Christian Laettner on Laettner hate; why ESPN's Keith Law was suspended
So who is responsible for choosing the memorable title of “I Hate Christian Laettner” for the upcoming documentary on one of the most polarizing college basketball players in history?
Well, that would be Christian Laettner himself.
ESPN announced last week it will air a 90-minute examination of Laettner’s life on March 15, 2015 at 9 p.m. ET as part of its acclaimed "30 for 30" series. The film is being directed by Rory Karpf, who previously directed “The Book of Manning” and “Tim Richmond: To The Limit,” and when Karpf met with Laettner at his home in Jacksonville a couple of months ago, Laettner showed Karpf some custom t-shirts with "I STILL LOVE CHRISTIAN LAETTNER" on the front, a humorous retort to the "I STILL HATE LAETTNER" t-shirts that float around the state of Kentucky to this day.
"This is something people don't realize about me but I can laugh, and laugh at myself,” Laettner said in an interview with Sports Illustrated on Friday. “The very first time I saw an “I STILL HATE LAETTNER” t-shirt was six or seven years ago and I thought it was so funny that Kentucky fans were selling the shirts on stores around campus. So I pointed the shirt out to Rory and maybe he got the feeling then that, hey, Christian can laugh at himself, so that's a storyline we can use in the film.
"When Rory told me they had decided to use that title, my first reaction was a little bit of a giggle because it was funny to me. Deep down in my heart I knew there was a chance it might be something along those lines. Then my second thought was I thought of my wife, my children [he has three], my parents, my siblings and everyone who loves me. I thought how maybe it could affect them the wrong way and I am sensitive to that. It brought a little sadness to my heart because I don't want it to affect them negatively but overall I think they will understand it once they see the film.”
Said Korpf: "I did not want to make a definitive statement in the title like, 'The Most Hated Man in Basketball.' We wanted to come up with a title that was fun and provocative and [drew] some interest. I think it shows we will have fun with the film and that Christian is on board and has a good sense of humor about things."
ESPN Films executive producer John Dahl said the idea to do a 30 for 30 on Laettner, who won two national titles at Duke between 1989 and 1992 and was the No. 3 selection in the 1992 NBA draft behind Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning, started to gain traction internally after ESPN aired its 30 for 30 on Michigan’s Fab Five in March 2011. That film drew 2.5 million viewers, the second most-watched 30 for 30 behind “You Don’t Know Bo” (3.6 million viewers).
"Hearing how strongly the Michigan players felt about him intrigued us,” Dahl said. “Then two years later Grantland did a bracket tournament on the most hated college basketball players over the last 30 years and Laettner was the clear 'winner' of the contest. It just reinforced that a lot of people still have strong opinions about him. Several months ago we were talking about the post-Bracketology slot on ESPN for this upcoming March and Laettner came up as a possibility."
Dahl said he reached out to Karpf specifically to direct the film because ESPN Films was impressed with his previous work on Tim Richmond and the Mannings.
"Rory’s particularly good with people and doing character studies, so we felt Laettner could be a great match for him," Dahl said. "Rory was interested. He put together a treatment, we liked where he wanted to go with the story and we decided to move ahead once Rory had Christian on board."
Laettner played 13 years in the NBA for six teams (Timberwolves, Wizards, Hawks, Pistons, Mavericks and Heat) and was a member of the greatest basketball team ever assembled, the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. But he is remembered most for his four years at Duke and one shot in particular, a game-winning jumper in overtime that knocked off Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight and is among the most famous baskets in NCAA tournament history.
Karpf said he cold-called Laettner last May to tell him that ESPN was interested in doing a film about his life. He then traveled to Jacksonville to meet with Laettner and his family and to gauge Laettner’s interest. Karpf told Laettner that he wanted to tell a whole story, one that went beyond the singular storyline of Duke basketball hatred and Laettner being among the most disliked players in college basketball history.
"I thought it could be interesting to look at who is Christian Laettner, and looking at his whole life from a different lens," Karpf said. "How could someone be so beloved at Duke and [get so much] vitriol in other parts of the country?"
Laettner said he saw the 2013 Grantland poll where he was named the most hated college basketball in the last 30 years and called it, in part, a badge of honor. (Grantland writer Mark Titus, who played for Ohio State, wrote a bit of a counterpoint explaining why the "pretty boy preppy" and "benchwarmer for the greatest team ever" was getting a raw deal.)
