BEHIND THE INTERVIEWS: LAETTNERJune 10th, 2012
The fourth in a series that will appear from time to time about the backdrop to the player interviews that took place for the writing of Dream Team.
It was a cold, rainy and altogether miserable morning, and I was shivering in a golf cart. “Here,” said Christian Laettner, “I have an umbrella.” The Christian Laettner I knew—or rather sort of knew—wasn’t an I-have-an-umbrella-for-you kind of guy. He was a why-the-hell-didn’t-you-bring-your-own-umbrella? kind of guy.
But at the age of 42 (41 when we talked) he is trying to be a better person, tired of carrying around the baggage of being one of a number of preppie paradigms, Spoiled Dukie being at the top of the list. Trouble is, Laettner did have a helluva head start in the other direction.
It was in Monte Carlo, where the Dream Team was practicing before going to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics, that I first approached Christian. He was, famously, the lone college player on the squad, having been added as a concession to the old system. And as I emphasize in Dream Team, I absolutely believe that he deserved to be there. The collegians should’ve had one player, and Laettner, not Shaquille O’Neal, should’ve been that guy for the body of work he had shown over four years in Durham.
To that point, we had never met. I had been busy covering the NBA, and Laettner had been busy winning two national championships for Duke and turning himself into an immortal collegiate player. I introduced myself and tried to make small talk. I’m not going to pretend I remember exactly what he said but basically he looked at me like I was dirt under his fingernails. The conversation was over quickly because I really didn’t need Laettner in the same way that I needed, say, Michael Jordan.
The Dream Team experience went on for another few weeks, but that’s the last time I tried to talk to him. And my brief interaction with the Magic Christian confirmed what many of my journalist counterparts thought of him back then. Which was: In a planetary universe of NBA immortals, the lone college kid is the only revolving ass clown.
I concede that a small part of that was our fault. The journalism pack was comprised mostly of NBA writers who knew the superstars and who enjoyed (mostly) good relationships with them. It was—trust me—the Golden Age not just of basketball; it was the Golden Age of Common Schmucks Like Myself Getting Along with the Gods. Maybe Laettner sensed that he wasn’t one of “our guys,” sensed our resistance to him. (Remember that I said “small part.”)
In the years since the Dream Team, I had had almost no contact with Laettner either, since his NBA career coincided with my being away from the beat. So my request for an interview for Dream Team was essentially an introduction. I wasn’t going to tell him, “Hey, I was one of the dudes you blew off in ’92. That was a pretty long list so you probably don’t remember.” Over several phone calls and texts Laettner was friendly and seemed willing to set something up in North Carolina, his home. (I always like to interview guys on their own turf and never on the phone; the phone sucks for interviews.) But circumstances kept getting in the way and I was running out of time, so I agreed to meet him at a charity golf event in New Jersey sponsored by Bob Hurley Sr., the father of Laettner’s Duke teammate, Bobby Hurley. The day dawned cold and rainy and I worried that they would call off the event, which was an annual fund-raiser for St. Anthony, the Jersey City school that Hurley has turned into a perennial national power.
In my typical interview M.O., I arrived spectacularly ahead of schedule and texted Laettner several times from the course to tell him that I would hang around even if the event was cancelled, and that he should hurry up and get here so we could talk before his tee-off, and that the interview was going to take some time, blah, blah, blah, etc. etc. etc.
But, sure enough, as I had figured, he drifted in only a half-hour before the start and needed to cram some buffet eggs into his system, so we got very little chance to talk. “I’m going out on the course with you,” I announced and commandeered an extra cart so I could ride with Laettner.
Between the short pre-round talk and my time on the course, I was able to ask most of the questions I wanted to ask, though Laettner wasn’t exactly, say, Charles Barkley in the forthcoming department. What I wanted to get across to Laettner was that, though he sometimes acted like an ass, I understood years later how difficult it must’ve been for him. He was the twelfth man of twelfth men, the scrub of scrubs, the guy sent by Barkley to get a deck of cards during the Dream Team camp in San Diego. And as far as the fan base went, millions couldn’t understand why there was a college kid on the team and a million others understood but thought it should be Shaquille.
“I know how tough a position you were in, Christian, and it wasn’t always easy for you,” I asked him. “How did you deal with it?”
Laettner wasn’t playing. “It wasn’t that hard,” he insisted. “Sure, I had to use my head and realize what it was. Even though I was one of the best players in college at that time, it’s pretty obvious that it’s different walking into the room where you’re with the best players at the next level. “But I’m smart enough and a good enough kid to realize that I’m at the bottom of the pecking order. Keep your mouth shut. Watch. Learn. Pick up the bags, pick up the balls. It was fun and easy. That’s how I describe it.”
Well, it didn’t always look that easy. “You weren’t—how should I say it?—the most pleasant guy to talk to back then,” I tell him. “But I’ll also concede I didn’t know you.”
“I don’t know what it looked like outside, but it was okay within the team,” said Laettner. “People only see the cocky, arrogant Christian Laettner. [I resisted the impulse to interject, “You mean the one who refers to himself in the third person?”] But that’s only me when I get up to that level. Once you’re up there you have to be cocky and arrogant. But if I’m not at that upper-echelon level I’m just a good kid with a good personality who knows his place. And my place was very low on the totem pole because Michael and Magic and Larry Bird are all on the team. It was an easy transition. I’m very good at that role. I don’t mind that role.”
I have no reason not to believe that, within the tight architecture of the team, Laettner consistently played the supporting role of compliant collegian. None of the other 11 Dream Teamers ever told me anything different and several of them acknowledged how hard it was for him. (On the other hand, Jordan wasn’t shy about describing Laettner’s oncourt deficiencies. It’s in Dream Team.)
I wanted to know from Laettner which of the immortals treated him nicely and which weren’t so good to him. “I figured Jordan must’ve given you enormous loads of shit because of the Carolina-Duke connection, right?” I asked.
“Michael was pretty cool, actually,” he said. “Later on, he started giving me shit. But it wasn’t bad.” “Who else?” I asked. I could tell I was going to have to pull it out of him. “They were all cool,” said Laettner. “Some more than others maybe. I hung out with Stockton and his family. Drexler was really good to me. [In a separate interview, Clyde told me that his wife and Laettner’s mother became really good friends in Barcelona.] Chris Mullin was really, really good to me. Barkley was good to me. I had a few long talks with Bird. Pippen was cool. Ewing and Robinson, too.
“I played one-on-one with them. I played the most with Mullie but I played with almost every one of them for at least five minutes.” Laettner’s not a big smiler but he flashed a wide one with this thought. “When I played with Mullie, we played all perimeter, twenty feet out.” (Laettner was not the first Dream Teamer to positively beam at the memory of one-on-one games. In Dream Team I talk about a memorable one-on-one matchup against Bird that was conjured up by Mullin.)
You can draw your own conclusions about whom Laettner left out.
We’re out on the course by now, and I’m wetter than a rat in a dinghy, and Laettner brings me the umbrella and begins talking about how much he’d like to get into coaching. The rain is steady, play is slow and there is time to talk, though I do worry that my tape recorder is rusting as we speak. We discuss his business problems only briefly; I knew that the story was ongoing and wouldn’t nearly be resolved by the time I had to complete Dream Team. It’s what you call “an ongoing story.”
“In my fifth year in the league I thought, ‘Man, this ridiculously easy money is going to stop sometime,’” Laettner says. “I want to create something that will enable me not to drastically change my style of living when I’m 40. And Brian [Duke teammate and business partner Brian Davis] and I were able to create something wonderful right next to Duke, piggyback off the legacy we had there.”
What they created was Blue Devil Ventures, a commercial real estate venture in Durham that was met with much acclaim. Mike Krzyzewski (still flying high) and Sen. John Edwards (then flying high) were among the attendees at the ground-breaking ceremonies in 1999, which was the seventh of Laettner’s 13 injury-riddled NBA seasons. Early successes, like turning abandoned downtown tobacco warehouses into affordable housing, were eventually trumped by overexpansion, economic downturn, squabbles and eventual breakup with another initial investor (Tom Niemann) and Lord knows what else. A March, 2012 Wall Street Journal article (on.wsj.com/ObtcgL) reported that Laettner and Davis owe as much as $30 million from investors such as Pippen, Duke immortal Johnny Dawkins and Buffalo Bills linebacker Shane Merriman. Stay tuned, but it’s never good news for an ex-player seeking an NBA coaching job, as Laettner is, to appear more often in the Wall Street Journal than in hoopshype.
“With the way the economy has been the last three or four years, any money we made had to go back into the project to keep it afloat,” Laettner told me. “If the economy wasn’t so bad, I’d be able to pay back Shawn Merriman and these other people. And I will do it.” Since we spoke, though, his financial burden has grown worse.
I ask Laettner if he’s working harder right now than he once expected to; he is, after all, a college legend and better-than-average pro who made millions. “Well, yes, I wish I wasn’t working this hard,” he admitted. “Our business has been a success for 13, 14 years now. But now it’s, ‘Hey, Christian, you gotta pay me back.’ Some have been patient, some not.” (Funny, but it’s worked that way for me over the years, too: You gotta pay people back.)
Laettner grew most animated when I asked him about how miserable he used to treat Hurley, when the point guard was a freshman. Grant Hill had told me about it—“Man, Christian just used to kill Bobby,” Hill said—and it was detailed more completely in Gene Wojciechowski’s The Last Great Game. Laettner paused in the middle of lining up a shot and seemed to forget that it was raining and a group behind was waiting to hit. (He’s a damn good golfer, by the way, a long, smooth swing, controlled temperament, good course-management instincts.)
“It wasn’t about killing Bobby,” says Laettner. “It was about, when I was a freshman, I was okay with that whole freshman thing. You know, ‘Wait your turn, your day will come.’ That’s what Coach K told me and that’s what I did. “But when Bobby shows up, on the first day, Coach K says, ‘Here’s the ball, Bobby, run our team.’ Bobby never earned anything. So I had to make him earn it.”
(I’m tempted to riff on the extent to which celebrated athletes fixate on seemingly small things that happened years ago. Except that I remember how my failure to lash out at the trash-talking bonehead from Millville (N.J.) who got under my skin during a jayvee basketball game in 1964 still weighs on me. So it happens to non-celebrated athletes, too.)
We shake hands and I leave Laettner on the tenth hole, wet but still plugging along, wishing him well both in his crusade to find an NBA coaching job (he was not successful with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA’s Development League, but no one else has been either) and the more serious task of fixing his financial life. As I write in Dream Team, I hope I treated him fairly. He told me to keep the umbrella but I returned it. It was a nice gesture.