If most of what you remember about Christian Laettner stems from the early 1990s – when he stomped a prone Kentucky player in the chest and incessantly bullied his own Duke teammates such as Bobby Hurley – then you will think this sounds like a really bad idea.
Laettner just finished up a week in Charlotte with the Garinger High boys’ basketball team, helping to coach them for a forthcoming reality show for the Olympic Channel.
Great, you’re thinking.
What’s Laettner going to teach these kids? The proper way to step on an opponent? The easiest way to make your own teammates cry?
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Actually, no. Laettner at age 48 is a far cry from Laettner at age 22. The subject of the 2015 ESPN documentary “I Hate Christian Laettner” – which explored why Laettner was still despised by a large segment of basketball fans after leading Duke to four straight Final Fours and two national championships from 1989-92 – turned out to be a teddy bear at Garinger.
OK, a prickly teddy bear.
I mean – this is Christian Laettner.
The first time I talked to Laettner about this unusual experiment was Friday night about 45 minutes before Garinger – a 3-16 team limping along on a nine-game losing streak – played in the one game that Laettner was supposed to help coach this week (along with head coach Jordan Yawn, who was still officially in charge).
Laettner had already seen Garinger lose twice this week as a spectator and had helped coach two other practices for the Wildcats. And so I asked Laettner what he wanted to get across the most Friday as an assistant.
“They were a little too much playing the game in ‘cool mode,’ you know what I mean?” Laettner said, a bit icily. “So I’ve been trying to get them to play out of ‘cool mode.’ They think they’re on an MTV show, where the camera is on them. So they don’t want to try hard. Or sweat. Or communicate. Or talk to each other. Or play intensely. So tonight we’ll see.”
And we did see. And what we saw was that Laettner apparently did some good. Garinger’s players dove all over the place for loose balls and pulled away from East Mecklenburg in the fourth quarter for a 56-50 win.
“Cool mode” disappeared – both for the players and for Laettner.
For the first quarter, Laettner simply stayed in his seat on the bench, never arising for any reason. By the fourth, he was standing , slapping high-fives and yelling defensive encouragement as Garinger broke open a tie game.
Laettner’s Charlotte connection
Laettner worked at Garinger all week, for no pay, as a part of this reality show called “The Z Team” on the Olympic Channel. The concept for each episode: A former Olympic athlete, usually a gold medalist, lends a helping hand to a struggling youth sports team.
You probably don’t think right away of Laettner as an Olympic athlete, but he was the only college player on the original Dream Team of 1992. So he flew up from his home near Jacksonville, Fla., to come to Garinger, attending either a practice or game every day from Monday through Friday for a show that will be aired sometime in 2018.
In between those times, Laettner visited his family.
Wait, he’s got a family?
Who knew that Laettner has a sister and brother-in-law living in Charlotte, along with another sister and his father living in Fort Mill? If you are a UNC fan, you may still think that Laettner was somehow sculpted out of clay by Mike Krzyzewski as the perfect embodiment of both a college basketball player (Laettner is undoubtedly one of the five best ACC players of all time) and pure sports evil.
The ESPN documentary – which Laettner cooperated with – broke out five reasons for “Laettner hate” that can be encapsulated in this sentence: He was a white, extremely good-looking superstar who played at a privileged school and bullied people around. What Grayson Allen has experienced at Duke is a minor-league version of Laettner, who remains the gold standard for fan hate.
‘They were like “Who?”’
At Garinger, though, no one hated Laettner at all. Yes, Garinger athletics director Tony Huggins and coach Yawn are both diehard UNC fans and had to get over that part of it – “My Mom is also real upset about this,” Yawn joked of Laettner’s presence. But the players were mostly awed that a 13-year NBA veteran was going to work with them.
Said Huggins: “He’s the kind of figure our kids don’t get a chance to rub elbows with.”
I should back up and say that the players were awed when they figured out who Laettner was. Only one player on the entire team had ever heard of him, as he is older than many of their parents.
“I knew who he was,” said senior Drew Ford, a 6-foot-1, 147-pound shooting guard who is sometimes forced to play center on Garinger’s undersized team and had 19 points and 17 rebounds Friday. “I was telling everybody when he walked in and they were like ‘Who?’”
“I didn’t know until I looked him up when I got home,” junior player Quantaz Beverly said. “But I know that he found out our weaknesses and built them up.”
Besides attitude, Laettner worked on passing more and dribbling less. He has his own basketball academy in Florida, and one drill he likes to run is playing 5-on-5 without any dribbling. The ball can only be moved by passing, and he ran the drill with the Garinger players repeatedly.
“That makes them pass and cut and move and not be in ‘cool mode,’” Laettner said.
Before the game had ended, Laettner had already figured this mission was successful no matter the result. “I’m very happy,” he told the team in the locker room after the game. “Your sense of urgency was almost off the charts. My job here is done.”
‘A past he was overcoming’
Garinger’s basketball team needed something good to happen to it. The east Charlotte school has undergone its share of academic and athletic hardships in recent years. The football team ended a 55-game losing streak only last season.
In the summer of 2017, a Garinger player who would have been a senior starter for this basketball team was shot and killed in Charlotte – one of more than 80 homicides in the city last year.
Dionte’ Hunter had gotten into trouble with the police in the state of Washington, but had moved to Charlotte and appeared to have turned his life around. He had started for Garinger as a junior and was a popular player on the team.
“He had a past he was overcoming,” Yawn, who is 28 and in his second year coaching at Garinger, said of Hunter. “And he came here and hit the ground running. His death was the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with up to this point in my life, trying to mentor the players through that and be there for them.”
The Garinger team publicly remembers the player they called “Deebo” before and after every game.
And so the home Garinger gym rocked Friday night, with the team’s fourth win of the season finally assured and the nine-game losing streak ancient history. Laettner smiled on the bench.
The players led the 300 fans in the stands in a rollicking chant of “Dee-bo! Dee-bo! Dee-bo!” In the locker room, they hugged one another.
A lot of things have gone wrong at Garinger at one time or the other.
But on this night, it all went right.