"If you are not a Dukie and Duke is having a lot of success year after year, you might get tired of it," Laettner said. "They might not like your competing personality or competing persona, and if you are not a Dukie or you don't love Duke or Christian Laettner, then I can understand the hating on me."
Karpf said he and his crew have completed 85 percent of the filming for the documentary, including interviews with Laettner’s family, Duke teammates and coaches (Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Cherokee Parks, Brian Davis etc..) as well as opponents and opposing coaches such as Roy Williams. There is also never-before-seen footage of Laettner growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. One interview Karpf wants to get but has yet to so far is Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who preceded Laettner at Duke. The film will primarily focus on Laettner’s college years but will also highlight his NBA and post-playing career. Karpf said that he assured the Laettner family he would do a balanced film and that Laettner has cooperated in full.
"Once people see the film some, people might see Christian differently," Karpf said. "I’m not saying everything will be viewed in rose-colored glasses but I think people will see sides of Christian Laettner they have never seen before. I feel like we have compelling material and I’m hoping it will be a captivating film for Duke lovers, haters and people who don't even know Duke basketball before this."
"More than anything I hope people watch it [and] enjoy it, and to quote Fox News, it's then for them to decide," Laettner said. "I want the viewers to decide whether they like it or not. But I'm going to like it because I was honored they asked me. How many people get to say a 30 for 30 is being made about them?"
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. ESPN’s hire of Chael Sonnen as a UFC studio analyst for SportsCenter’s coverage of major UFC pay-per-view events was certainly curious on its face. Sonnen had already churned through Fox as a UFC analyst after that network removed him from its coverage last June following two failed random drug tests administered by the Nevada Athletic Commission. The ESPN press release announcing Sonnen’s hire made no mention of those facts, nor did it note what is far more disturbing for broadcast purposes -- Sonnen joking about domestic violence (while on Fox Sports 1) and using some racially charged words while promoting his UFC fights. This Deadspin piece, which clearly is anti-Sonnen, chronicles his history.
Anyone who has heard Sonnen on Jim Rome’s show, and other places, would concede he’s talented on the mic, and SI.com’s Jeff Wageheim accurately called Sonnen "a masterful practitioner of the martial art known as wordsmanship" upon his forced retirement from UFC. Though Sonnen addressed his drug suspension in this Associated Press interview earlier this month, it’s a fair question to ask of ESPN: Why hire someone with so many red flags?
On this note, below is a short Q&A with Glenn Jacobs, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s MMA coverage and the executive who hired Sonnen. The process behind the Q&A is important for you to know, so I’ll spell it out here. ESPN Communications staffer David Scott informed me when I first reached out to the network on this topic that Jacobs wanted to do an interview only by email. In my experience dealing with sports television executives at multiple networks for many years, such a request is not common. I agreed to the conditions but I informed Scott and Jacobs that I would let readers know there was a strong possibility that ESPN PR vetted the answers prior to them being sent back to Sports Illustrated. Readers can now judge everything under that framework.
SI: Why did you hire Chael Sonnen?
Jacobs: Whenever we hire analysts, we are looking for people who, through experience and knowledge, can bring insightful analysis to our audience. Chael does that in addition to being a dynamic TV presence.
SI: Why do you consider him a good broadcaster?
Jacobs: From his very first segment, his skills as an analyst were on display. Smart analysis. Entertaining storytelling. High energy. He provides our fans with tremendous insights and perspective on the UFC.
SI: Deadspin referred to Chael as a "race-baiter" and referred to language he used before fights as toxic. They cited a number of examples; all are searchable on the web. Why are you comfortable with such language regarding hiring him?
SI: Why would a network that has done such fine journalistic work on domestic violence bring in a commentator who jokes about domestic violence?
Jacobs: Taking these two together. Chael has made statements in the past that we would not be comfortable with at ESPN. These issues are taken very seriously here and we believe -- after speaking with Chael -- that he understands our standards for commentary and analysis and the expectations of our audience.
SI: How would you describe the process of reaching out to him for this job?
Jacobs: I had worked with Chael when he made guest appearances on MMA Live and was always impressed by him. Some time after he became available again, we began to have discussions internally about a possible role with us, which led to us eventually reaching out to his people and making the deal.
SI: Is there anything you wish to add?
