It has been 21 years since it happened, so I think I can finally talk about it.
I have yet to go a month of March without seeing the replay over and over again.
What did I do to deserve this cruel and unusual punishment?
I know I’m not the only person that feels this way. Kentucky basketball has a big following. I doubt Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley or Laettner could step foot in the state of Kentucky without having personal security by their side.
I describe the days before and after the tournament that changed my view of sports.
I was eleven years old.
My father was born and raised in Kentucky. He moved to Indiana when he was a teenager and met my mother soon after. I was raised on Kentucky basketball and the Chicago Cubs.
I know what you’re thinking, I’m a Cubs fan and I made it until the age of eleven before they made me cry?
Kentucky basketball was on probation for giving money to recruits on coach Eddie Sutton’s watch. Rick Pitino was hired as a young coach with promise. The probation they were on was so strict that they actually banned they from appearing on television for a season. I remember listening to games on radio.
A rare thing happened while Kentucky was on probation, they got better. Pitino’s recruiting ability is a large part of their success.
Since I couldn’t watch Kentucky on television, I started to become a fan of certain college basketball players. I think this was the point in which I became fan of the game without the blinders a team’s fan views the game.
Since I lived in the Midwest, I caught a lot of Big Ten games. The national games often had Indiana, UNLV and Duke playing in them. My favorite players were Larry Johnson and Christian Laettner. I even got a Duke crewneck sweater for Christmas in 1991.
Before the 1992 NCAA Tournament, I remember filling out my very first bracket. It wasn’t as popular as it is today, mostly because finding a pool wasn’t as accessible as it is today (the internet was still a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes back then). I filled it my bracket and felt confident I was going to win my 5th grade pool. Even though Kentucky was in the same region as Duke, I had the Blue Devils winning it all. My heart said pick Kentucky, but my love of Hershey’s Kisses (the prize for winning the bracket) trumped that feeling.
Don’t get me wrong, I did not want Duke to win. Every fan hits a point in a bracket when your favorite team faces the tournament favorite. Just because I picked Duke, it was the last thing I wanted to happen.
The first round was pretty uneventful. DePaul, Oklahoma and Arizona were the lone upsets. I especially remember missing Arizona on my bracket. I knew Chris Mills and Sean Rooks were good players, so that was my first taste of getting stung by a Cinderella.
After the first two rounds, a Kentucky/Duke game was becoming inevitable. Kentucky only had to beat Jim Caliperi’s UMass team and Duke had to stop Terry Dehere if they wanted to move past Seton Hall.
Kentucky and Duke both handled their teams and my blood pressure was higher than any elementary school kid’s should be.
The day of the game, I was quite anxious. I remember organizing my baseball cards all day. I was transitioning from a set organization (year/brand) to organizing them by team. It was a lofty task, since I had thousands of baseball cards to sort through.
Right before tip-off, I grabbed a pillow and blanket and I placed right in front of our Zenith floor model television in the living room. I sat there the entire game. I was screaming so loud that my mother threatened to turn off the game.
The game was intense and the lead went back and forth. Jamal Mashburn, Sean Woods and John Pelphrey were having good games for Kentucky. Unfortunately, they could not stop Christian Laettner.
The game was tied at the end of regulation. I was emotionally numb going into overtime. That quickly changed as the overtime ticked away. When Jamal Mashburn fouled out in the last minute of overtime, my hopes of Kentucky winning were cut in half. Soon after that, Sean Woods hit a runner over Laettner leaving 2.1 seconds on the clock.
I was ready to put my C+C Music Factory cassette in and do a celebration dance.
I wasn’t astute enough to think any team could go the entire length of the court and score in 2.1 seconds. This was before the days of YouTube and Sportscenter wasn’t on 24/7 like it is today.
Everyone in the arena and those watching at home, knew they would try to get Laettner the ball. He was a perfect 9 for 9 from the field and 10 for 10 from the free throw line at that point.
Gimel Martinez and Mashburn were both fouled out. In a perfect world, they would have been the #1 and #2 option Kentucky would choose to guard Laettner in this situation. Deron Feldhaus, a 6’7 senior, would have the task of guarding him.
The teams set up for the play quickly out of the timeout. As soon as I saw the referee hand the ball to Grant Hill, I screamed, “No one is standing in front of him!” I was eleven years old and I knew enough about guarding an inbounds pass to be worried.
Hill’s pass was perfect and hit Laettner at the free throw line. He dribbled once, turned around and drained the shot.
Duke players were running around and the camera panned to a shot of Thomas Hill crying ugly.
Laettner’s shot felt like a bad nightmare until they showed the replay. Soon after that, I felt a stream of tears go down my face. I was shocked because I never thought a basketball game would make me cry. Hell, it still stings every time I watch a replay.
A friend asked me how I feel when I watch Laettner’s shot today. I described it the best I know how.
“Watching the replay of Laettner’s shot is like watching your ex-girlfriend bang your best friend…while being kicked in the nuts.”
I didn’t feel that kind of pain until the “Bartman Incident” happened a decade later. I can watch a replay of that and it doesn’t spark much of a reponse. The Laettner shot conditioned me to take such events quite well.
Christian Laettner went on to be a part of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. I might have been the only person in the U.S. hoping the team would fail.
My hatred of Laettner has faded over the years. It rises in March, due to CBS airing Laettner’s shot over and over again.
If I ever met him, I would probably tell him that eleven-year old Bobby wants to let him know that he sucks.
Thanks to YouTube, I’m emailed the replay every March by my friends.
By the way, I won my 5th grade NCAA tournament bracket challenge. The bag of Hershey’s Kisses was not worth the thousands of times I’ve had to watch the Laettner replay.