Publish date:

Twenty years later, Kentucky still feeling effects of loss to Duke


If you were to survey all the sporting events in which nobody died or was paralyzed, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better example of mass post-traumatic stress disorder than Big Blue Nation in the aftermath of Kentucky's 1992 NCAA East Regional final loss to Duke.

Even today, 20 years after what's widely considered the greatest college game ever played, Kentucky loyalists regard the Blue Devils' 104-103 overtime victory, which ended with Christian Laettner's last-second fallaway, as having touched off a collective psychotic break.

After the buzzer sounded, Kentucky guard Sean Woods lay motionless on the floor for so long that a security guard came over to make sure he was still breathing. In the Wildcats' locker room, strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver squeezed a can of Coke so hard it burst. That summer at the Red Mile harness track outside of Lexington, someone ran a trotter named LaettnerBeGone. As recently as three years ago, a Kentucky TV network rebroadcast the game, only to cut it abruptly short with 2.1 seconds to play.

As he goes around the country hawking his new book, The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball, ESPN writer Gene Wojciechowski finds Kentucky fan after Kentucky fan approaching him to explain themselves. To a man and a woman, they tell the author, "I can't buy a book with Laettner on the cover." If it's possible for an apology to sound like the swearing out of an affidavit, that's what their comments resemble.

"I want to tell them it's a tribute to the Kentucky guys," Wojciechowski says. "But it just hurts them too much."

And that's a shame. Because that game and that team delivered what I'd argue is the greatest -- and certainly most noble -- achievement in the school's basketball history.

In the Commonwealth they like to nickname their teams: the Fabulous Five (champs in 1948); the Fiddlin' Five (champs in '58); Rupp's Runts (runners-up in '66); the Untouchables (champs in '96). But before the 1988-89 season, Eddie Sutton's last Wildcats as coach, a markedly less distinguished group came saddled with a denigrating handle: The Young and the Rexless. At a time when Duke had begun to make a habit of playing for NCAA titles, Kentucky was about to be saddled with NCAA probation. When sanctions came down, such stars as Rex Chapman, Chris Mills and LeRon Ellis bolted, leaving freshmen Woods, John Pelphrey, Richie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus to suffer through Kentucky's first losing season in 62 years. That 13-19 ordeal began at the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass., with a 25-point loss -- to Duke.

Taking over a year later, Rick Pitino was able to attract to Lexington a lone elite player, fellow New Yorker Jamal Mashburn. Marbled throughout Wojciechowski's book is an account of how Oliver, the conditioning coach, whipped Mashburn and his supporting cast into the kind of shape necessary to perform to Pitino's specifications. Think Junction Boys, with Oliver as Bear Bryant's taskmaster.

As a sophomore Woods would misfire in the final moments of five different losses. "When he's a senior," Pitino had said then, "he'll make those shots." And against Duke Woods did, with a truly ridiculous bank shot in traffic to give the Wildcats a 103-102 advantage, and seemed to lend Kentucky the stamp of destiny. A shot that had every mark of a game-winner both closed Woods' personal circle and emblemized the program's larger comeback.

And then, Grant Hill's 80-foot pass, Laettner's leap, set, pivot, shot -- a different sort of destiny.

"I thought the book would be about Duke, and it ended up being as much a Kentucky book," Wojciechowski says. "Without the basketball heroism of Kentucky, that game wouldn't mean as much. I loved the Kentucky story as much if not more than the Duke story."

SI Recommends

When he went over the final seconds with Feldhaus, Wojciechowski says, Feldhaus' body language changed and his jaw tensed up. Similarly, Pelphrey had to stop to compose himself while revisiting the final play.

I recognized this when I made my own forensic investigation into that game, for a re-creation that ran in SI's 1992 year-end issue, which you can read in its entirety here. I found the Kentucky principals, from Pelphrey to Farmer to Pitino, to be strikingly thoughtful and, to a man, willing to open up about their acts of commission and omission.

Of course Pitino wished he had ordered a man to guard Hill on the inbounds pass, and of course Pelphrey wished that he had fronted Laettner, or at least challenged him more aggressively -- notwithstanding his coach's instructions that, "Whatever you do, don't foul."

But more than that -- much more -- I detected in all of them a dawning awareness that they had been party to something historic, even if it would haunt them forever.

Consider what Farmer told me, referring to the legendary Kentucky radio broadcaster Cawood Ledford who called his final Wildcats game that night: "You know, they say Cawood Ledford is the best recruiter Kentucky's ever had. Listening to Cawood call a loss, you can imagine a tear running down a little boy's check, and his mama going over to tell him it'll be all right, and the next day him going out and shooting baskets, because someday he's going to be a Wildcat and it's going to be different. That next time Kentucky's going to win."

Late on the night of March 28, 1992, back in the lobby of Philadelphia's Warwick Hotel, a knot of red-eyed fans had welcomed the Kentucky players back from the Spectrum. Here's what I wrote of that scene two decades ago: The grief was so universal, so public, that it reminded the coach of visitation at a funeral. It was the uniform they wore, decided Pitino, a Catholic who had been a daily communicant over the final month of the season: It's like a priestly garment. They overachieve because of it. But it also means they take it so much worse when they lose.

It was that larger sense of context, grasped instantly by the occupants of both benches, that Wojciechowski believes vaulted the game to a privileged place. "That's why the game had so much meaning," he says. "Both teams treated it with honor and respect. How often do you see a team lose and in many ways win? Even though they lost, Kentucky became whole again."

That same school of thought led Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton to take an extraordinary step one week later. In a ceremony at Rupp Arena, he presided over the hoisting to the rafters of the retired jerseys of the team's four seniors. Even though they had played in only one NCAA tournament and never reached a Final Four, the Unforgettables wouldn't be an empty honorific. They really would never be forgotten.

Though it may be regarded as an abiding calamity in the Commonwealth, no game has done more for Kentucky basketball beyond the state's borders. Until then, the rest of the country regarded the Wildcats as college basketball's least lovable team. They played joylessly. They hoarded top recruits. Their bullheaded coach, Adolph Rupp, had pointedly refused to integrate. They cheated when they hardly needed to. Corporate and smug, Big Blue seemed to operate in a bubble of impunity that UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian captured with his crack that the NCAA was so angry at the under-investigation Wildcats "that they'll probably give another four years' probation to Cleveland State."

After Kentucky came fully back, with the Untouchables making their dominant NCAA title run in 1996, the university reverted to a kind of NBA trade school. It became a refuge for one-and-done mercenaries, presided over by a coach, John Calipari, who, fairly or not, is regarded as a kind of itinerant flimflam man.

In other words, little to love about 'em before, little to love about 'em after. But that 1991-92 team, in victory and defeat, still shines. As Pitino told his players in the locker room, with the spray from that crushed Coke can still fresh on the floor, "You can't let your basketball career be defined by 2.1 seconds."

When he said that Pitino was, by his own admission, so distraught and disoriented that he couldn't have fully understood his own words, much less believed them. But that statement has more than held up for two decades, enshrined as the promise of Kentucky basketball at its best.