ESPN struck ratings gold three years ago when it aired “Everyone Hates Christian Laettner,” a 30-for-30 special that focuses on the former Duke All-American, who is the only player to start in four consecutive Final Fours but is one of the most disliked college basketball players ever.
But this week, Laettner is gaining a legion of new fans at Garinger High, where he’s spending the week working with the boys’ basketball team. He will coach the Wildcats in Friday’s home game against East Mecklenburg.
Laettner is town working with Garinger for a new reality TV series called “Z Team,” which will air on the International Olympic Committee’s new Olympic Channel. The idea is to pair a former NBA and Olympic player with a struggling or developing high school or college team, let them work with the players and coach them in a big game.
Garinger is 3-14 this season. The Wildcats won four games in 2016-17 and haven’t had a winning season since 2005-06. You might remember Garinger’s football team ended a six-year, 55-game losing streak last September.
Laettner joined the Wildcats’ basketball team and coach Jordan Yawn for practice on Monday. Garinger athletics director Tony Huggins said Laettner would watch the team from the stands during Tuesday’s home game with Hickory Ridge and Wednesday’s road game at Myers Park. Laettner will again work with the team at practice Thursday and will be on the sideline coaching with Yawn on Friday, when Garinger hosts the Eagles.
When Laettner walked into practice Monday, Huggins said only one player recognized him. After all, Laettner was a star at Duke in the early ’90s and played on the 1992 Dream Team in the Olympics. Laettner played 13 years in the NBA, but when he stopping playing in 2005, many of Garinger’s players were in diapers.
“So the kids were looking at the size of him (Laettner is 6-foot-11),” Huggins said, “and I’m sure they’ll go home and Google him, and once they see exactly who he is they’ll be shocked that he played on the Olympic team with (Michael) Jordan. That’s going to be big to them.”
Huggins said Laettner took his assignment seriously and worked hard with Garinger’s players Monday.
“He had fun with them and he really put something into it,” Huggins said. “I did have to tell him that I like the fact he’s here, but that I’m a (North) Carolina fan. He gave me a hard time, of course.
“But this is big for us. Just for the guys to be able to sit down and talk with a guy like Christian Laettner and have him in practice with them. A lot of these guys will never get a chance to talk to or see an NBA player in person, whether it’s a current or former player.
“So to be able to sit down and dialogue with him is huge. And with the type of season we are having this is huge. It says a lot that people do want to go to Garinger and try to do good things. It’s not always something bad.”