HE COULD SCORE inside or out, and set a screen as capably as he could flick a pass. But then Christian Laettner, a shape-shifting big man, never did confine himself to one role. He could play the underdog, leading Duke's defeat of a reputedly unbeatable UNLV team in the semifinals of the 1991 Final Four. And oh, how he could play the overdog: His aloof manner spawned Blue Devils hatred across the land, as they became the first team since the John Wooden era to repeat as champions.
Most of all, the 6'11" Laettner is remembered as the campus big shot who made his name with big shots. In 1990, as a sophomore playing in the East Regional final, he took a return pass on a sideline inbounds play and flipped home a jumper to beat both the overtime buzzer and Connecticut. Two years later, again in the East Regional final, it was his last-second fallaway that would be immortalized in March Madness highlight bumpers and retrospectives. Laettner leaped to catch Grant Hill's 80-foot pass, set, pivoted and lofted a top-of-the-key swish to win what's widely regarded as the greatest tournament game ever, a 104--103 overtime defeat of Kentucky. But Laettner was a complicated protagonist. It was almost as if he had to sully the perfection of his performance that day—10 for 10 from the field, 10 for 10 from the line—with an impulsive act for which he drew a technical foul, stomping on the chest of Kentucky forward Aminu Timberlake. Growing up in Buffalo, the guy with the Joe College image had done janitorial work as part of his aid package at Nichols, an elite private school. Laettner was an anti-cliché.
His greatest influence went unseen, for it took place in practice, in the locker room and in the dorms. He was the rush chairman of the Duke dynasty, the guy who hazed even highly touted pledges like Hill and Bobby Hurley. His coach, Mike Krzyzewski, admitted as much, conceding that Laettner had "a little bit of ass---- in him." But his poking and prodding of new Dookies tempered them individually and, even they would come to admit, had an annealing effect on the team. After Laettner turned in a stinker of a start to the '92 title game against Michigan, it was Hurley who poked and prodded his big man right back. Proving that he had learned Laettner's lessons well, the point guard was able to get just enough out of him during the second half (19 points, seven rebounds in total) for Duke to make history.
As the only college player to start in four Final Fours, Laettner would come to define the Duke big man during the Krzyzewski era—a mobile and versatile specimen who would get under the nation's collective skin. Laettner didn't become a dominant professional player. But on the college game's biggest stage, as hero or villain, he was always the most compelling star.