Sunday books: Epic Duke-Kentucky game covered from all angles; author Q/A

I was watching the Duke-Kentucky game this week when I heard Dick Vitale bring up “The Game.” Sure enough, there was Christian Laettner sitting in the stands being interviewed about his legendary game-winning shot to beat Kentucky in 1992.

Earlier this year, my old friend Gene Wojciechowski came out with a terrific new book: The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 seconds that changed college basketball.

Watching this week’s game reminded me that Gene’s book is a must-read if you love college basketball. At the very least, it definitely should be on someone’s holiday gift list.

Gene covers that game in 1992 from every conceivable angle, getting a myriad of perspectives. He also examines all the central characters in that game, from Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino to Christian Laettner and a Kentucky team that had been decimated by recruiting violations just a few years earlier.

I did a Q/A with Gene, asking why that game, which wasn’t even a Final Four game, still resonates with fans 20 years later.

People say this is the best college basketball game ever, and yet it didn’t occur in a Final Four. What lofts this game to that status?

Because it was Kentucky vs. Duke, Pitino vs. Krzyzewski, the soon-to-be-called Unforgettables vs. the virtually unbeatables of Duke. Because the game was played at an incredibly high level from start to finish. Because it went to overtime. Because you need a calculator to add all the great shots down the stretch and during OT. Because a Final Four was at stake. Because Kentucky was back from the near-dead and Duke was going for dynasty status. There were characters and there was character. I just saw Mike Krzyzewski a few weeks ago at Duke and the first thing he wanted to talk about was that game. Twenty years later—that game.

Obviously, this book is much more than about that game. What did you find intriguing about how those programs were built?

Kentucky was at the brink of the death penalty, of irrelevance–which is hard to believe for hoops fans who were too young to remember just how bad it got for that program. Pitino, who would have never come to Kentucky had he known something about the job he was leaving as NY Knicks coach (it’s explained in the book), restored UK basketball to greatness by using the “Hoosiers” movie formula: break the players down, build them up and then find a great player. Jamal Mashburn was the great player. But Pitino was merciless. He almost had no choice. He didn’t have enough talent, so he drove them to the edge with conditioning drills and his particular brand of offense.

Meanwhile, Krzyzewski, who grew up in Chicago and went to Weber High, was hired after a nine-win season at Army. That would never happen today. A nine-win coach getting a major college job? Laughable. But Duke AD Tom Butters did it and then stuck by Krzyzewski three years later when boosters wanted him fired. He had a breakthrough recruiting class shortly thereafter and slowly but surely built his program into elite status. But as late as 1991, there were questions if he could win a national title. He won it in ’91 and then another won in ’92. But he had to get through Kentucky to have a chance for the repeat.

Also, you realize just how much luck goes into building a program. Pitino lucked out getting Mashburn to leave New York City for Kentucky, a school Mash couldn’t locate on a map. Krzyzewski lucked out getting Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. At one point, all three college superstars thought they were going to play at North Carolina for Dean Smith.

The early portions of the book discuss Coach K’s connections to Chicago and then to Bob Knight. How did those aspects influence his career?

Krzyzewski’s is the son of immigrants who came to Chicago looking for a better life. Corny, but true. He went to Catholic schools and at one point wanted to be a priest. Later, he wanted to play basketball in the Big Ten. But no Big Ten school was interested. Nobody was interested–except Knight, the youngest coach in major college basketball at the time. Krzyzewski had no interest in West Point until his parents basically shamed him into accepting the appointment. That would begin a life-long relationship that included coach, mentor, opposing coach, friend and then, for nine years, non-friend, and then friend again. It is a complicated relationship. And at times, it was an unhealthy relationship. But there’s no doubt that Knight profoundly impacted Krzyzewski’s life and career–and, I think, the other way around, too. Through osmosis, Krzyzewski has many of Knight’s best qualities–and very few of his worst. But that relationship–and its twists and turns–is a central theme of the book.

Besides Coach K and Pitino, the most interesting character in the book is Mr. Laettner. What made him the perfect guy to be the hero?

Laettner is a hero and a villain at the same time. He is clearly one of the greatest college hoops players of all time. But he was despised by opponents and often, by his own teammates. He imposed his will on those Duke teams and he didn’t care if he was beloved. He loved his teammates, his school, his coach, etc. But he could be ruthless and calculating, if he thought it necessary. He isn’t a hero in the classic sense. He’s almost an anti-hero. But he was definitely the star of the game and of this book. He had movie-star looks, attended a prestigious Buffalo prep school, but actually came from a very humble backround and had to work his way through high school. I covered him at Duke when I was with the LA Times and enjoyed talking to him then, and now. UK fans still don’t find him enjoyable. Even 20 years later, the mere mention of his name to Wildcat fans sends their blood pressure to astronomical levels.

Northwestern and Duke have much in common: Academics, size, etc. Can it ever happen at Northwestern in basketball, as it did for Duke?

Doubtful. You need an administration willing to be patient. You need to get lucky with recruiting. You need something of a hoops legacy. Northwestern is a great institution, but the era, the patience level, the recruiting are much different today than they were when Krzyzewski was building Duke basketball. I’d love to see it happen at Northwestern, but you have to remember that Krzyzewski has been at Duke since 1981. In many ways, he IS Duke basketball now. There’s nobody at Northwestern with that sort of identity. Plus, Duke actually had basketball pedigree before Krzyzewski arrived. Not so at Northwestern.

Forget about the Dallas Cowboys. Is Duke truly as close to an America’s Team in sports?

Duke and Kentucky are sort of America’s team. If you made a Mt. Rushmore of college basketball, it would feature Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky. UCLA used to be on there, but no more. Those programs are regional and yet national too. But if you’re asking which one of those four is America’s Team, then, sure, Duke would be it, based on Krzyzewski’s longevity, all those national championship banners under his watch, that wonderful Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Crazies. . . everything.

One last point from Gene.

The book, of course, is centered around how Kentucky and Duke came to meet that amazing night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. But after Duke beat Kentucky, it had to beat two Big Ten teams to claim that second consecutive national title: Bob Knight’s Indiana team, and then Michigan and the Fab Five. The win against IU marked the beginning of the cold war between Knight and Krzyzewski, and the win against The Fab Five put an exclamation point on a very heated and, at times, racially charged rivalry.