In 'I Hate Christian Laettner,' ESPN Explores The Belly Of The Beast
I was in the house watching by myself when Duke played Kentucky in the Elite Eight in the 1992 NCAA basketball tournament. I was home from college for what must have been spring break, and for whatever reason, my parents were out. I was in the deepest part of the Duke basketball fandom that had taken off in my family when my sister started there a few years earlier. ("Why didn't you root for your own teams?" you ask. "I went to a midwestern liberal arts school," I reply. "My sister. Went. To DUKE.")
I kneeled on the carpet in the living room watching the TV, the better to pound on the floor when I was upset and leap into the air when anything good happened. The game had plenty of both.
That game ends with this play, which happened with 2.1 seconds left, with Duke (in white with blue, rather than blue with white, uniforms) down by one point.
They call it "The Shot." Now in my opinion, they should call it "The Pass," because The Shot, by Christian Laettner, is a turnaround jump shot from the top of the key that, sure, is a cool shot, and it's clutch, and it's hilarious that he puts it on the floor like LA LA NO HURRY — which I still remember from 1992 because I think I got my first gray hair from it. But it's a shot I've seen a million times from different guys. The pass from Grant Hill (whose number, 33, found its way into things like my old AIM handle), on the other hand, is a one-handed hurl from one end of the court that ends up exactly where it needs to be, right where Laettner — who's 6'11" — has to jump up to get it, which makes it hard to contest for the guys who are guarding him. (They decided to put two guys on him instead of guarding the inbounds pass, which: oh, Kentucky.) All he has to do is turn and shoot. (She said, like a person watching on television.)
There was a time when I had watched the end of this game — on VHS — so many times that I could describe the sequence of shots. Not basketball shots; camera shots. Thomas Hill with his hands on the back of his head saying "Oh my God, oh my God," Tommy Amaker with his fists raised, Brian Davis and Bobby Hurley falling on the ground. I remember running down the steps to the basement and then back up to the living room, doing nothing except burning off energy. I don't remember calling my sister, but I must have, because I would have.
On Sunday, ESPN's fabulous 30 For 30 documentary series is premiering the film I Hate Christian Laettner, which documents a phenomenon I was largely unaware of at that time — or at least I was unaware of its vehemence and the way it wasn't like other sports feelings: people hated that kid, and they hated Duke. They still hate him, and they probably hate Duke even more now. But I didn't really think about it. There were no meetings where Duke fans gathered to decide to be imperialists or came up with a joint attitude to share with the world. I learned how to love this particular team with my little family — mom and dad and sister. Even still, when people tell me how disappointed they are that this is my team, it feels bizarre to me; how can anyone actually hold this against me, that I learned to root for the team where the sister I idolized went to college? How is that possible?
The great thing about sports, of course, is that Christian Laettner doesn't have to care. He went to four consecutive Final Fours and he won two national championships. You don't like him? So what? Sports is a binary in this way: in a basketball game, one team wins and the other team loses, and no matter how hard anyone argues for moral victories or blames the officials or makes excuses, losing is losing and it is terrible. Winning is winning and it rules. I know this as a fan, of course, because two years earlier in 1990, I had watched Duke take a 30-point pants-down spanking from UNLV in the national championship game. Watching a team you love lose, and especially watching it have an orderly, slow-motion collapse like an imploded building, is the worst. Oh, it is the worst.
I Hate Christian Laettner — and there are those on both sides who will not want to hear this — is not a 75-minute parade of people saying that they hate him, or gleefully high-fiving each other over the fact that he's an arrogant jerk who gave people plenty of reasons to hate his guts. Nor is it a sympathetic revisionist argument that haters are just jealous and he was targeted by a voracious and vicious sports culture that encourages people to reduce opponents to something both less and more than they are.
What it is, in fact, is an argument that he was an arrogant jerk who gave people plenty of reasons to hate his guts who was simultaneously being targeted by a voracious and vicious sports culture that encourages people to reduce opponents to something both less and more than they are. And while not all haters are jealous and not all jealous people are haters, if you don't want to be despised, going to four consecutive Final Fours doesn't help. In other words, this was a perfect storm of what came from him and what came from a lot more than just him.
Director Rory Karpf interviewed a lot of people for this film: Laettner himself; his coach Mike Krzyzewski; guys who played with him like Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, and his best friend Brian Davis; guys who played on opposing teams, like Jalen Rose and Jimmy King from Michigan and Eric Montross from UNC; Laettner's parents and siblings; and two grown men who have tried to make themselves famous by hating Duke more and better than anyone else. And when you start to unravel all of this, there is a lot going on.