Jacobs: Nope. Thanks for your interest.
2. Will NFL Broadcasts Ever Embrace Advanced Stats? That’s the question I examined in a recent piece for The MMQB.com. NFL fans should find it interesting.
2a. Sports Business Media reporter John Ourand on female viewership of the NFL swelling to highs despite domestic violence issues.
2b. Through Saturday, NFL game windows accounted for the top 11 and 28 of the top 30 most-watched shows on television since the NFL season kicked off on Sept. 4. The most-watched NFL game this season is Cowboys-Seahawks on Oct. 12, which drew 30 million viewers.
2c. Nice work by ESPN producer Dominique Goodridge on this “Best Days” feature that ran on NFL Sunday Countdown.
2d. NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner showed serious love Sunday for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Said Warner: "I truly believe that when he’s healthy, [Gronkowski] is the biggest impact player for any offense outside of the quarterback in the National Football League."
2e. CBS NFL analyst London Fletcher, who played his final six seasons for the Redskins before retiring last year, offered interesting insight on Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and coach Jay Gruden.
"This is an organization that has lost itself and doesn't know how to find its way back. Whatever the position may be, you just talk about yourself and what you need to do better. That's all you need to do. I have a problem with Jay Gruden. I've never seen a head coach embarrass a player like that in public. I'm fine with you doing that in the team meeting room or behind closed doors because you’ll gain more respect from your locker room and the team by doing it in that setting than getting up and grandstanding and embarrassing him like he did on national television … It’s a message to Daniel Snyder and it’s a message to the locker room. [Gruden] is setting the stage for maybe one more bad game [for RG III] before he benches him … But you’re talking too much to the public, Jay Gruden."
2f. Griffin and Gruden were a big topic on the NFL pregame shows, including this take from Fox NFL analyst Jimmy Johnson: "In my opinion, Robert Griffin is done in Washington.The question is, is Jay Gruden done and is he going down with this quarterback? Robert Griffin tried to be a leader with his words. But in the NFL players don’t care about words. They want to see the action on the field. Are you going to help them win ball games? You look at Jay Gruden, he has never bought in to Robert Griffin as his quarterback. How many coaches have you ever seen in a press conference call out their quarterback and point out his mistakes in a press conference? As far as Robert Griffin’s teammates, they don’t respect his work ethic and they don’t respect what he is doing on the field, because it’s not helping them win. It’s a shame because Robert Griffin is a talented guy. But I don’t think you can repair this relationship."
3. The most consistent thing when it comes to ESPN discipline is the inconsistency of such discipline. Where Bob Knight can go unpunished for calling Jeremy Schaap a “c---sucker” and nary a word is said about Stephen A. Smith’s odd threats to Sixers guard Michael Carter-Williams, ESPN staffers with less juice often get whacked Sopranos-style. (The only consistent rule seems to be that Skip Bayless can say whatever he wants on any medium, especially if it’s about LeBron James.)
Last week ESPN imposed a Twitter suspension (typing these words feels very junior high) on the excellent MLB analyst Keith Law. Why? The network isn’t saying. What the network will say publicly is that it wasn’t because of what Law said during a heated Twitter exchange with fellow baseball analyst Curt Schilling in which Law defended Charles Darwin and evolution against Schilling, who was voicing his support on the theory of creationism. (Schilling continues to tweet as of this writing.) When contacted on Saturday as to why Law was suspended from Twitter, a network spokesperson said ESPN would not be going further than its single sentence statement that Law was not suspended for supporting evolution. It also would not answer questions about why Schilling did not receive the same adjudication or who suspended Law from the medium that brought you the hashtag #GolicButtPhoto.
From talking to a couple of ESPN sources, it seems clear that Law's cutting rebuke of Schilling on a topic away from sports was the primary reason he was suspended. I also think such a public discussion of a hot-button religious issue rankled some in ESPN management. Law, like many ESPN talent, is feisty on Twitter, and I’d argue that’s generally a good thing for the network because it means he cares about his content and the world at large. But ESPN management particularly disdains ESPN-on-ESPN crime (One management source said Law had been warned about previous Twitter interactions) in the social media space and religion is one of those third rail topics that scares the suits paid to make the sub fees engine hum.
