Commentary

How can you be that confident?

Originally Published: January 10, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski

Christian LaettnerJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesChristian Laettner was a highly ranked national recruit. The purity and style of ACC basketball made Virginia, Duke and North Carolina the only schools he visited.

In an excerpt from The Last Great Game, Gene Wojciechowski tells the story of how Christian Laettner became a Blue Devil. And why he was unlike any recruit Mike Krzyzewski and his family had ever met in their lives.

Bonnie Laettner wanted Christian to attend high school at the Nichols School, a tony and pricey prep academy founded in 1892 and located in north Buffalo. With its stately redbrick buildings, its vast manicured lawn, its clock steeple and gated entrances, Nichols's campus was impressive. So was the tuition for the area's most exclusive prep school. Bonnie and George Laettner didn't have that kind of money.

They were a blue-collar family that valued every nickel earned or saved. In the summers -- and with the wink-wink blessings of the people who manned the ticket booths at the main gate -- the Laettner children would run through a thick, grassy area called Mosquito Field and sneak through a back entrance of the Grandview Drive-In. That's where they'd meet up with Bonnie and George, who had just avoided buying four tickets. Anything to save a few precious dollars.

It wasn't uncommon for the Laettner boys to work as field laborers on a nearby farm. Fill a bushel with about 30 pounds of green beans, get 50 cents. Fill it with about 48 pounds of cucumbers, get 50 cents. It was long, backbreaking work, but that was the only way Laettner could supplement his meager weekly allowance.

Laettner's entrance exam scores were OK, but not high enough to guarantee him acceptance at Nichols's Upper School (its high school). However, given his mid-August birth date, which would make him one of the younger students in an incoming freshman class, Nichols administrators offered to let him repeat eighth grade at their middle school and then, if all went well, enroll at the high school the following year. So Laettner transferred to Nichols and became an eighth-grader again.

Laettner loved eighth grade at Nichols. It took him 40 minutes and three different rides to get him there, but for the first time in his life he enjoyed reading books, a fact not lost on his mother, the teacher. So Bonnie and George enrolled him in the Nichols Upper School, took a big gulp, and arranged for a monthly payment coupon book. They would scrape together the minimum and pay the remainder over time. Laettner received a financial aid package that helped pay part of the tuition, but in return he had to spend parts of his summers at Nichols doing janitorial work at the school: washing floors, painting, installing carpet, mowing the grass. He was, in all probability, the poorest student at the school and almost certainly the only one whose parents ordered his clothes from the Sears catalog, which was the one place they could find pants that fit his growing frame.

He was a basketball player with promise by then. He was 6'7" as a freshman and earned a starting position on the varsity team. On the first play of his first game at Nichols, he got elbowed in the nose. Laettner didn't flinch. In his dad's pickup games, the men from the "News'" printing press room would bang and bump Laettner on the low post, testing him with a hard foul or an elbow to the ribs or jaw. Laettner never backed down.

Midway through his freshman season he received his first recruiting letter -- from St. Bonaventure University, located about 90 minutes from Angola. He was thrilled. But it would be only the beginning of the letters. After attending Howard Garfinkel's Five-Star basketball camp -- the must-see skills camp on the college recruiting tours -- Laettner found his name on the mailing lists of dozens of Division I programs.

During his sophomore season, now 6'9" and 210 pounds, Laettner began to establish himself as a national recruit. Anybody who thought of him as just a white stiff from a prep school in Buffalo knew better after they saw him play.

He was clearly the best player on the Nichols team, but he often made sure to involve his teammates in the scoring. After a game in which he had 14 points, 14 rebounds, and 14 assists, his father asked him why he hadn't scored more.

"Well," explained Laettner, "they have to be good, too."

As Laettner's skills and reputation grew -- Nichols won state titles in 1985 and 1986 and reached the state semifinals in 1987 -- so did the recruiting efforts. The excitement over a letter from St. Bonaventure was a distant memory. Now nearly every major program in the country wrote him: Indiana, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, Kentucky, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Duke, among others. One time the phone rang and Chris answered the call.

"Hi," said the voice, "this is Robert Knight from Indiana University."

Chris laughed and hung up the phone. He thought it was a neighbor playing a practical joke. It wasn't.

