Commentary

Respect but not fear

Originally Published: January 10, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski

Christian LaettnerAP Photo/Charles ArbogastChristian Laettner and the Duke Blue Devils had to deliver their best game, and needed overtime, to eliminate Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA East Regional final.

In an excerpt from "The Last Great Game," Gene Wojciechowski sets the game-day scene on March 28, 1992, for the NCAA East Regional at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pa. Nobody thought much of Kentucky's chances to upset mighty Duke -- the Beatles of college basketball. And then the game began.

Three men in black business suits walked solemnly into The Palestra as the Wildcats began what was supposed to be a closed practice. This was odd. Coach Rick Pitino didn't normally allow strangers into practices, especially a practice the day before a regional final against the defending national champions.

The players sneaked quick glances at the three men, each of whom carried a small case and looked as if he were a government agent called to the historic University of Pennsylvania basketball gym to serve extradition papers. Pitino was called over. A few moments later, practice was halted and the players ordered to assemble in front of the suits.

It was time to get measured for Final Four rings.

If there was any doubt in the Wildcats' minds that they were going to beat No. 1 Duke, it vanished at that moment. The players beamed as the fitters sized their ring fingers, and when practice resumed it was as if the UK players had each chugged a half gallon of adrenaline. The practice, held at the same gym where the first-ever NCAA East Regional had been played 53 years earlier, was as crisp as a Marine march formation. "Every player on that team could have performed heart surgery," says Kentucky assistant coach Ray Oliver.

The UK game plan was simple: Keep it close. Pitino was convinced that if the Wildcats could stay in Duke's rearview mirror during the first half, settle in, and realize that the Blue Devils weren't invincible, they'd eventually go on a run or two in the second half and win the game. In broad strokes, it was the same game plan Duke had a year earlier against UNLV.

Duke had played at least a half dozen close games during the regular season, winning four, but it hadn't faced a team like Pitino's Wildcats. The Kentucky coach thought the frenetic tempo, the 3-pointers, the press (which Pitino figured to release at about the 10-minute mark of the second half ), and maybe, just maybe, the pressure of the moment might be too much for Duke to overcome. And with all due respect to Grant Hill and Christian Laettner, Pitino thought UK would have the most talented player on the floor -- Jamal Mashburn.

Pitino also liked having only one day between games. It meant that the Big Blue Nation, as well as the media that covered the program, would have less contact with his team. Even though Duke's assistants had probably been breaking down UK film for close to a week (as Kentucky coaches had been analyzing Blue Devil film for Kentucky's detailed scouting report), there were more moving parts in Kentucky's system. It was a system played well by very few teams. It would be difficult for Duke's reserves to simulate in their practices.

There was one more UK advantage: human nature. How could the Blue Devils look at the Kentucky roster and not think Duke had a huge talent edge? "If you watch [us] on tape and you start going through your personnel, you realize that Kentucky is not the Who's Who in basketball, except for Mashburn," says Pitino.

That disparity in talent (and, human nature or not, there was a disparity) is another reason Pitino wanted to stick the UK press in his back pocket until the second half. If he used it early in the game when Duke's players were fresh, and the Blue Devils poked holes in it and scored easy baskets, it would give Duke confidence and deflate the Wildcats. Then Pitino's team would have some serious problems.

Kentucky was a 7.5-point underdog, and nobody outside the commonwealth (and hardly anybody inside of it) thought the spread was unreasonable. If anything, it seemed on the low side. The question wasn't if Duke would beat Kentucky, but by how much?

CBS executive producer Ted Shaker certainly wasn't expecting an upset. He assigned veteran play-by-play man Verne Lundquist, analyst Len Elmore, and sideline reporter Lesley Visser to the Thursday/Saturday regional in Philadelphia. Elmore, a former Maryland star and NBA first- round pick, had made the unusual transition from player to Brooklyn prosecutor to private law practitioner to basketball TV analyst. Lundquist was a pro's pro. His call of Jack Nicklaus's birdie putt on the 71st hole of the Golden Bear's improbable 1986 Masters win ("Maybe … yes, sir!") was the stuff of sports broadcasting legend.

The network's number one announcing team of Jim Nantz and Billy Packer was sent to the Friday/Sunday Southeast Regional in Lexington. The Southeast was loaded with ratings magnets and five-star back stories. (Smith and North Carolina … the Fab Five and Michigan … Player of the Year candidate Jim Jackson and Ohio State … the triumphant return of Eddie Sutton and Sean Sutton to Lexington, this time as Oklahoma State coach and point guard, respectively.) Plus, the Southeast Regional final came in the Sunday late-afternoon/early-evening time slot, which fed into the ratings monster "60 Minutes."

Not that Lundquist was complaining about the assignment. A year earlier, he and Elmore had done the first two rounds of the NCAAs, only to fail to make the CBS cut for the remainder of the tournament. Instead, they were sent to cover the Division II title game in Springfield, Massachusetts. Such was the meritocracy of CBS executive producer Ted Shaker.

