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.
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.
"That's just part of the game," Laettner said. "There was nothing vengeful in it. I had to put my foot down because I needed some balance. I didn't step hard. They (the Kentucky players) realized that. They didn't think it was a dirty play." - by Joe Juliano, Philadelphia Inquirer, "Duke's Magician Saved his Best for the Finish," March 29, 1992.
"In Christian's case, we have a technical foul, a contact technical," Krzyzewski said. "He wasn't thrown out of the game. If he was in a fighting situation where he punched somebody, anything like that, he would be suspended and should be. In this particular situation, if you really watched the whole thing, Christian shouldn't have done that, but it was like the kid laughed at him because it was just a little tap and he should have gotten a technical and that's it." - Philadelphia Inquirer, "The NCAA Isn't Likely to Suspend Laettner, Committee Member Says," March 30, 1992.
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:
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,
"In front of several million witnesses, and replay, Laettner planted one sneak midway between the stomach and the chest of a Kentucky player who had fouled him and who was prone on the floor. He did it on purpose, not to stomp in a rib cage, but in petulance. It was a pouty, adolescent act, gratuitous, designed not to injure but to intimidate and to instigate. He turned his back and walked away, and it reminded you of the snotty little playground provocateur in grade school who would push from behind and then run inside." - by Bill Lyon, Philadelphia Inquirer, "A Perfect Case Against Duke," April 3, 1992.
Duke teammate Cherokee Parks commented on the play and Laettner for the article,
"It's so Laettner. He's supposed to be like this all-America, this glamour boy, Mr. GQ. If you know Laettner, it's such a Laettner move to do something like that." - by Bill Lyon, Philadelphia Inquirer, "A Perfect Case Against Duke," April 3, 1992.
Six years after the game, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski commented during a rebroadcast of the game what he told Laettner immediately after the incident.
"After the technical on Laettner, he came back to the bench and I said to him, 'That was very stupid of you. You are not a stupid player, get back in there and forget about it.'" - Classic Sports Network, 1998.
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.
"You wonder what would happen if Duke were LSU and Christian Laettner were Shaquille O'Neal...Laettner received a technical, but that was it. Connecticut's Rod Sellers was forced to sit out a first-round NCAA Tournament game this season after an altercation with Laettner last season. Back then, Sellers pounded Laettner's head against the floor, but the officials missed the call. Laettner is white. Sellers is black." - by Terence Moore, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "Some Things in Sports Just Make You Wonder," April 21, 1992.
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.
With approximately 9:45 left in the second half, Jamal Mashburn hit a 6-foot turnaround shot to put the Cats within 5 points 70-65. Waiting for the rebound was Laettner with Deron Feldhaus directly behind him. As the shot went up, Duke's Brian Davis came up behind Feldhaus and pushed him in the back. Feldhaus took the push from Davis and added to the momentum to give Laettner a pretty nasty forearm to the back which left Laettner sprawled on the endline. No fouls were called. By the time Laettner looked up, all he saw was Timberlake coming up to guard the inbounds pass after the made shot. (Timberlake seems to have shouted "Get up and go" to the All-American.) Fast forwarding a few plays (G. Hill drive and foul by Timberlake, Sean Woods miss, Thomas Hill three-point play, Dale Brown three-point shot) and you get to the infamous play. Laettner received the ball near the block and drove to the basket. Timberlake slid down too late and hooked Laettner with his hip. The foul was called. Laettner landed, took two steps backward, lifted his right leg, hesitated, then planted his foot squarely on Timberlake's chest as Aminu was lying on the ground. This all happened well after the ball was whistled dead. Laettner stepped on Timberlake because he thought Aminu was the one who pushed him previously when it was really Feldhaus (and actually initiated by his buddy Davis) who hit him.
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.
"If I wanted to break his ribs, I would have," Laettner said this week. "I shouldn't have done what I did .. . . [but] he was submarining me. Fact is, he pushed me into the [basket stanchion] and the ref didn't call anything. But I should have gotten him in a better way." - by Ken Delinger, Washington Post, "A Shot that Shaped Things to Come," March 22, 1998.
And later for the ESPN Classic "Battle Lines" remembrance of the game, Laettner said:
"I thought he had pushed me on the other end of the court. It was just a stupid reaction-type thing. And sure I wanted to stomp a lot harder but I knew that would be really, really dumb." - Christian Laettner
"I wanted to let him know that I wasn't going to take any crap. And there's nothing wrong with adding a little spice to the game." - Christian Laettner
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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