The phone rang again. This time George answered.

"Sorry, Coach Knight, that was my idiot son."

A phone ban was later instituted: No coaches were allowed to call the Laettner home. Instead, Jim Kramer, the Nichols coach, would become the clearinghouse for such calls. Eventually Laettner whittled his short list to 11 candidates.

Bonnie, who had never heard of Duke until Laettner first mentioned it to her, wanted him to sign with Notre Dame. So did Chris, who went on a trip with his brother to the South Bend campus. The Irish were playing No. 1 North Carolina that day. Digger Phelps's team upset the Tar Heels as the two Laettners watched from seats directly behind the ND bench. Afterward, an awestruck Chris told his brother, "Christian, you've got to go to Notre Dame."

But Laettner, despite his mother's wishes and the family's Catholic background, wasn't interested in playing for the Fighting Irish. And as much as he respected Knight, he wasn't interested in the Hoosiers, either. The reason was simple: Laettner considered himself a basketball purist, and the finest, most elegant form of college hoops, he decided, was played in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). He would make official visits to only three campuses: Virginia, Carolina, and Duke.

Laettner attended Five-Star camp for three years beginning in 1985. He found himself spellbound by the basketball teachings of such visiting hoops dignitaries as Knight, the legendary Hubie Brown (who had coached at the first Five-Star camp in 1966), and future NBA coaching fixture Brendan Malone.

There was one other coach who made a lasting impression on Laettner. He was young, intense, and absolutely committed to his basketball beliefs. He would play against campers in one-on-one games and won regularly. His lectures and demonstrations on ball-handling technique, on offensive theory, on the fundamentals of passing, dribbling, and shooting captivated Laettner. Laettner practiced and perfected those teachings until they became second nature. And he never forgot the young coach's name.

Rick Pitino.

In the spring of 1986 he began paying close attention to the Final Four, and he saw a Duke team that featured Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Tommy Amaker, David Henderson, and Danny Ferry. Laettner liked the vibe of that team. When he watched them on TV he was struck by their body language (upbeat), their up-and-coming coach (Krzyzewski), their uniforms (Laettner loved blue and white), their status (Cinderellas), their style of play (intense), even their shoes (Adidas). Duke would lose to Louisville in the championship game, but Laettner started following the Blue Devils and the ACC on a regular basis. ACC teams -- at least, the ones coached by Krzyzewski at Duke, Smith at North Carolina, and Terry Holland at Virginia -- played the way he had been taught at Five-Star. Indiana won the national title in 1987, his junior year at Nichols, but Laettner didn't care for the Big Ten style of play. Nor was he a fan of the Big East's emphasis on physical play. Laettner wasn't afraid to mix it up, but he wasn't built like Alonzo Mourning, considered the number one high school prospect at the time. His game relied less on power and more on nuance.

Krzyzewski had first seen Laettner as a Nichols junior, when he attended the pregame warm-ups of the state tournament at Glens Falls, New York. Duke was preparing for its own NCAA Tournament game, so Krzyzewski had to be back in Durham that night. He was at the Civic Center for less than 15 minutes, but he was instantly impressed with Laettner's athleticism. Krzyzewski watched Laettner handle the ball during warm-up drills; he was fluid, not mechanical like some big men whose coordination had yet to catch up with their height. And his eyes-- my god, thought Krzyzewski, the kid looked like he was counting the nanoseconds until tip- off. Krzyzewski wanted players who craved the moment, whose own basketball egos wouldn't suffer from stage fright. Laettner, he decided quickly, wouldn't have that problem.

He also watched to see how Laettner interacted with his coach, his teammates, the game officials. Was he respectful of authority? Did he work within the framework of a team? Did he look like he loved the game? Laettner passed each test.

Even before he took his official recruiting visits, Laettner had decided on Duke. Those visits came in late October and early November. First was Virginia. It was very nice, but it wasn't Duke. North Carolina (his mom's favorite of the three) was next, and suddenly Laettner found himself wavering on the Blue Devils. The campus, the program, the coach, the school, and the vibe were all outstanding. Laettner wasn't sure how Duke could top his Carolina experience.