Karpf is unafraid of some of the trickiest parts of Laettner's identity and Duke's, and spends a good chunk of time interrogating how the perception that Duke is all rich white kids — and that Laettner was a rich white kid — affected the way the team was perceived. This comes through sometimes straightforwardly, and sometimes with the use of words like "entitlement," which one of the professional Duke haters, Andy Bagwell (whose primary credential seems to be that he's the author of Duke Sucks), hilariously uses as one of his real reasons for hating Laettner, and then uses it next to the slightly less persuasive argument that the guy had "floppy hair." Floppy hair and entitlement! Those are ... equivalent things?
Laettner himself feels obligated to explain his background and the fact that he was not born rich: he lived in Buffalo, his mother was a teacher, his dad was a printer at the newspaper. He was on financial aid and work-study in order to go to the prep school where he played.
I do think Karpf's thinking is a little bit limited at times in its approach to the very importance of these things in the first place: it's all well and good to challenge the idea that this particular kid was rich or that his parents weren't hard-working, but on what planet would it be okay to hate an 18-year-old because his parents were rich? There are times when the fetishizing of the idea of Laettner being "blue collar," or other people being "blue collar," or proving you're "blue collar," seems just as problematic as any misapprehension that he wasn't. I mean, when 20-year-olds are playing basketball, are any of them really "blue collar"? It reminds me of the film Breaking Away, in which Dennis Christopher, playing a guy about to go to college, insists to his father that he and his buddies proudly wear the mantel of their fathers' work cutting quarry stone. "I'm proud of being a cutter," he says. "You're not a cutter," his dad clarifies. "I'm a cutter." Kids are not entitled to the benefits — social or narrative or character-based — of their parents' work ethic.*
There's a lot in here about the way being tough is mixed up with being unpleasant, some of which comes from Krzyzewski, who calls Laettner "a little bit of a rebel" right after we've seen some of his most obnoxious high-school behavior. (An awfully generous notion of what "rebellion" is.) There's a lot about the way Laettner seemed to be playing out the bullying he got from his older brother with Bobby Hurley. There are a lot of pieces of tape of mischievously eye-twinkly fortysomething former teammates who, aside from Davis, you can watch and see whether you saw what I did: guys trying to figure out how to explain that they were all young, he was a great player, they hold no grudges, but are you kidding? No, they didn't like him a whole lot.
There's some dynamite material from Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who talks about not just literal whiteness but the "variety and brand of whiteness with which Duke is associated." Dyson points out that Laettner was not just a white player, but a white player who, through some of the unapologetic attitude he adopted was "appropriating black styles of masculine projection, but onto white bodies." Now whether you think that holds water or not, that is a really interesting piece of thinking for any sports documentary, particularly one about a topic as seemingly straightforward as the hating of one of the most hated guys in basketball. And nobody's behavior here is above examination: what about the white dude who says he loved Michigan — a team of young black kids — because they fit right in with his discovery of hip-hop? That is, itself, not uncomplicated. A lot of people who hated Laettner for being a lousy sport responded with homophobia. Brian Davis recalls being called an "Uncle Tom" for playing for Duke. Also not great.
What the film is about, I think, is that the same binary that's a really useful way to think about basketball games — you win, you lose, you leave it all on the floor and for that period of time you are 1000 percent about yourself winning and someone else losing — is a terrible way to think about basketball players. It's a particularly terrible way to think about basketball players who, when they earn the loathing of opponents, are often 18 or 19 years old. (Particularly looking at old tape of Hurley, I thought, "Oh, my. That is someone's ... child.")
Speaking solely for myself, I always thought Laettner, though I was loyal to him as a player because he was ours, seemed like a jerk. In that same Kentucky game where we began — and the documentary covers this in detail — he stepped on the chest of a guy who was on the ground under the basket. The intent was to taunt, not injure, but it was dumb and petty and all it accomplished, really, was to scuff up the victory for the guys on the team and the fans. Sure, he was in college, but I get to still think he was a pill, right?
Good, because I still do. And in the light of my own adulthood, he looks even worse, to be honest. If he hadn't been on my team, I would have felt exactly the same way everybody else did. I would have considered his the most punchable face in sports, figuratively speaking. I can't be with you on that, but I don't blame you.
But what I like about the film is that it's completely comfortable with his having earned a lot of what he got, and it's completely comfortable with his not deserving some of what he got. It exists in that place where sports fans don't always do quite as well: ambiguity. There is always so much more in sports than just sports, and this film does an exceptional job of looking at the way things get very, very personal.
*Oh, man, go watch Breaking Away. That is such a good movie if you care about sports or class or humans.