If you're still shaking your head over Christian Laettner's Philly Phallaway, the one he threw in as the buzzer sounded in overtime at the Spectrum last Saturday night to send Duke to its fifth straight Final Four, then just stop. The real miracle would have been if Laettner had missed. Laettner doesn't miss. He's perfect. Twenty times on this night he took aim for the rim—10 shots from the floor, 10 from the free throw line—and 20 times he scored. Perfect.
Even his one backslide into common vulgarity—a stomping of Kentucky reserve Aminu Timberlake's chest in the second half that earned Laettner a technical foul—was lost in the heroic finish he provided for the Blue Devils' breathless 104-103 victory over the Wildcats.
In 1990 Laettner nailed a shot to beat Connecticut with 1.6 seconds to play, sending Duke to the Final Four. Against Kentucky he had a half second more. Plenty of time to leap and snare an impeccably thrown 75-foot inbounds pass from teammate Grant Hill. Plenty of time to come down near the free throw line and ponder the situation—"I knew there was a guy behind me," Laettner would later say, unaware that there were, in fact, two guys behind him. Plenty of time to shoulder fake left, dribble right, then swivel left, jump and bury a Kentucky team that didn't deserve to see its season end.
For Laettner, he of the perfect features to go with the perfect box-score line, everything has worked out so far this sceptered season. The Blue Devils, the reigning NCAA champs, were atop the polls every week during the regular season, despite two defeats, and Laettner was on top all the way too. In December workers at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium had to erect an emergency wall outside the Duke locker room to keep a mob of people at bay when Duke visited Laettner's hometown to play Canisius. In January the Blue Devils had to scramble out a window at Maryland's Cole Field House after a game with the Terrapins to avoid another throng of adoring fans, many of them also stricken with Laettnermania. Laettner's lead role in Durham 27706 had every magazine—from PEOPLE, which wants him for its 50 Most Beautiful People issue due out this spring, to Cat Companion, which is hoping to publish a feature on Christian and his beloved feline, Orea—petitioning for his time. Last Friday in Philadelphia a middle-aged woman in a LAETTNER LOVER T-shirt had a jumping-and-screaming fit as the Duke team bus made its way to practice. Luke Perry may be cute, but he can't score in traffic.
April 5, 1992
"Duke's like the heavyweight champ," Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said before facing the Blue Devils. "If it's close, the edge will go to them." It was close, and 6'2" senior guard Sean Woods seemed to have made the Wildcats winners on points when he flicked in what appeared to be the game's final basket on a driving bank shot over the 6'11" Laettner's outstretched hand. Timeout, Duke.
"First of all, we're going to win, O.K.?" coach Mike Krzyzewski said as he mustered the Blue Devils and drew up a play, one that Duke had tried unavailingly at Wake Forest in February. Against the Demon Deacons, Hill's heave had faded, forcing Laettner to step out of bounds to catch it. "I'm not going to step out this time," Laettner promised Hill.
Krzyzewski never saw the ball drop through. "But I've seen Christian shoot so much," Coach K said, "that when I saw the arc, I knew it was in." That is how Laettner, the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player, will be remembered—as master of his fate, a player who could imply two points with a mere hint of a shot, a player who could misbehave and then eclipse his petulance, a player who could, all at once, have 31 points, seven boards, three assists, two steals and good hair.
Only later, after he and Woods had embraced in the numb pandemonium at midcourt, did Laettner fully come to terms with the couple of seconds that had nearly ended his collegiate career. "At the end they could have had a bigger person on me. [Kentucky had lost its biggest starters, 6'8" Jamal Mashburn and 6'8" Gimel Martinez, to fouls.] I could have fouled out. [He wound up with four.]"
Then it occurred to him. "I could," he said, "have missed the shot."
No, he couldn't. Not Laettner. Christian Laettner simply could not have missed the shot.