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Books | Sports

February 27, 2012

Better Than Cinderella

ESPN writer Gene Wojciechowski takes a look twenty years back to the greatest college-basketball game in history.

Michael Gluckstadt

When we talk about March Madness, we like to think about Cinderella. Our One Shining Moment reels revel in the VCUs and Ali Farokhmaneshes and Upset City, Baby! And what's not to love about a good upset story? Well, for one thing, the quality of play. A big reason why the tournament is so exciting is that many good teams, going up against opposition they've never seen before with little time to prepare, play down to or below the level of their lower-ranked opponents. It's high drama, but too often, it's low-quality basketball. Many times it's not until the tournament's second week when the real competition begins, and the well-balanced, well-coached—and until recent years, well-tenured—teams face off in well-played competition. Twenty years ago, two of these teams did just that, and played what may have been the greatest game in NCAA history.

Gene Wojciechowski
"The game flowed from start to finish and was played at such an incredibly high level. And best of all, it wasn't over-coached."

Gene Wojciechowski

Gene Wojciechowski was there in Philadelphia that day in 1992 when Christian Laettner caught Grant Hill's inbounds pass, turned one way, then the other, and sank a dagger into the heart of Kentucky fans, leading his No. 1 seeded Duke Blue Devils past the East Regional's second seeded Wildcats in overtime and into the NCAA championship game. In fact, the 14-year ESPN veteran has written an entire book about it, The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball. In it, Wojciechowski interviews every starting player as well as the coaches who were involved in the contest, and looks back with an eye towards what it all means for the sport today.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity, Wojciechowski tells Gelf why he thinks this was the greatest game ever played, discusses whether he believes collegiate athletes should get paid, and reveals which program he feels closer to, Duke or Kentucky.

Gelf Magazine: Our other books on tap for Varsity Letters reflect on coaching. How much did coaching matter in the Duke-Kentucky game, and in the final 2.1 seconds? Did it matter what Coach K drew up, when Christian Laettner couldn't miss?

Gene Wojciechowski: Jamal Mashburn described it as the perfect pick-up game, which, in many ways, it was. The game flowed from start to finish and was played at such an incredibly high level. And best of all, it wasn't over-coached. The stars of the game were the players, not the coaches. But…[then Kentucky coach Rick] Pitino's game plan was brilliant in that he decided beforehand to unveil his signature press not at game's start, but much later. And that's what he did, with Kentucky behind by double digits—and it worked. Kentucky made up a second-half deficit and caught Duke by surprise. As for those last 2.1 seconds, coaching had a huge impact. In that final UK huddle, Pitino instructed Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey not to risk fouling Laettner—an order the players took too literally and one that Pitino regrets to this day. And it was Krzyzewski whose first words in the final Duke huddle were, "We're going to win.'' Then he drew up the play and instilled some level of confidence in Grant Hill and Laettner. So, yes, both coaches had a significant impact on the final play. But as you suggest, it still took the players to execute those instructions.

Gelf Magazine: Your book focuses on the conditioning coach for Kentucky. To what extent do the highly paid, sneakers-endorsed head coaches affect their teams directly, or are they more like CEOs who delegate and represent the program?

Gene Wojciechowski: Rock Oliver helped UK turn around its program. But he isn't the reason it happened; Pitino and his basketball philosophy, his attention to detail, his overpowering personality, and his ability to assemble a staff that shared his vision affected every facet of that rebuilding job. The same holds true for Krzyzewski at Duke. I'm sure there are some coaches who take on a CEO-quality—and I think their programs will suffer because of that decision. But the elite coaches, for the most part, are smart enough to understand the need to stay connected to their programs.

Gelf Magazine: Was Laettner's game the best NCAA performance ever?

Gene Wojciechowski: Bill Walton's game against Memphis State would be on the short list. Goose Givens. Danny Manning. There are more than a few handfuls of defining performances. But it might have been the best clutch performance ever. After all, he didn't miss a shot. He hit several off-the-charts difficult shots, including the game-winner. And you can certainly argue, without apology, that Laettner was the greatest college player of all-time, or greatest NCAA tournament player of all time.

Gelf Magazine: How does he think about it now—does he think he peaked that night, despite the NBA career that followed it?

Gene Wojciechowski: Christian doesn't think in those terms. Basketball was almost a spiritual experience for him. He loved playing the game. He loved its purity. He understood it, if that makes sense. He peaked in the sense that he would never play in games that mattered as much, or play for a coach whom he respected and loved as much, or play with teammates whom he respected and loved as much. It was the best time of his basketball life. He loved playing at Duke. He liked playing in the NBA. He had a solid pro career, but he was about team. The NBA couldn't begin to replicate the team atmosphere he had at Duke.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that his feelings are typical among many NBA players who achieved success at the college level?

Gene Wojciechowski: To that extent? No. Laettner was—and is—a different kind of dude. But mostly in a good way. I think there's a part of him that was disappointed with the NBA experience. That said, I think he loved the challenge of the NBA, but it was definitely a transition from the family atmosphere of Duke (even if it was a dysfunctional family at times) to the pro culture.

Gelf Magazine: On the flip side, a lot of the guys from that game went on to make NBA fortunes. Do they still care much about a game from back in their amateur days?

Gene Wojciechowski: I interviewed every starter and almost every key reserve on both rosters. Believe me, they still care. As the years have passed, I think they appreciate even more the significance of that game—and their place in it.

Gelf Magazine: Was college basketball a better sport then? How has it changed?

Gene Wojciechowski: I think so, mostly because there wasn't the amount of player turnover that we have now. It was better because you could form allegiances and connections to programs and players. Look at the Duke and Kentucky rosters back then—chock full of seniors, juniors, and sophomores, but especially seniors. How has it changed? We now live in a college basketball world of one-and-dones, two-and-dones. Would Laettner stay four years now? Maybe Laettner. Would Hurley have stayed? Grant Hill? Jamal Mashburn? Doubtful. College basketball was different because everything was different: The TV broadcasts were simpler, the internet was in its infancy, cable television hadn't flexed its muscle mass. That game and that season seemed to mark the beginning of the end of that era.

Gelf Magazine:It seems there might finally be some momentum growing to pay certain college athletes at least a minimal amount. Do you think they should be compensated? And how would you suggest the NCAA goes about it?

Gene Wojciechowski: You'll never be able to compensate, say, Michael Vick, for his financial impact on Virginia Tech (he transformed that football program), or Matt Barkley at USC, or Anthony Davis at Kentucky, etc. But I think a so-called "cost of attendance" provision is a nice first step. In essence, a school will provide more money to an athlete based on the actual cost of attending that university beyond tuition, room and board, and the usual big-ticket items. I think the proposed figure was about $2,000. Over a year's time, that's $166 per month. I just spent part of a day with Barkley at USC. He had $12 in his wallet before he had to hit the ATM for $40 more to get him through the week.
Given the amount of money the NCAA makes off the NCAA Tournament and the amount of money generated by the bowls and the BCS, even $166 per month is a worthwhile opening gesture.

Gelf Magazine: You're a Chicago guy these days. Do you have any personal biases for or against Kentucky or Duke?

Gene Wojciechowski: I've spent more time around the Duke program through the years than I have at Kentucky. But I'm also an SEC guy, having gone to Tennessee. But as it relates to that game, that season, those coaches, and those players and staff, I root for those guys on some level. Let me put it this way: I wouldn't be disappointed if Duke and Kentucky made it to the Final Four on the 20-year anniversary of the greatest college-hoops game ever played.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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