Lundquist was happy to have been assigned a regional semi and final, but he didn't think he had been parachuted into hoops heaven. Sure, having Duke in the regional helped. And in a perfect world, it would be nice if Kentucky could somehow avoid a blowout against the Blue Devils. On name power alone, the game would attract viewers. Keeping the viewers would be another challenge, especially if Duke turned the game into a rout. "It was a nice site," says Lundquist, "but I didn't think it would be anything special."

The "Herald-Leader's" Jerry Tipton gave Kentucky a puncher's chance against Duke. "Because of the 3-pointers," he says. "I didn't expect them to win, but I thought it could be more competitive." Longtime "Courier-Journal" sportswriter Rick Bozich felt the same way and said so in a column, suggesting that the Wildcats were capable of an upset. Visser called Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly, a former Duke assistant on Vic Bubas's staff in the mid-to-late 1960s, and asked for an assessment. Daly raved about Pitino and Krzyzewski and then said, "This is going to be a much closer game than people think."

But the consensus? "All these doubters in America -- nobody gave us a chance to win this game," says Kentucky's Dale Brown.

Ralph Willard, his Western Kentucky team recently eliminated in the NIT, made his way to Philadelphia, where he shared a hotel suite with the Pitinos. In search of divine intervention, Willard and Pitino jogged from the hotel to a place where the patron saint of underdogs resided: the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Up the 72 steps they ran, not stopping until they reached the top, where they raised their arms in triumph, just as Sylvester Stallone had done in the movie. "People were looking at us like we were crazy," says Willard.

Not crazy, just desperate. Kentucky was Rocky Balboa. Duke was Apollo Creed.

At a Friday afternoon media session, Richie Farmer was asked about facing the Blue Devils. He was reminded that his Wildcat career had begun four seasons earlier with a 25-point loss to Duke. Now it could end the same way.

"I want to tell everybody," Farmer said, "we have a lot of respect for Duke. But we don't fear them."

Farmer slept well that night, but Woods couldn't quit thinking about the Blue Devils, about how close the Wildcats were to a Final Four. As his roommate, Brown, sawed logs, Woods tossed and turned in bed. Then he channel-surfed. Then he tossed and turned again. In less than 15 hours he was going to start at point guard against the No. 1 team in the country.

Early the next afternoon, Kentucky SID Chris Cameron pulled his rental car into the Spectrum parking lot. The Duke team bus was there, too, surrounded by barricades and screaming girls. It was the Beatles at Shea Stadium.

The Wildcats' arrival at the arena was met with yawns. Thought Cameron: No one gives us a chance. But you know what? We're still Kentucky.

And Kentucky's players believed. On the bus ride over from the team hotel, someone asked Deron Feldhaus how he felt about the game. The reserved Feldhaus didn't hesitate. "We can do this," he said.

The Wildcats were confident and also angry. Before they boarded the bus, they had heard one of the TV studio analysts say that Kentucky would be crazy to even consider pressing Duke, that Bobby Hurley would cut through it like a finger through cake frosting. The comment was committed to memory.

As the Wildcats changed into their game uniforms, a familiar face entered the locker room. Pitino had invited former UK president Dr. David Roselle to the game as his guest. Roselle had been a casualty of Kentucky politics, forced out at UK by a new governor who made it clear that the university's future funding would be jeopardized if Roselle stayed. Still, Pitino knew that without Roselle he wouldn't have been at Kentucky. And without Pitino, Kentucky wouldn't have been at the Spectrum that day.

Roselle made the hour-long drive north to Philly from the University of Delaware campus, but did so with mixed feelings. He had hired Pitino and he knew most of the coaching staff and players, but he was also a Duke man of sorts, having earned his Ph. D. in mathematics there in 1965.

As he shook hands with the Wildcat players, Roselle reminded Pitino of the school conflict.

"If you cheer for Duke, you'll never get another ticket from me," said Pitino, smiling. Sort of.

C. M. Newton and Tom Butters, the rival athletic directors, were sitting next to each other at a courtside table. In fact, Butters had brought Newton to Philadelphia on a private plane supplied by a Duke booster.

Just before tip-off, Butters turned to Newton. "Good luck," he said.

"Good luck to you," said Newton.

There was a pause. "Hell," said Butters, "neither one of us means it."

Sitting courtside on press row was Cawood Ledford, whose UK broadcast career would continue as long as the Wildcats kept winning. After 39 years as the "Voice of the Wildcats," the classy Ledford was retiring at tournament's end, whenever that might be. Joining him as usual on the broadcast was Ralph Hacker.

Maybe Ledford knew something. His pregame intro wasn't just optimistic; it was prescient.

Ledford: Duke is attempting to go to the Final Four for the fifth straight time. Duke is favored tonight, but the Cats will make a game of it -- and you can count on that.

Reprinted from "The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball" by Gene Wojciechowski, with permission from Blue Rider Press, a member of the Penguin Group (USA). Copyright 2012 by Gene Wojciechowski

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter