championship game against Kansas, and both meetings during the 1991-92 season between the Blue Devils and Michigan’s Fab 5, the last of which wrapped up their second title. Then there’s the scrappy meetings against North Carolina and Eric Montrose in 1992, the big shot made in the Elite 8 against UConn in 1990 and the fight with Rod Sellers in 1991.
The story weaves between these moments with doses of his uniquely close relationships with teammate Brian Davis and coach Mike Krzyzewski sprinkled in, along with details on how Laettner routinely pushed the buttons of Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill during their years together.
If I Hate Christian Laettner does nothing else, it reaffirms the notion that for all the people that love you when you’re on top there’s just as many waiting to see you fail.
Laettner didn’t fail very often.