He later returned to Tobacco Road and Duke. It was a football weekend, so the Duke players, assistants, and recruits met at Krzyzewski's house to eat lunch and watch games. Laettner's arrival did not go unnoticed by Mickie Krzyzewski and her oldest daughter, Debbie, who was a junior in high school.

"Coldly beautiful," says Mickie. "No girls had any interest in what he had to say." Translation: They were too busy staring.

Krzyzewski was interested in what his family thought about his team and the recruits. After all, his wife and his three daughters were around the program so much-- at games, at team functions, on the team bus on occasion -- that they sometimes noticed things that Krzyzewski didn't. Through osmosis they had come to learn basketball from their husband and father, and through them he had come to learn something about Duke's players.

Laettner was unlike any recruit who had ever stepped into their home. "Dad, he's really cute," said Debbie. "He's incredibly confident. How can you be that confident?"

Laettner's personality reminded Mickie of a certain West Point cadet she had met years earlier in Chicago, the one who had told her she was his third choice for a Bears football date.

"I thought he was blatantly honest the way Mike had been blatantly honest back in the day -- before he gained some social graces," Mickie says. "I was intrigued by what came out of [Laettner's] mouth. 'Did the kid really say that?' Then I realized he wasn't being sarcastic or mean, but he was just blatant in what he said. He never tried to be charming. He never tried to flatter a person or charm a person. He just always was him."

The last visit to Duke convinced Laettner he had found his basketball home. He liked everything about Smith and Carolina, but he loved the idea of helping the Blue Devils make history. Krzyzewski and Duke had never won an NCAA national championship; Smith and North Carolina had.

"I didn't want to go to the already established team," he says. "I wanted to go to the team that was looking like they were heading there, but just needed a little more help. I didn't know that I would be that help, but I knew I wanted to be part of the process."

On the November 1987 night he made his decision, Laettner stayed at his coach's house and called Holland, Smith, and Krzyzewski each with the news. He wanted to make the calls himself, rather than have his father or Kramer deliver the decision. Then he called his mother. She burst into tears.

"Why are you crying?" said Laettner, baffled by his mother's reaction. This was supposed to be one of the best moments of his life -- he was going to Duke on a full scholarship. Duke! -- and his mother was inconsolable.

"Because I love Dean Smith," she whimpered.

Laettner's 7-year-old sister, Katherine, also cried when she heard the news. Her frustration wasn't with Laettner's choice of school but with the coach's name. She could spell Smith and Holland, but not Krzyzewski.

The family would meet Krzyzewski in early December. He had been to Buffalo and the Nichols gym before, but never to Angola and the Laettner house.

Krzyzewski's visit was part White House State Dinner, part "Seinfeld" episode, and part Salute to Poland. Though George Laettner's last name was German, his family was Polish. His grandparents had spoken and argued in Polish. George had attended a Polish- American school.

The dinner theme would be pure Polska: fresh Polish sausage, just-baked Polish rye bread, horseradish and butter, smoked sausage, handmade pierogies. Laettner's sister Leanne had made cabbage rolls the night before, but George deemed them too salty. They were tossed outside, where the raccoons gobbled them up.

George left work early that afternoon to pick up Krzyzewski at the airport. They drove the 30 miles back to Angola, where Krzyzewski was greeted by Bonnie and Leanne. The Laettners couldn't afford a proper dining room table, so Bonnie covered a Ping-Pong table with a tablecloth. A trouble light, like the kind used by auto mechanics while working under the hood of a car or by plumbers under a sink, hung from the ceiling. Krzyzewski saw it, smiled, and said, "Oh, a Polish chandelier."

Bonnie had warned Krzyzewski that a fellow teacher at her elementary school might stop by the house. "She's a big fan," said Bonnie.

The big fan was a 50- year-old gym teacher with a Polish last name and, as it turned out, a few drinks in her. She pawed at Krzyzewski as if he were a dancer at Chippendales. So attentive was the woman that the Laettners were worried that she'd try to kiss Krzyzewski. Fortunately for the coach, he had to leave to watch Laettner's game at Nichols.

Reprinted from THE LAST GREAT GAME: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball By Gene Wojceichowski with permission from Blue Rider Press, a member of The Penguin Group (USA). Copyright 2012 by Gene Wojceichowski

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter