The shark in Christian Laettner's living room is now about the size of one of his forearms. It knifes toward you, sizing up your strengths and weaknesses with no regard for the hard reality of the six-foot-long fish tank, until it suddenly veers off in a genetically programmed fit of good judgment.
"He's trying to avoid the charge," says Laettner, 24, who went from four Final Fours and two national championships at Duke to a Minnesota Timberwolf team that won just 19 games last season. Laettner also explains, without a trace of irony, that the shark will grow as much as the boundaries of the tank allow. And if anyone could write a book on growing pains, it is Christian Laettner. Viewing the world with a hint of suspicion through the cool quartz sparkle of his eyes, he could bang out a best-seller.
A stunning young blonde woman out of the Marcia Brady mold joins Laettner at his cluttered kitchen table. For the sake of propriety the two of them do their best to keep their hands off each other, though their mutual attraction generates a force field that could bend a fork. When Laettner introduces the young woman—her first name is Tamara, last name withheld—the hybrid quality of his speech becomes more pronounced as he struggles with being decorous. Accents from suburban Buffalo (where he grew up), from North Carolina (Duke is located in Durham) and from hanging with the brothers are massaged into an admixture of speech seasoned with old-fashioned usages in which arenas are still gyms and basketball shoes are sneakers.
"Yeah," Laettner remarks on his accent, "I'm versatile in every part of my game." He dryly adds, "Except being nice, which I am only at home."
March 21, 1994
Asked if she keeps up with the volumes of print and videotape devoted to her boyfriend, Tamara shares a look with Christian that could bend flatware service for 12. "She's in college," Laettner says with a wave of his spoon. "She's got enough reading to do."
"It's hard to tell," says Tamara, emphatically fluttering her eyelashes, "what's true and what's not true."
It certainly is without a scorecard.
"At the very least Christian evokes a response, doesn't he?" says former Timber-wolf Luc Longley, who was recently traded to the Chicago Bulls. And if impressions of Laettner could be tracked like shots taken from the floor, you would have little yellow dots all over the court.
Consider this defining moment among a scrapbook's worth of defining moments from Laettner's playing days at Duke.
The Blue Devils met Kentucky in the NCAA East Regional finals in 1992, during Laettner's senior year. After 40 minutes of what many people describe as the greatest college basketball game ever played, the two teams were tied. With 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Kentucky took the lead 103-102. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski signaled for timeout, and when the Blue Devils took the court again, guard Grant Hill seemed monastically at peace for a kid facing the prospect of throwing a length-of-the-court pass to a teammate who would have to catch it and score in the time it takes to say "Hail, Mary, full of grace." Perhaps Hill's composure stemmed from the knowledge that the hall was going to the redoubtable Laettner, who, up to that point, had taken 19 shots (nine from the floor. 10 from the free throw line) and missed none. Laettner snatched Hill's pass over two shorter defenders near the free throw line, juked right, dribbled left, then spun and hit an indolent fallaway jumper that won the game. They called it "the shot heard round the world."
Now witness a few of Laettner's defining moments as Minnesota's howlin' wolf.
At a game in Utah on Dec. 27, a fan sitting behind Laettner's seat on the bench conducted a 48-minute sonata of rancor against him, lustily jeering Laettner for having long hair, a stupid jump shot, a big mouth, two legs—in short, for being there. During the few lulls in the game, the only noise that could be heard other than the stop-start cheep of basketball shoes was the fan riding the Minnesota forward like a coxswain. "It got so ridiculous, I finally turned around and said something about the guy's weight problem," Laettner concedes.
But the Book of Heckling didn't begin or end in Utah. At a game in Seattle on Dec. 4, scores of fans poked fun at everything from Laettner's headband ("Take the lady-skier thing off your head, Christian!") to his simple gesture of encouragement for a teammate ("Keep your hands off his butt, Laettner!"). And the next day, during a game down in Los Angeles, the high point for Laker fans came when Laettner lost his cool after getting his second foul. "Duke sucks!" fans up in the cheap scats gleefully chanted.
