When I received a review copy of “The Last Great Game” in the mail last week, I halfheartedly joked that I was “excited to read the second best college basketball book released in the last few months.” I knew I’d enjoy it, but truthfully didn’t expect to enjoy it right away. I figured I’d probably skim a few chapters here and there, then dive in with two feet after March, when I needed to further my college hoops fix.
Yeah, about that.
Within a few pages I was hooked, and it was clear to me that this book wasn’t about a basketball game, so much as a different time for us as sports fans. It was a time when college basketball still mattered, not just as a four week event in March, but as a four month season starting in late November. It was a time when you could go into a barbershop, sit down at a bar, hang out in a dorm room and have an argument with buddies about Duke, or the Fab Five, or Jerry Tarkanian’s Vegas teams; an argument about college basketball. With all due respect to Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson, you can’t walk into a bar in 2012 (at least outside Lawrence and Lexington) and engage in a debate about which of them deserves National Player of the Year. You could in 1992 about Christian Laettner, Jamal Mashburn and Chris Webber thought.
As for the book itself, well, chances are pretty good that if you’re bothering to read this review, you know that it’s about the Kentucky-Duke, 1992 East Regional Final, and for the shot Laettner hit to win it at the buzzer in overtime. You know that as the single greatest game in college basketball history. What you probably don’t know is all the ancillary stuff that led up to that shot, not just in that NCAA Tournament, but in the years before that. To his credit, author Gene Wojciechowski does a masterful job of setting up the narrative around that; I consider myself a bit of a college basketball aficionado, and Icannot tell you how much I learned from this book.
From the Duke perspective, I’ll be blunt: I had no idea what a prick Christian Laettner was. Yes I knew he was a prick and yes I knew he was reviled, in large part because I still remember my mother- a woman who doesn’t care much for college basketball, and cares less for name calling- telling me exactly what a punk he was. It takes a lot for my mom to get worked up, but apparently all it took in 1992 was seeing Laettner’s snotty mug flash across her TV screen.
But while I knew how much the casual, non-Duke fan hated Laettner, what I had no idea about was how much his own teammates did too. After seeing a million lousy Coach K interviews over the years, and seeing him preach the value of the “Duke family,” about “12 guys becoming one,” and all that non-sense, well, I kinda bought the company line.
And I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Read this book and you’ll find that if the 1992 Duke Blue Devils were a family, they were dysfunctional enough to have their own MTV reality show. Maybe my favorite story was when Laettner had pushed fellow superstar Bobby Hurley so hard and for so long, that one day Hurley finally snapped in practice. The team was scrimmaging, and as Hurley turned the corner off a ball screen and was driving into the paint, he decided to throw a picture perfect chest-pass… right into Laettner’s face from five feet away, before turning around and sprinting out the gym. Laettner had literally pushed Hurley to the brink of insanity at that point, but what’s even stranger is that Laettner actually wasn’t bothered by the incident. Instead, he was simply happy that his point guard had finally stood up for himself. After all, if Hurley was tough enough to stand up to Laettner every day in practice, then playing UNLV in the tournament would be no big deal. Christian Laettner was a prick, yes. But he was also a prick that wanted to win more than anyone on the court.
Also as much as I hate to say, this book also gave me a little bit of introspection into Coach K, and an appreciation for his coaching. Now obviously no one gets 900+ wins by accident, but I always felt like… well… I felt like the guy was a little overrated. After all, when you’re no worse than the second most talented team in the ACC every year, should it really be that hard to win 25 games every year? Given that half the schedule is against cupcakes, and half of the ACC is God awful in a given year, how many challenging games are there really on the schedule? 10? 12?
But beyond just the talent he amassed, it was the way Coach K handled that 1992 team which gave me a newfound appreciation for him. As they say, it’s always easier to get to the top of the mountain than stay there, but to his credit, after winning a title in 1991, Coach K was able to keep the team level-headed in 1992. He knew when to push, and knew when to back off, and even once surprised his players with cake and ice cream after a tough loss, rather than running them into the ground in practice. It paid off, when his team peaked entering March, rather than getting overwhelmed by the moment.
(On a different note, one of my favorite nuggets in the book came early on, when Wojciechowski gave a bit of a backstory on Coach K’s first date with his wife, Mickey. After the date, a young K was so enthralled with Mickey that he decided to send her flowers…but instead of sending her a dozen red roses, he sent her nine yellow ones instead. Why? Well, as Coach K explained, any guy can send a gal dozen red roses. But nine yellow roses will make her think. You, Coach K, are a G.)
As for Kentucky, well, frankly, I didn’t know much about them either, and really didn’t know just how far the program had fallen prior to Rick Pitino’s arrival in the late 1980’s. I had heard of “The Unforgettables,” but had no idea quite why they were so darn “unforgettable.” That reason being, that after an NCAA investigation put the program on life-support, the unforgettables were the only players that stuck around and saw the program through the tough times. I also had no idea that 1992 was the first season that Kentucky was actually eligible for postseason play, after being banned the previous two seasons.
But really, the thing that I had kind of forgotten about was just how good of a coach young Rick Pitino was. The truth is, that with everything that’s happened these past few years (the Karen Sypher scandal, the early NCAA Tournament losses, John Calipari wrestling the Commonwealth away from him), Pitino has turned into a punch-line. He’s low hanging fruit, who it’s almost too easy to take cheap shots at.
At the same time, what we all forget (or at least what I forgot) was just truly how innovative and ahead of his time Pitino was at Kentucky. He used the full-court press before it was cool to use the full-court press. His teams took 20 three’s a game when most teams were taking five or six. Basically everything that everyone in college basketball was doing in 1998, 1999 and 2000, Pitino was doing in 1989, 1990 and 1991. He really was a basketball innovator in every sense of the word.
(Meanwhile, if you want a fun fact on Kentucky, wrap your head around this for a second: When Pitino arrived at Kentucky, know who was on his first coaching staff? How about Billy Donovan, Herb Sendek, Tubby Smith and Ralph Willard? Are you kidding me? Frankly, with all that basketball knowledge in one room, I’m surprised Kentucky ever lost a game.
Regardless, all of this backstory led up to the game between these two programs and “The Shot” by Laettner. I won’t give all the details here, as that would be an incredible disservice to Wojiechowski’s research and reporting. Just know that every question you’ve ever had about “The Shot”- why Kentucky didn’t guard the Grant Hill, why Laettner decided to pump fake and take a dribble before shooting- is all answered in the book.
Beyond just the shot though, what I really couldn’t help but think as I finished the book, is how Kentucky-Duke in 1992 really might have been college basketball’s last great game.
Sure there have been other great games since, but none of them had the confluence of events surrounding things like this one did. You had the defending National Champion vs. the legendary program fresh off probation. You had two coaches at the peak of their powers. You had maybe the greatest player in college basketball history, flanked by Hurley and Grant Hill, and Jamal Mashburn on the sideline, essentially a bunch of pros in college uniforms. And you had it all one court, in one building, on one day. Safe to say we will never see anything quite like that again.
And really above that’s why I enjoyed this book so much.
Yes it’s about a game, but it’s also about the way we were as fans 20 years ago. To people who remember the early and mid-1990’s, this book is a snapshot of the way the game was, before the one-and-done rule, before the NBA Betting Action was determined on potential rather than production, before college basketball evolved into what it has today. I love college basketball as much as anyone. But the sport will never again be the way it was.
That’s right, in every sense of the word, Duke vs. Kentucky, in Philadelphia, in 1992 really was college basketball’s last great game.
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