Law’s other sin was that he’s not a former athlete or coach because, at least in my observation, former athletes and coaches who work at ESPN are given far more latitude on all matters and on all mediums compared to the rank and file. The exception to this rule would be on-air broadcast staffers with very large contracts or powerful broadcast agents. The Bill Simmons suspension was an anomaly because he publicly challenged his company and forced the hand of management.
ESPN is not looking for my advice here but I think they’d be wise to dial back on social media suspensions because they keep unintentionally biting the company, from creating negative news cycles to causing embarrassment when those punished merely avoid Twitter but still use Facebook or Instagram.
As for the sports blogosphere's coverage of such suspensions, a company that spends hours a day on multiple platforms debating, digesting and analyzing sports dynamics (for example, RGIII’s relationship with his teammates) can’t be surprised when outside entities do the same thing with ESPN staffers.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Columbus Dispatch hockey writer Aaron Portzline on Jack Johnson filing for bankruptcy.
• Bleacher Report’s Jason King tracked down the wrestler who played Kamala, the Ugandan Giant.
• Strong work by NFL.com’s Michael Silver on this profile of Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.
• SI is republishing 60 of its best stories. This from Rick Reilly, on the late Reds owner Marge Schott, is tremendous.
• Tiger Woods is angry at Dan Jenkins, so he wrote about it.
• ESPN The Magazine’s David Fleming on Carson Palmer and the story of his new ACL.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• This Ta-Nehisi Coates piece on Bill Cosby is spot on and an absolute must read.
• The most disturbing piece I read last week came via Rolling Stone: "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA."
• Highly recommend this New York Times magazine piece: "The Secret Life Of Passwords."
• The Washington Post ran a front-page investigative piece Sunday on Bill Cosby that featured 13 different reporters. It’s very strong.
• Take the 90 minutes to watch this documentary from Frontline and Pro Publica work on the secret history of Firestone in Liberia.
• The New Yorker’s John Lahr on a last lunch with Mike Nichols.
• If you are a fan of Dave Chappelle, stop what you are doing and read this GQ Magazine interview.
• The image that stayed with me the most from the winter storm hitting Buffalo.
• Bill Cosby telling an AP reporter not to air his answer on rape allegations. Narrative shaping 101.
• Esquire Magazine’s Chris Jones on astronaut Scott Kelly.
• How to defeat the impulse buy.
5. Laettner was the only college player on the 1992 Dream Team that won gold in Barcelona and is considered the greatest collection of basketball talent in history. He said his favorite memories of that team were playing one-on-one with teammates after practice as well as five-on-five intra-squad games "I remember guarding [Larry] Bird and mostly the big guys," Laettner said. "I don't know if you would ever want to guard [Michael] Jordan so I probably stayed away from him. I also don't think I ever guarded [Charles] Barkley because we were always on the same team. It was amazing. To play games with them, practice with them, five-on-five, it was really beyond belief."
5a. Laettner said he has not spent much time in the state of Kentucky since his famed shot in 1992 but added he does love the state and it has the greatest Muskie fishing in the country. He did go back to Rupp Arena in Oct. 2011 to do a Big Blue All-Stars vs. The Villains game, where Laettner was the coach of the Villains team. "It was a lot of fun and we hammed it," Laettner said. "The crowd was about 10,000 people, and they booed me. It was a really fun time."
5b. Laettner spends much of his time today coaching at his Christian Laettner Basketball Academy. "I love it, and it’s a good example of how you have to change your personality at times," Laettner said. “There was my on-court personality when I was playing and now I am older and coaching and my coaching persona is very different [than] my on-court persona. You have to be loving and caring and sensitive to the kids who you work with, and you want them to love you and respect you as a coach so they listen to you."
5c. ESPN said it had broadcast 398 races during its 28 years of airing NASCAR’s highest level of racing. Last week’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway marked the end of the network’s eight-year contract with NASCAR, and beginning in 2015, Fox and NBC will split the NASCAR season. "While we won’t be televising NASCAR races after this season, the only thing ending in our relationship with NASCAR is the live racing," ESPN president John Skipper said in a statement. "NASCAR coverage will continue to live on all ESPN platforms going into the future."
5d. Early-season college basketball viewership: Kentucky’s win over Kansas drew 2.75 million viewers; Duke’s victory over Michigan State drew 2.48 million viewers.
5e. The rugby match between the USA Eagles and New Zealand All Blacks at Soldier Field on Nov. 1 drew 927,000 viewers on NBC, a very impressive number.