If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of NCAA basketball, and specifically the Duke Blue Devils. I was a fan back in 1991 and 1992 when they won their back-to-back NCAA Championships, through the lean years of bottom-dwelling in the ACC when Coach Krzyzewski had his back surgery, through to the Championship in 2001, and to today. In 2001, I actually went to the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, and got to see Duke play their first and second round games on their way to the 2001 National Championship.
Back in 1992, Duke played what is generally considered to be the greatest college basketball game in history, and if you’re not familiar with it, you’ll need to know it as background for this story, so allow me to recap what happened. In the East Regional Final, with the winner going to the Final Four, the #1 seed Duke was playing the #2 seed Kentucky. The game was awesome, and appropriately, it went into overtime, where the teams kept trading the lead going into the final minute. With Duke leading 102-101 and the final seconds ticking away, Kentucky scored on a layup to take the lead 103-102 with only 2.1 seconds left on the clock. Duke called a time out and set up their play. They were going to have to go the entire length of the court and score to win the game, which is virtually impossible with only 2.1 seconds left. The only real option is to throw a long inbound pass nearly the entire length of the court, which would have to be right on the money, and THEN still score. So it was looking bleak. Keep in mind that Duke was the defending NCAA champion, and had a 34-2 record, and it all boiled down to this play. If they don’t score, they’re out.
Duke came out of the timeout and set up the play. Christian Laettner was obviously going to get the ball, he was the top player in college basketball, and in this game he was an astounding 9-for-9 from the field and 10-for-10 from the free throw line. He hadn’t missed a single shot…I still can barely believe that when I say it. He set up on the foul line, guarded on each side by Kentucky’s 2 biggest players. Grant Hill, who was a rookie at the time, was at the other end of the court as the inbounder. When the referee handed him the ball, he threw a perfect pass over 80 feet into the double team and directly into Laettner’s hands, who turned, dribbled once and put the shot up as the buzzer sounded…and it went in! I get goosebumps just talking about it.
Here’s a clip of the end of the game, sorry about the poor quality, but it’s the best that is available. It was 17 years ago, after all.
So, now that you know all of that, let’s fast forward to 2007. Duke was a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament and they were scheduled to play Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in a first round game to be played in Buffalo, NY. I took the day off of work and headed to Buffalo alone because there was no way I was going to miss a Duke game when they were playing so close, especially in the NCAA Tournament. So I went down for the day and bought a single ticket off of a scalper and went in for the games. Duke vs VCU was the second game of the session, and it was a fantastic game, a back-and-forth battle between the #5 and #12 seeds, and the crowd could sense an upset. Everyone loves an upset if you have no affiliation to either team.
Heading into the final seconds, VCU had the ball and their hot hand was Erick Maynor, who had been hitting big shots for the entire game. He dribbled in and put up a shot that went in and gave VCU the lead with only 1.8 seconds left. Duke called a time out.
So, as Duke is in the time out, I say to the guy beside me (who I had been chatting with throughout the game), “Oh my God, this is the Laettner play. This exactly the same!” And then, you could hear the murmurs in the crowd as everybody realized the same thing…it was very surreal watching and hearing it without being able to explain what exactly was happening. Then, as if the scoreboard operator knew what we all knew, the giant screen above the court showed a picture of Christian Laettner…who was in the seats a few rows behind the Duke bench. Are you kidding me? He’s here? He’s just a few sections away from me?! The crowd went nuts since he’s from Angola, just outside of Buffalo.
Well, as much as I’d love to tell you that Duke made a spectacular play to win the game in the same fashion, unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and their last-second attempt missed, eliminating them from the NCAA Tournament in the first round. But the second that final buzzer sounded, I took off like a bullet out of my section and raced towards the section behind the Duke bench. I got there as people were filing out of the stands, and I tried to make my way down the stairs towards the bench. With everyone heading out, and me heading down, it was like a salmon fighting against the current to swim upstream, but I eventually found my way down to his row, which had emptied except for him. He was standing there talking to J.J. Redick’s parents, and he had his back to me about 8 seats into the row.
I walked into the row and up behind him just as he was finishing up his conversation. He turned around just as I got to him, and was slightly startled to see someone there, naturally. I said to him, “I know it’s not the greatest moment right now with the team losing, but I saw you here and had to come over and say hello. I don’t need an autograph or a picture, but I really enjoyed watching you play, and you’re essentially the reason I’m a Duke fan. I just wanted to shake your hand and say thanks.” He looked kind of stunned at first, and then smiled and said, “Oh man, that’s so cool. Everybody always wants something!” And then he gave me the half-handshake, half-hug, and said, “Thanks for coming over to tell me that, I really appreciate it.”
Laugh at me if you must, but I was like a giddy little kid, it was great moment. I head off on a solo day trip, and get to meet one of my favourite players of all-time, and a huge reason why I’m a Duke fan. I hardly even cared that Duke lost the game.
That’s a pretty good day if you ask me.