Vail Christian welcomes back Laettner
EDWARDS — Christian Laettner, shredder.
Yep, the two-time national champion, member of the original Dream Team in 1992 and first-round NBA draft pick loves snowboarding.
“I’m a snowboarder,” Laettner said on Friday at the Wheeler Athletic Center after a Vail Christian basketball practice. “I’ve been snowboarding ever since 1993. I love it. … I’m almost as passionate about snowboarding as I am about basketball.”
Laettner’s back in town, conducting one of his basketball camps with the Saints. He’s also the guest of honor tonight from 5-7 at Vail Christian for a fundraiser for the school’s basketball program. He’ll be talking about his basketball career, signing autographs and, among other auction items, there’s a ski/snowboard day with him up for the bidding. Tickets are $30 at the door.
This is the second year that Laettner’s held a camp at Vail Christian.
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“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. It’s one of the things I’m most passionate about. It’s something that comes easy to me, and I get a very good response from it. The coaches seem to like it. The players seem to like it.”
It’s pretty clear Vail Christian likes having him.
“This is gold,” Saints boys basketball coach Sheldon Kuhns said. “When he was working on that pick-and-roll stuff today, that’s next-level stuff. He’s a technical teacher of the game. It’s great for these guys. It’s even better for me. We’ve got the camera rolling up there.
“I do take a step back and think, ‘That’s Christian Laettner in our gym.’ … I remember where I was, sitting on the couch, when he hit that shot against Kentucky.”
‘You don’t play sports to hit a buzzer beater’
It happens to come up a lot in conversation when you’re Christian Laettner. It was the finals of the East Regional of the 1992 NCAA Tournament at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. Kentucky led the defending champion Blue Devils, 103-102, with 2.1 seconds left in overtime. Grant Hill fires the ball down the court to Laettner at around the free-throw line. Laettner fakes to his left, turns right and drains the shot for a 104-103 win.
In an athletic career studded with individual and team accomplishments, he is always asked about “The Shot.”
“A lot, probably too much, and when March and April roll around even more,” Laettner said with a laugh. “It’s a great thing … I love it, and I always try to enjoy it. It’s just part of my life.”
Often forgotten with the fabled Kentucky game is that Duke still had the Final Four after that game. Laettner, Hill, Bobby Hurley went on to win their second straight title by beating Indiana and Michigan. It’s actually the first title the year before that Laettner likes the most.
“The thing I am most proud of is my first championship at Duke, my junior year,” he said. “The thing I am recognized the most for is the Kentucky shot. But you don’t play sports to hit a buzzer beater. You play sports to win a championship.”
The biggest roadblock to that first crown was UNLV (34-0 at the time) in the national semifinals. The Runnin’ Rebs had obliterated Duke, 103-73, and it wasn’t even that close, in the NCAA Championship the year before. Duke pulled the upset in the rematch, 79-77.
“When they beat us by 30, we only had a-day-and-half to prepare for them,” he said. “The next year, we had a whole week to prepare for them. There’s a big difference there. When you give a Duke team and a Coach K team a week to prepare for you, it’s going to be a whole different game for you. Coach K came up with a great game plan. We ran it to perfection, and we still almost lost.”
Coach K, of course is Mike Krzyzweski, whose last name Laettner can still correctly spell, an accomplishment in itself.
‘What a lucky guy I am’
Laettner still keeps in touch with his former college coach, though he tries to leave him alone around this time of year.
Laettner’s mom actually wanted her son to go to North Carolina and was none too pleased when he chose the Duke side of college basketball’s best rivalry.
“Put it on your bucket list,” Laettner said. “You have to do it one time before you die. I know a football player who was in the Super Bowl as a player and a coach, but he said nothing was better than a Duke-Carolina game. True story.”
After Duke, Laettner landed a spot on the 1992 Olympic Basketball Team, better known as the Dream Team. With Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson et al., it was quite the experience.
“I don’t know if I said, ‘What am I doing here,’ but I did say, ‘What a lucky guy I am,’” he said. “I felt very blessed.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves took Laettner third overall in the 1992 draft, and he spent 13 years in the NBA, including an All-Star season with the Atlanta Hawks.
“Every second I had in the NBA, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved it, even when I was on a not-so-good team,” he said. “You’ve reached the pinnacle. You’re doing your dream. You’re getting paid to play basketball. That’s why you work so hard — so much blood, sweat and tears — to get to that level.”
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 and email@example.com.