More recently Laettner did some shouting of his own—only this time at his own. On Feb. 20, as the Timberwolves prepared for a game the following afternoon against the San Antonio Spurs, assistant coach Bob Weinhauer halted practice to admonish reserve forward Marlon Maxey for botching a play on a routine run-through. When Laettner, a Timber-wolf co-captain, took exception to Weinhauer's public dressing-down of Maxey, the 54-year-old assistant told him, "Worry about your own game." Laettner went off like a pipe bomb. "Shut the——up!" he told Weinhauer, calling him an "old piece of——." At that point coach Sidney Lowe summarily dismissed Laettner from practice. As he left the floor, Laettner got off one more burst of oral shrapnel. "You——should be standing up for Maxey too," he blasted his teammates.
Laettner received a one-game suspension without pay—which cost him $33,000 and change, or about $11,000 per expletive—not to mention the ire of his coach. "It's no secret that this is not the first time something like this has happened," said Lowe. "I have 11 other guys to work with. You have to keep their respect."
"I don't know what he can say," Timberwolf co-captain Chuck Person said of Laettner after his one-on-one with Weinhauer. "He defamed Bob's character. He disrespected Bob as a man. Bob has fads older than Christian."
Here, then, lurks basketball's newly anointed outlaw, roaming the land in a hockey mask, casting no shadow, breathing fire on the imperatives of pleasantness and sincerity. He's the metal pie plate in the microwave, a winking brute with surfer hair to boot. Does his head spin around, baby?
In his short career as a pro, Laettner has been characterized as a bully who belittles his teammates, dismissed as less athletic than the league's superstars and accused of being a crybaby and a malingerer. How bad is he supposed to be? One well-known Midwestern trading-card dealer claims Laettner's cards topped the list of the coldest cards for four months in a row. But before the impulse to burn Christian at the stake becomes overwhelming, a few words from his adversaries on the court:
**He knows basketball," said Laker center Vlade Divac after a home loss to Minnesota in December, "it's a challenge to cover him. And, hey, he's a good guy."
"I don't give a damn what anyone says," adds the Seattle SuperSonics' Shawn Kemp. "He's always been a good dude around me, and I'll play next to him anytime."
"I think Christian's a great player," says Los Angeles Clipper guard Mark Jackson. "Clean. Works hard. Going to have a long, excellent career."
And Laettner's cowering teammates? "I don't know who started that rumor about everyone on the team hating him, but it certainly wasn't anyone on the team," Longley says.
"Chris is cool," says guard Doug West. "He gets a little intense because he wants to win. So what? What else could you expect from him?"
And perhaps the one player on the team who rivals Laettner in talent, rookie Isaiah Rider, is most succinct: "Chris is a straight-up guy, a good friend and a great player. Period."
All right, what about Laettner's former Duke teammate Cherokee Parks, known best for having been Laettner's whipping boy? "He was on me hard," Parks recently told the Los Angeles Times, but Parks maintains that Laettner was simply trying to make him a better player.
Why, then, is the public impression of Laettner so at odds with this show of respect from the inside? What makes him such a target of general ill will?
"Well," Laettner says tentatively as he considers the question, "if you're not a Duke fan, you're not going to like me. We were splattered on TV every three days, every weekend. Then, if you're a guy, you're hearing the commentators and the girls say all this junk about me—you know what they're saying about me, right?"
Here's just a sample, courtesy of Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine (October '93): "...white and willowy, with the handsome, innocent look of a matinee idol." Laettner made People's annual 50 Most Beautiful People list in 1992. And USA Today, never guilty of shying away from hyperbole, has called Laettner "as good-looking as Robert Redford."
"Sure, they read all that stuff and they probably get a little upset, which is understandable," Laettner says. "And I'll tell you what: In the places we play, on the road, when I'm booed? It's all guys. It's not girls standing up going, Booooooo!
"And as far as the beat writers go," he continues, warming to this business of Christian envy, "I've got to think they see all these young kids making all this money for running around and playing basketball all the time—something they love—and they must get sick of it."
While Laettner won't be the last sports personality ever to wrangle with the press, he might be one of the first to get such an early start. According to Rachel Blount, the Minneapolis Star Tribune's beat writer on the Timberwolves, "Christian reeks of hostility. His problem is, he thinks it's a waste of time to speak with people like us, who aren't his intellectual equals."
Says a spurned Associated Press writer based in Los Angeles, "When will guys like Laettner...realize the league wasn't formed for them to dump on it? Laettner won't give you the time of day."
If anyone has a read on this sharp-shooting enigma who's just an inch short of seven feet, it is the beleaguered Timberwolf coach, who as of Sunday had won just 10 games at home this season. "If Christian doesn't allow you to get into that bubble of his." says Lowe, "then you're going to have a tough time. He has to feel comfortable around you. When he feels that he's in control, you can get inside that little bubble."
"Believe it or not," says Laettner, "the writers complain that I don't say hi to them. Here's some guy who I don't know, and here I am, my head's down, I'm getting dressed, putting on my sneakers. And I'm trying to concentrate because on the court I'm about to go start a fight, practically. If it was boxing, I'd be going out to fight. In basketball you're going out to play really hard. And, hey, if they say hi to me, I will say hi every time."
"Around the league," says Timberwolf media-relations manager Kent Wipf, "some have already decided that Christian's kind of a whining, arrogant individual. Although he can be arrogant and can whine, the reality is that he's a leader on this team. And he works his ass off."
Laettner's reputation as a whiner may have unpleasant consequences for him on the court—beyond the serenade he receives from the fans. "We played [the Timberwolves] a week ago," Laker TV and radio color man Stu Lantz said in December, "and there had to be three or four separate occasions when I thought |Laettner] got butchered on shots. The officials didn't even blink."
They blinked—and more—when the SuperSonics, then undefeated, visited Minnesota's Target Center the day after Thanksgiving. For the first five minutes of the game, the teams traded baskets. The Sonics were clearly batting the ball each time after they scored. The officials said nothing. "Whenever I do it. I get called for it," Laettner grieves. "When I've done it this year, the refs have always said something to me. Always. Here we're playing Seattle, it's the beginning of the game and we're trying to get in a rhythm, and Seattle's hitting the ball every time."
Since Laettner handles the ball on in-bounds plays, it was he who had to shag it. He held his tongue the first three times, but the next time it happened, Laettner, walking toward the bench after a Minnesota timeout, turned back to referee Lee Jones and asked him to warn the Sonics. Jones took exception. A second referee, the terrapinlike Joe Crawford, power-walked from the opposite end of the court to join in the Laettner-Jones chinfest, arriving just in time to hear Laettner tell Jones to shut up. Crawford immediately called a technical foul.
"After the T, Crawford's still on my case, telling me to keep my mouth shut, really baiting me, and I told him to shut up," Laettner says. "So he throws me out." Laettner, flapping his wings like a pterodactyl, had to be restrained by his teammates. "The worst part," he says, "was that all my friends and family were in town for Thanksgiving. They saw me get booted after six minutes."
But being banished to the locker room is not the only reason Laettner has drawn the ire of local fans. He admits that it might be some time before his picture gets straightened in Minneapolis sports bars as often as those of Fran Tarkenton, Harmon Killebrew and Kirby Puckett—if his picture hangs in sports bars at all. Losing, says Laettner, is the reason for a lot of the long faces around Minnesota.
"I've been losing a lot since I've been here," he says. "If we're winning, they're not going to be asking, 'Why all the turnovers? What're you doing? You're a jerk, you're selfish.' "
While there might be some truth in the everybody-loves-a-winner theory, it's a long way from universal truth. Jamal Mashburn, the marquee player of the Dallas Mavericks (8-54), is well liked at home and around the league despite his team's .129 winning percentage. And rookie Nick Van Excl is a crowd pleaser at the Great Western Forum, where the Lakers have a 13-14 record.
What has to disturb Laettner—who allots himself a generous share of the blame for the Timberwolves' dismal record—is the lack of recognition for the positive numbers he has put up. Fans can grumble about his persistent foul trouble, but when he's in there, he's producing. He leads the team in scoring (16.8) and rebounding (8.7) and is second in assists (4.4). Although he is third in the league in turnovers, he is also among the leading NBA forwards in assists. Laettner's court performance should not be in question.
But in bundled-up Minnesota, host of this year's NBA All-Star Game, about all Laettner gets is the all-stare vote. "Minneapolis has a stereotype of being a community that doesn't take in outsiders," Laettner says. "In my little neighborhood they're extremely nice. But on a larger scale I'm still being graded. You can sense it in the gym during games. Not just for me, but for every young player on our team. They don't even pull for the veterans that much here. Even though it's our home gym, it doesn't feel like it. And people wonder why we don't win at home."
Here is Laettner, then, reaching into the stomach of public perception, doing an autopsy on his own reputation. He says he is still "being tested," but there's a good chance that his grades are already in and that he has passed with flying colors: those of the skull and crossbones.
The king is dead; long live the king. On Dec. 1, the Detroit Pistons' Bill Laimbeer retired from basketball, leaving a hole where the mansion of villainy once stood. His departure ranks up there with the retirement of Jimmy Cagney from the screen and the sledgehammering of the Berlin Wall—a good fiend is hard to find. Nastiness is as much a part of sport's heritage as fair play and handicapping.
Why, otherwise, the staggering number of sports-page commentaries supporting Tonya Harding in her fight to participate in the Olympics? Could it be, with all respect to due process, that no one could bear the thought of being denied the wide-angle shot of Nancy Kerrigan doing lazy eights at one end of the ice while the Medusa-like Harding stretched her massive thighs at the other end? What kind of a country would this be without Rob Dibble, Jack Johnson, Marty McSorley, Dave Kingman and the 1972 Russian basketball team to make whole the summers, falls and winters of our collective discontent?
The very idea of freedom is based on the underdog's walloping the guy who has it all. And guess who, besides Laimbeer, with his golden-boy upbringing in well-to-do Palos Verdes, Calif., has it all? It's not altogether impossible that prep-school-educated Christian Laettner—with those killer blue eyes and those Wooden and Naismith awards, with the underside of his chin visible to all as he became the all-time leading NCAA tournament scorer, and with that passive-aggressive stare and its lazy sense of entitlement leveled on the NBA—was raised for his hide.
The grooming process began as early as the very game in which Laettner put up "the shot heard round the world." With Duke leading 73-68 midway through the second half, Laettner and Kentucky forward Aminu Timberlake collided under the basket, and Timberlake wound up sprawled on his back on the floor. Standing over him, Laettner went at Timber-lake's stomach the way a groom at a Jewish wedding goes after a wineglass. At the last second, however, Laettner let up, tapping his foot on Timberlake's midsection. Len Elmore, working the game for CBS with Verne Lundquist, suggested that Laettner's act might not have been malicious. "I don't know if he did it on purpose or not," Elmore remarked, which immediately elicited a menacing retort from his partner.
"Oh, yeah, he did," the normally sedate Lundquist countered, and Laettner began growing hooves and a tail. The schadenfreude festival had begun, and there was no limit to how far Laettner could fall from grace.
As he waited to see which NBA team would draft him, people whispered about his sexual orientation. What began as a dig at the macho jock image eventually blew up in his face. At Duke, Laettner and his roommate and teammate, Brian Davis, had defiantly professed their affection for each other. "Brian and I are supposed to be lovers," Laettner said, "so we joke around with it."
The rumors surfaced again when Davis signed with the Timberwolves as a free agent in August '93. Among male professional athletes, views on sexuality are so backward that gayness isn't even in the closet yet—it's in the walls, with the studs and bugs. What, then, could be a more effective image breaker than a snickering rumor of homosexuality?
Laettner's senior year ended with reports that he might have violated NCAA rules by entering into an agreement with GQ magazine to keep a diary of Duke's march to the national title that spring. If proof existed that Laettner had signed a contract to be paid by the magazine, "it could jeopardize all of Duke's 34 victories, including six in the tournament on the way to the Blue Devils' second straight national championship," The Washington Post reported gravely. Laettner was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing—at least by the NCAA. Later, GQ would publicly complain that Laettner didn't do his homework; he never submitted the final portion of the diary, even though GQ had cleared space for it in the magazine's November '92 issue.
