Christian Laettner had a unique and dizzying career arc. After finishing as a two-time state champion for the Nichols School (Buffalo, N.Y.), he became one of the most well-known basketball players in America while still in college. Across Laettner’s four-year career at Duke he reached four Final Fours, won two national titles and authored perhaps the most indelible video memory in NCAA history with his remarkable Elite Eight turnaround game-winner against Kentucky.
All of that preceded a spot on the original Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a successful (if not gaudy) NBA career, and the fortune that comes with it.
However, unlike most successful NBA stars, Laettner’s pop culture peak clearly came in 1992, when he led Duke to a national title while establishing the Blue Devils as a much-reviled foil, then headed off to play for the first-ever professional Team USA, mostly sitting on the bench as part of the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled.
As such, one might think Laettner’s fondest memories are also from his Duke and Olympic tenure. They aren’t necessarily, which is a testament to just how important high school basketball is to the Hall of Famer (he was inducted in 2010 as a member of the Dream Team), and why he agreed to take on a new challenge as part of the Olympic Channel’s The Z Team show.
“When I was in high school I won two state championships, too. Freshman and sophomore year,” Laettner told USA TODAY. “And when I was there working with Garinger High School (in Charlotte, with The Z Team), I told them that and told them I remembered my high school games more than anything. I remember the times with my lifelong friends. Even though you might think my Duke and NBA memories would supersede those, they don’t. I wanted the kids to understand how important their high school careers are.
“The Olympic Channel came up with a neat idea getting old past Olympians to work with teams and programs that are struggling. I’ve been doing my own camps for the past nine years, and I’ve grown to learn that I really enjoy working with teams that are really bad, or new and trying to figure things out. I like working with teams that are struggling because you can get immediate, quick results. I worked with the kids at Garinger on the back of a nine-game losing streak, and then Friday night they broke it.”
His success with a struggling team speaks to why Laettner continues to host clinics nationwide, and why he has shied away from taking the reins of a full-time position at any individual school. “I don’t want to get locked in on one team,” he said.
That’s not to say that Laettner wouldn’t be a natural with a whistle full time. He’s the son of a teacher and coach, and raves about spending time on the court with young players as part of his academy set up.
Part of what he provided to Garinger was also reestablishing a love for the game, providing a “shot in the arm,” for a team on a slump. When asked about a particular NBA team currently scuffling through its own doldrums, Laettner said it’s clear what the Boston Celtics need to do.
“There comes a certain time where you just need to shut up and stop talking and go out and play,” Laettner said. “Sometimes the player want that, sometimes the coaches want that, but the media is always there and always needs content. I can see where the people with the Celtics are starting to get frustrated, but everyone needs to take a step back and realize what they’re doing.
“At the same time, I can relate to Kyrie (Irving) when you see him on TV and he’s acting like that in the interview because I know what he’s feeling there. I’ve been through that. But when you’re 25 your perspective on life doesn’t realize that’s what makes the world go round. Now that I’m 50 I say all the time, jeez, I should have handled things differently at 25. If I could talk to Kyrie, I would tell him he just has to learn for himself. People used to come around and tell me at 25 what we had to do, but you just don’t know until your perspective changes when you’re out of the league.”
That perspective has now led Laettner to help teams and players make improvements, starting with the teens at Garinger. To see how Laettner gets on with the team in Charlotte, tune in at 7 p.m. to the Olympic Channel or olympicchannel.com.