Misconception

Christian Laettner's "stomp" of the Kentucky player was just a love tap. He didn't deserve any punishment for this. Laettner wouldn't do anything bad because he's such a good young man. Besides, the Kentucky punk deserved it.


The Facts

During the 1992 East Regional Final in Philadelphia, Number 1 seeded, defending champion and tournament favorite Duke University played Kentucky. Although UK was a number 2 seed, they were thoroughly outmanned and thought to not be a problem for the mighty Blue Devils. What happened instead, was a marvelously played and memorable game which ESPN designated the number one college basketball game of all-time. During the second half of the game, Christian Laettner, the player of the year and sole collegiate member of the US Olympic team, took his foot and stepped on freshman Aminu Timberlake after a dead ball. A technical foul was called on Laettner. Later, Laettner won the game in overtime with a last second shot.

When asked about the incident after the game, Laettner first tried to come up with the excuse that he was simply trying to find his balance. A claim which is completely ludicrous to anyone who witnessed the replay. Beyond that, Laettner and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski even tried to use the fact that Kentucky players reacted to the situation with class and discretion to downplay the potential seriousness of the action.

Laettner later changed his story to one which he probably actually believed (although it too is incorrect) and said "It wasn't vicious at all. I didn't even hit him hard. It was a case where, a few plays before, he pushed me down and I got up and smiled at him and he just smiled back. I could have stepped on him real hard, but I didn't want to. I knew that would cause some problems." - by Jack Wilkinson, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 31, 1992.

Here is a Youtube video with Laettner essentially saying the same thing:

Rebuttal

The Laettner incident was special because it exposed Christian Laettner for the kind of player he really is and not the one that CBS and other media outlets tried to make him out to be. The Laettner I saw was an excellent college player with a chip on his shoulder. He enjoyed intimidating and humiliating opponents and was not above handing out cheap shots whenever he thought no one was looking. He constantly complained for calls from the referees and usually received them. The Christian Laettner CBS and others tried to present to the national audience was one of the All-American boy and great white hope who could outsmart his competition (Shaquille O'Neal in particular) and beat his competition at their own game. Any sign of mean-spirited play was simply attributed to him being such a great competitor. The problem being that although Laettner was a great college player, he actually wasn't particularly nice or smart. The Kentucky game may have been Laettner's most perfect game from the field but from the fans perspective, it may have been the turning point in his popularity.

A sportswriter noticed this and wrote a few days after the game,

Duke teammate Cherokee Parks commented on the play and Laettner for the article,

Six years after the game, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski commented during a rebroadcast of the game what he told Laettner immediately after the incident.


In response to the play, and the apparent contrast in reaction to it by the governing bodies, Big East and University of Connecticut officials voiced their displeasure with the NCAA's decision to not penalize Laettner for the blatant play when they had previously stepped in and penalized Rod Sellers the year before. Terence Moore, a black columnist, wrote after the incident, openly questioning the treatment Laettner received by the NCAA.

Dick Schultz, NCAA executive director defended the decision by the NCAA, saying that those who were trying to turn the episode into a race issue were "misguided." (Tony Barnhart, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, April 3, 1992.)

JPS Note - I don't believe that the two incidents should have even been compared, as the act by Sellers was malicious while the act by Laettner was merely stupid. However, it does bring to light the inordinate amount of attention that Laettner benefitted from the national media during his collegiate career and the attempts to place him in a good light. (As an example, after false rumors were being spread that Laettner was homosexual, the Raleigh News and Observer went to the unprecedented trouble to write a full-page story entitled "Laettner has girlfriend." I don't think they even attempted to explain how this was newsworthy.) Compared to the press accorded black All-Americans, the media attention appears very one-sided (witness GQ).


As far as the stomp, I have yet to see a good explanation of what happened and why. I'll give it a shot.


Six years later, Laettner was still repeating his version of events. (Immediately after the game, a handful of reporters took Laettner's version of events to heart, chief among them Bill Walton and John Feinstein.) Apparently no reporter has the investigative desire to actually check facts since that time and inform Laettner that he is mistaken.

And later for the ESPN Classic "Battle Lines" remembrance of the game, Laettner said:

JPS Note - Timberlake played a total of five minutes in the game so it is a trivial exercise to go back and view the action between Christian and Aminu on videotape. Timberlake entered the game with approximately 11:30 remaining in regulation when Gimel Martinez fouled out. The fact is that they didn't have much physical contact at all during the contest. Defenses changed often for both teams during that span. When Kentucky zoned, Laettner moved out to the three point area. When Kentucky went man-to-man, Deron Feldhaus picked up Laettner. Likewise, Laettner didn't have to guard Timberlake except for one series of man-to-man and even then, there was nothing out of the ordinary in terms of physical contact. (Timberlake was also in the game for the final two minutes of the first half. The only contact which occurred between the two then was when Laettner inexplicably came out and hacked Timberlake near the three-point line. Timberlake received two foul shots.) It is easy to see why Laettner mistakenly thought that it was Timberlake who pushed him into the basket support, but the statement that Timberlake was "submarining" him is a total fabrication.


Of course to stomp on somebody like that, especially when the play was dead and in an important game was stupid. Laettner could have been thrown out of the game, not because the "stomp" was particularly harmful to Timberlake but because it was completely premeditated and showed bad sportsmanship. The point that Krzyzewski and countless other Duke fans ignore when they use the "contact technical" defense is that the act by Laettner most certainly could have been considered an effort to instigate a fight. In that case, it is definitely within the power of the referee to eject the player. Contact technicals IMO generally should be called during the course of the play when physical contact should be expected. Incidents which occur when the ball is dead and very little if any contact is expected deserve more scrutiny as the intention of the act often tends to fall more into taunting, intimidation, instigation of fights etc and is more premeditated than the more reactionary technical fouls which occur while play is in progress.

Imagining that the roles were reversed and a little used reserve such as Timberlake stepping on the the All-American during the regional final, I truly believe that the referees would have seen this as an attempt to instigate a fight and would have tossed the player. The irony is that the upper-classmen (Laettner, Feldhaus, Davis) were the ones doing the fighting and Timberlake, a freshman mind you, was the only one showing any class.

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