"The heckling? You can't let that bother you. Listen, I heard a lot worse than haircut talk when I played," says Kevin McHale, who, as one of basketball's consummate bad boys, knows a thing or two about playing in front of hostile crowds. Currently doing TV commentary for Timberwolf games, the retired Boston Celtic might still find places in Los Angeles where he's not entirely welcome. But Laettner, he says, is getting a bad shake.
"I can only go by my relationship with Chris," says McHale, "and we've gotten along great. The whole tough-nut-to-crack business, I didn't see that." There are those who would scoff at such an assessment, considering from whose lips it comes. Nevertheless, the world according to McHale is a place where Laettner should be looking to build.
"Your court persona is usually different from real life," McHale says. "You're supposed to have a court persona. When I played, I didn't like anybody. I didn't want to deal with anybody, didn't want to say hi to anybody. I wanted to kick someone's ass, that's all. And I think that's the only thing on Laettner's mind around game time—kicking someone's ass. And that's the way it should be. That is the purity of the game."
"McHale said that?" Laettner wonders, a droll smile crossing his lips. "How's he know what I'm thinking? He's right, though. Any opposing gym we go into, I want them to hate me. At the end of the game I want to be beating their team so bad that they should hate me."
Of Laettner's alleged friction with teammates, McHale is equally skeptical. When he started doing Timberwolf broadcasts, he heard the stories about Laettner's selfishness and about his teammates' barely tolerating him. "I just haven't seen it," McHale says. "Look, the guy's one of the leaders in assists among forwards in the league. You have to like playing with him—he gets you the ball."
"He set a precedent on the team for upfront honesty," says Longley. "Of all the people I've played with, Christian is the one who expresses what he feels, or at least tries to. Diplomacy is not his forte. That's what I like about him. He'll tell you what he likes and doesn't like. And he expects the same from other people."
"Christian came with us on the plane to Cleveland," said Lowe after Laettner served his suspension for the Weinhauer fiasco. "[The players] laughed, talked, did all the normal things. They just don't go against each other very often."
Media director Wipf recalls last year's rumors of bickering among Laettner, Person and Micheal Williams. "It might've been for about a week," Wipf admits, "but when you're losing night after night, you're going to have those things. That's just not the situation now, despite the losing this year."
"I know Christian is frustrated with the losing," says Danny Ferry, a Cleveland Cavalier forward and Laettner's old Duke teammate. "This isn't the first time a player yelled at a coach, and it won't be the last. Hopefully he'll learn from this. He's a very competitive person who likes to win. That's the root of the problem."
Laettner admits he would enjoy the game more if the Timberwolves won more often. Minnesota ranks a dismal fourth in the NBA in turnovers and 23rd in both rebounding and scoring. Still, with a 16-45 record as of Sunday, the Wolves figure to surpass last year's 19-63, a stat that puts McHale into a lather.
"If I was on a team that was 19 and 63 and everyone got along," he says, "I'd be mad that they got along! I mean, hell, you're losing. This is your job. I'm sure Christian is frustrated by losing. On top of all that. Christian is about playing hard. That's the essence of this game—not the high-fiving, guys helping opponents up from the floor. A guy goes down? During that 48 minutes he's your enemy. That's the way I approached it."
And according to Mark Aguirre, the Vasco da Gama of the NBA, who played for three teams before sailing off into the sunset in January, Laettner's fortunes will turn "once the league and everybody realize that he's not the gorgeous, flashy type of player they think he is, and they realize he's just a tough, likes-to-play-nasty, gets-into-it-mentally, gets-into-it-emotionally guy. And he's his own man. Christian doesn't have to take anything from anybody anywhere. And kick it—I like him anyway. Excellent player."
When the list of his atrocities is tolled, Laettner could be held most accountable for two high crimes against the Realm of Sports. The first is draft dodging: If Laettner was indeed conscripted as the next Bill Laimbeer, the man everyone loves to hate, he has virtually tied to Canada. It doesn't take a doctorate in behavioral psychology to see that Laettner has rejected the Prince of Darkness image the public longs for him to embrace.
"Keep your mouth shut, don't pay any attention to the fans, you're above that—I've never bought into that idea," Laettner reflects. "That [bad image] stuff bothers me as much as it would bother anyone else. The people who know me think the image is unfair. I don't think it's fair, either, but I realize why it happens."
Try explaining it to Bonnie Laettner. Christian's second grand offense is having a mother only a son could love. To describe her as a loose cannon would be an extreme understatement. Here is a woman who seems to have harnessed all of the hostility felt over the ages by every Little League parent toward every umpire who ever called a child out at the plate. In defense of her boy, Mama Laettner is unrelenting. Her home in suburban Buffalo is a repository for anything in print that is remotely negative about her son. (Operatives send her out-of-town papers.) According to Bonnie, Christian "shudders when he sees me talking to anyone in the media, but I just can't live with the horrible things they say about him."
Given the chance, she will give you a mind-bending dissertation on reverse racism, envy of African-Americans ("Christian wishes he were black," she says), acceptable criteria for male bonding, or ESPN's "Christian Laettner negative-sound-bite conspiracy." Any such conspiracy is unnecessary, however, given that Bonnie goes on record with remarks like "When you name a child Christian, you're always afraid he might end up in jail." She spent one recent morning phoning writers around the country. "Why," she asked rhetorically, "wasn't Isaiah Rider disciplined for missing practice? Christian got fined for the same offense."
"That just shows you how stupid mothers can be," Christian says, shaking his head reproachfully. "I've told her a dozen times, 'Ma, you don't know how things work inside of a team. Keep out of it. Ma, don't talk to the media, it just backfires.' The other day she said, if you just say hello to the media people, everything would be just fine." I'm like, 'Mom, if they're that shallow, then there's no hope.' But she loves me. She's just doing what any mother who loves her son would do."
Laettner's split-level home just north of Minneapolis is a luxurious flophouse. When his buddies stomp toward the game room, tiny puffs of winter dust rise from the carpet; the top of the big-screen TV couldn't pass the white-glove test in the dark. Still, if you like to kick back, you're in the right place—as long as you keep your eyes off the shark tank.
A friend teases Laettner about the marks and gouges covering the Ping-Pong table. "Hey, man, those marks aren't mine," Laettner swears, holding his hand against his heart. "My brother and his friend did that. It wasn't me. I know, 'cause I had a problem with that when I was a kid. So I don't do it anymore...though I think it's 'cause this is my table."
Sliding open the glass door to the backyard, Laettner coaxes his dog, Chief, inside. A mixture of husky and blue heeler. Chief could double for the timberwolf howling at the stars on the cover of Minnesota's media guide.
Snuggled up against the northern cold with his girl, his friends and his dog, Laettner ruminates over his fate. Does it get any better than this?
"Well. I think I'm done maturing physically and mentally," he says. "I'm not going to change from this point on." Words such as these are ambrosia to Laettner bashers. But the hankering to slap Laimbeer's face mask onto him is muted when Laettner continues. "Awhile ago I realized that the greatest joy I get in life is when I wake up in the morning. The only thing I ask the person I pray to is that I live for that day. It sounds simple, but it's very hard. My goal was to play in the NBA. I'm doing it now, at a young age.
"If I live, then everything's going my way. That means I can do what I like to do, which is play basketball, play golf, goof around a little bit. We went outside last night, went snowmobiling. It was really bright, almost a full moon—beautiful. If I stay alive, I'll see my little sister and, yeah, my mother, too. I'll have a chance at marrying and having kids. And that's really it. Sure, there are little things—course, everything's little, comparatively."
Laettner cradles Chief's snout in his hands, rubs noses with him, then searches the dog's eyes. "Too bad you can't interview Chief," he says. "If he could talk, he'd have a ton of stories to tell."
And the shark?
"Nah," he says, again without a trace of irony, "he's too busy being a shark."