Circle of Infamy: Christian Laettner


coi logo

POS: 

PF/C

HT:

6-11

WT:

235

College:

Duke
Drafted with the 3rd overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft
Traded to Atlanta with Sean Rooks on February 23, 1996 in exchange for Andrew Lang and Spud Webb
MinnesotaTimberwolves Statistics
Seasons Games PPG RPG APG FG % FT % 3 PT %
4 276 17.2 8.1 3.2 47.4% 81.4% 23.5%
Career Statistics
Seasons Games PPG RPG APG FG % FT % 3 PT %
13 868 12.8 6.7 2.6 48.0% 82.0% 26.1%

Christian Laettner (courtesy nba.com)

 

 

Christian Laettner (courtesy nba.com)

I think he’ll eventually have the credentials to back up everything he thinks of himself. — Jack McCloskey

Setting the stage

The 1991-1992 edition of the Minnesota Timberwolves remains  the worst team in the franchise’s two-decade history.  And that’s saying a lot.  The 91-92 season (the franchise’s third-ever) represented the second philosophy in the team’s history, as Bill Musselman was shown the door after two seasons for failing to focus on the development of young players.  Jimmy Rodgers, former coach of the Boston Celtics, was brought in to helm the club and develop the young players on the team, including Pooh Richardson, Doug West, Felton Spencer, Gerald Glass, and first-round draft pick Luc Longley.

Rodgers did focus more on the young players, trading Tyrone Corbin early in the season and shuffling Tony Campbell (the team’s leading scorer the first two years) to the bench midway through the season in favor of Glass.  Felton Spencer took over as the starting center for Randy Breuer.

The result of such a change in focus was a disaster in many ways.  The Wolves stumbled to a 15-67 record, fully six games worse than any other team in the league.  And they discovered that much of their young talent wasn’t as good as they previously imagined.  Point guard Richardson continued to plateau after a strong rookie campaign in 1989-90.  Glass proved to be a world-class head case.  Spencer and Longley showed they were little more than functional role players, not the impact players expected from high lottery picks.  If not for the blossoming of swingman West into a solid NBA starter, the new approach taken in 1991-92 would have been considered a complete washout from an on-the-court perspective.  But hope was rising from a different perspective.  College basketball was abuzz with what was supposed to be shaping up to be a historically strong draft class, led by LSU center Shaquille O’Neal, Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, and Duke power forward Christian Laettner.  The Wolves also presumably bolstered their front office by hiring former Detroit Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey to run the team’s basketball operations.

The ping-pong balls fall

The 1992 NBA Draft Lottery was perhaps the most critical moment in the young franchise’s history, and it became emblematic of the team’s bad luck in the lottery and the lack of success on the court.  When the envelopes were opened, though, Wolves fans were disappointed.  Orlando (who had the second-worst record) and Charlotte (sixth-worst record) both leapfrogged the Wolves to claim the #1 and #2 picks, respectively.

On draft night, O’Neal went to Orlando followed by Mourning to Charlotte.  The Wolves went with Laettner, the consensus #3 pick.  It’s easy to forget now just how accomplished of a player that Laettner was at Duke.  Few players in the history of college basketball can claim the sort of record that Laettner racked up in his four years with the Blue Devils.

  • Two-time national champion, four Final Four appearances
  • Most outstanding player, 1991 Final Four
  • National Player of the Year, 1992
  • First team All-America, 1992
  • All-time leading scorer, NCAA basketball tournament
  • Second team All-America, 1991
  • Member of the 1992 Gold Medal winning “Dream Team”

Not to mention the fact that Laettner and the Blue Devils handled O’Neal’s LSU Tigers with relative ease during the 1991-92 college season.  The drop from O’Neal to Laettner wasn’t supposed to be extreme.  Most folks saw Laettner as emerging into an All-Star caliber talent.

