With March Madness right around the corner, there may be no better person to talk to than Christian Laettner, the former Duke star who hit one of the most memorable buzzer-beaters in tournament history.
Laettner has a lot of other claims to fame, too, including being the only player in history to ever start four Final Fours, a 13-year NBA career including an all-star berth and for being a member of the famous 1992 Dream Team.
In January 2018, Laettner worked with the basketball team at Garinger. He spent a week with the team and coached them to a win against East Meck, snapping a nine-game losing streak.
The experience is featured in a new episode of the Olympic Channel’s original series, “The Z Team,” which is currently airing.
Sports editor Andrew Stark chatted with Laettner about the show, some nostalgia about his March Madness recollection and of course, some Tar Heel talk.
Andrew Stark: I understand you were in our area at Garinger working with the basketball team. I know that was a cool experience for them, but what was it like for you?
Christian Laettner: It was awesome. As you can imagine, I love basketball, and anytime I’m on the court, I love it. I love working with young players. I love teaching them to not dribble the ball so much. It seems as the game progresses, there is more dribbling and less passing and cutting. Working on stuff like that is fun, and I have a basketball academy, so I do it year round and love it. With the Garinger team, they were a decent team. They were working hard, playing the right way most of the time, but they weren’t getting rewarded for their effort. It was just because they weren’t doing some motivational things and playing the right way and having more fun out there. But it’s hard to have fun when you’re not winning. I came in to give them a little shot in the arm and a little boost in their confidence. A lot of kids were basing their overall happiness on whether they won or not, but I tried to tell them to be happy you’re out here playing basketball and are young. I’m 50 now and can’t play basketball and I miss it. I wish I was 25 and playing still. They needed a little shot in the arm, a hang in there and don’t give up mindset and they did that. They were able to win the game, so it was a lot of fun. I hope my message lasted longer than two weeks, and I hope they still hang in there and believe in each other and believe in the process and have fun no matter what.
AS: The game you coached snapped a nine-game losing streak, so something in your message they got. What was it?
CL: Yeah, that’s exactly what was going on. They had some good players and some tough defensive players, they just weren’t getting rewarded with a victory. I was able to come in, work with the players, work with the coaching staff and get them to improve maybe 5 percent. They won and broke that losing streak. I don’t remember their names now because it’s been a year, but they had good players but couldn’t put the ball in the hoop. But they were a good group of kids and they listened to me. Jeez, I’m 50 now and none of them ever saw me play except on YouTube highlights, but they came in, they listened, they paid attention and I think we all had a great time.
AS: You mentioned dribbling earlier, what are some other things that you see that have changed or maybe things you try to correct when kids come to your camp or whenever you speak to kids?
CL: I’ve learned that coaches, parents and other people will come and say, ‘Christian, we love your attention to detail. We love every time they do something wrong you quickly blow the whistle and correct it and show the right way or in a better fashion.’ So they really appreciate my attention to detail. For the kids, when I make them play five-on-five without dribbling, they are really bad at it for the first 10 minutes because they’ve never done it or don’t do it enough. I think it’s a great coaching tool for young basketball players. There were times in the NBA when coaches would make us play five-on-five with no dribbling because we were dribbling too much, so it happens on all levels. It’s really fun to make young kids do that, because after five minutes they’ve figured out how to pass, move and get open and how to get the ball from one end of the court all the way to the other without dribbling the ball. When they learn that skill, you can see the light come on in their eyes as they figure out the game a little bit.
AS: I guess your model for that would be Klay Thompson. He’s unbelievable at that.
CL: Yes, you’re exactly right. And I love the fact they have a stat now with how much you score in a game with the amount of dribbles. There’s a lot of cases like that. JR Smith was the first one I remember them keeping a stat on. He was scoring 20 points in the playoffs and only taking three dribbles. It’s a little different in the NBA game with the spacing and 3-point shooting, but it’s fun to teach the young kids to not dribble so much. In today’s game, it seems like everything they do now is off the dribble.
AS: Do you like the direction of today’s game, and especially the NBA, as opposed to 20 years ago when it was much more physical and with a lot less 3-pointers being attempted and made?
CL: I love the direction of it. I think the NBA is amazing because everyone can shoot a 3-pointer and everyone has guard skills. Even the 7-foot centers or 7-2 centers are hitting threes, they’re passing and cutting like guard skills. When I was young, the first people I remember being 6-9 but able to pass the ball and play with guard skills were Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. I always wanted to be like them.
AS: I remember watching Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but for me, you were one of those guys, too. You were 6-10, 6-11 and could post up, go outside and play anywhere. I didn’t like it being a Tar Heel fan, but I respected it. I’m sort of joking, but you were in that group of some of the first people. That’s the norm today, right?
CL: Yes, I agree. Now even centers are shooting 3-pointers. I appreciate you saying that, but I was a few years later. I think it started in the late 70s, early 80s where guys could handle the ball and bring the ball up full court and make a nice pass. When I was young, I was 6-11 and everyone knew I was going to be a center, but my dad kept telling me to develop my guard skills. That was a big weapon for someone who was almost seven feet tall and could handle the ball. That’s what I strived for and that was the type of player I wanted to become. Now everyone can do it. Tom Gugliotta was doing it when we were in school. Pete Chilcutt was doing it when we were in school and now (Nikola) Jokic is doing it in the NBA.
AS: Some of your career accomplishments are impressive, but I think most impressive and the longest-lasting is the fact you started four Final Fours. Nobody will ever break that in today’s game, but what does that mean to you?
CL: It will never get broken because everything has changed and the best players every year go to the league. It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of. To say that I went to four straight Final Fours is awesome. I’m very proud of that. And the two championships is something I’m obviously very proud of. The only thing I’m not proud of is that I have a losing record to the Tar Heels. I think the only team I have a losing record to is the Tar Heels. I think we were 5-6 against them or something.
AS: ESPN made the documentary, titled “Everyone Hates Christian Laettner.” What do you think of that? Is that amusing to you, do you relish that kind of a role or what are your thoughts on it?
CL: I think that was a provocative name to an awesome movie. My mother told me, ‘Christian, you have to realize that ESPN doesn’t want just the Duke lovers and the Laettner lovers to watch that movie.’ ESPN wants everyone to watch that movie. It’s a provocative title because they want the Carolina fans, Connecticut fans and Kentucky fans and everyone you ever meet, they want them to watch that movie, too. I think it increased the fan base, but just in terms of it’s an awesome show the way they put it together. It was just really neat.
AS: There is maybe some truth to the movie title, though, and especially so for Tar Heels and probably some Kentucky fans, I’d imagine. Who are the most vulgar fans for you? Is it Kentucky, Carolina, Connecticut?
CL: No, no, no. It’s nothing like the Carolina game. The Carolina game at Carolina was so much fun because sometimes you felt like you weren’t going to get out of there alive. You were only hoping to be able to walk to the bus and drive back home to Duke. That atmosphere and that type of combative environment was so much fun to play in.
The ACC Tournament takes place March 12 to 16 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte. Semifinal games start at 7 and 9 p.m. March 15. The championship starts at 8:30 p.m. March 16. Visit www.theacc.com for details.