Yeah, he sometimes can be stubborn. But he has a heart somewhere…I think. – Chuck Person

Perception becomes reality

Despite his achievements, Laettner came into the league with something of a battered reputation.  It was the Laettner-era Duke teams that established the Blue Devils as perhaps the most hated team in college basketball.  Laettner’s pretty-boy looks (he was named one of Peoplemagazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 1992) were frequently derided, and he was the subject of frequent speculation about his sexual orientation and a potential relationship with teammate Brian Davis.  Laettner’s infamous stomping incident with Kentucky forward Aminu Timberlake also fed the hatred that many felt towards him.  The notion of Laettner as an arrogant whiner — some of it deserved — was cast in stone.  In a league where an aging Bill Laimbeer was on the way out, Laettner was poised to be in as the new villain — if only his play would live up to the hype.

Laettner’s on-the-court play as a rookie was widely lauded.  The rookie forward rolled up 18.2 points and 8.7 rebounds a game, landing on the All-Rookie first team behind Mourning (21 ppg and 10.3 rpg) and O’Neal (23.4 ppg and 13.9 rpg). While Laettner’s statistics were impressive, the Wolves didn’t see the comparable results in the win column.  The Wolves staggered to a 19-win total, despite the addition of veteran sharpshooter Chuck Person before the season.  Rodgers was jettisoned 29 games into the season, replaced by Sidney Lowe.  Laettner’s rookie season was relatively quiet from a personality perspective.  He was considered somewhat aloof and was sometimes hard on teammates, but nothing out of the ordinary.  Inside, though, Laettner was having difficulty accepting the losing in Minnesota and what he considered the less-than-determined attitude of some of his teammates.  Additionally, it was evident to many long-time observers of the league that Laettner’s college reputation and prickly personality were not appreciated by NBA referees, who routinely held their whistles when Laettner was being hacked in the low post.  The seeds of Laettner’s eventual downfall were being sown.

Meanwhile, Mourning’s Hornets made their first playoff appearance, losing in the second round and O’Neal’s Magic improved their win total by 20 games and narrowly missed the playoffs.

The wheels started to come off during Laettner’s sophomore campaign.  McCloskey added mercurial guard Isaiah Rider with the fifth pick in the 1993 NBA Draft, and traded Felton Spencer to the Utah Jazz for Mike Brown.  But the wins didn’t come, and Laettner’s temper started to get the better of him.  Laettner exploded on assistant coach Bob Weinhauer during a February practice, unleashing a profanity-filled tirade that earned him a one-game suspension.  Lowe was dismissed following the 20-62 season, while the Magic and Hornets combined for 91 victories.  While Laettner was demonstrating toughness on-the-court that many didn’t expect him to display, his lack of athleticism was holding him back from becoming an elite player.

Former Washington assistant Bill Blair was hired to take the reins of the team for the 1994-95 season, and the offseason acquisitions included draft pick Donyell Marshall and center Sean Rooks.  Starting point guard Micheal Williams missed the entire season with a foot injury, and the Wolves lagged again, stumbling to a 21-61 record.  Frustration boiled over for Laettner, who unleashed his most famous tirade after an early season defeat.

Loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, loser, winner (pointing to himself) – Laettner

When the time comes, that may well be the appropriate quote to end up on Laettner’s tombstone.  Laettner’s arrogance wasn’t supported by his solid (but not star-level) play on the court.  McCloskey was replaced by Kevin McHale at the end of the season, and McHale made the bold stroke of drafting high school phenom Kevin Garnett.

The entrance of Garnett, plus the success of McCloskey acquistion Tom Gugliotta signaled the end of Laettner’s place as a key cog in the Timberwolves future.  McHale signed veterans Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter to help mentor Garnett (and to limit the influence of Laettner), and midway through the 1995-96 season, Laettner was shipped to Atlanta with Rooks in exchange for the expiring contracts of Andrew Lang and Spud Webb.  What began with a bang ended with a whimper.

Journeyman

The high point of Laettner’s career came the following year, as he made his only All-Star game appearance as a member of the Hawks.  The next season, though, he would lose his place in the starting lineup to Alan Henderson.  Laettner moved on to the Pistons for the 1998-99, season but missed almost the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon.  From there, Laettner bounced to Washington and Miami before retiring at the end of the 2004-05 season.

Since retiring from the NBA, Laettner started (with Davis) an investment company called Blue Devil Ventures, which built real estate and for a time owned a minority share of MLS’s D.C. United club.  In 2006, Laettner and Davis were close to deal to purchase the Memphis Grizzlies, but the deal ultimately fell through.

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