Missing March Madness: How Christian Laettner’s shot launched Kentucky’s ’90s dynasty

The road to the 1996 Final Four went through Newark Airport for Kentucky broadcaster Tom Leach. Upon landing there, he hopped a bus over to Manhattan that carried him to the Marriott Marquis, where the media covering the tournament’s championship rounds were to be headquartered. He checked in, stashed his bags in the room and then headed out to see what the Big Apple would have to offer to college basketball’s greatest event.

“I walked out into Times Square, looked up on that big screen — and the very first thing I see is that shot,” Leach told Sporting News.

Yeah, THAT shot.

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It was only four years into its immortality at that point, but Christian Laettner’s turnaround jumper in the 1992 East Region final — which lifted Duke to a 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky — already felt as though it had haunted Wildcats fans for an eternity. Kentucky has perhaps the most intensely passionate fan base in the game, and so many of their legion view that moment as one of the darkest in the program’s history.

No doubt it was terribly painful. To be so close to the Final Four and have it vanish was like Bucky Dent’s home run, John Taylor’s touchdown catch and Michael Jordan’s step-back jumper over Bryon Russell rolled into one giant ball of agony for the special group of people that self-identifies as “Big Blue Nation.”

“They hate that game,” current Kentucky coach John Calipari told Sporting News. “It’s a combination of they cannot stand Duke, and how the game ended.”

Unlike the Red Sox or Bengals or Jazz, though, Kentucky was able to take that sporting tragedy and immediately build it into something extraordinary. The Wildcats’ 1990s dynasty, and in some ways the success that endures with the program to this day, was launched on that March night in Philadelphia nearly three decades ago.

Being in that game, playing at a level brilliant enough to push one of history’s great college teams to the brink of its existence, forcing the reigning national champion to conjure a near-miracle in order to advance — all of that did as much to reinvigorate the moribund Kentucky brand as winning might have. And it challenged the more gifted players who soon would populate the program to achieve what the 1992 team could not.

“Other than the outcome at that particular moment, it was just an incredible learning experience,” said Travis Ford, who played seven minutes against the Blue Devils but was the Wildcats’ No. 2 scorer the following season. “I know it made me, Jamal Mashburn, Dale Brown — all the guys who returned — incredibly motivated: ‘Let’s just try to get back to that point; if we can get back to that point, we’re going to get to the Final Four.’

“It put a hunger in us that drove us throughout the summer, drove us throughout the year, and it led us to the Final Four.”

Over the next seven seasons following that Duke loss, Kentucky would win two national championships, play into overtime in another national title game, end one season in the national semifinals and two more in the Elite Eight. Its NCAA Tournament record during that period was 28-5. No program in the past three decades has put together a surge such as that. In modern college basketball, that is what we could call a dynasty.

When Rick Pitino accepted the head coaching job in 1989, Kentucky basketball had been imploded by an NCAA rules scandal that led to three years of probation, a two-year ban on television and postseason appearances, massive recruiting restrictions and the ineligibility of two star players: Chris Mills, who transferred to Arizona, and Eric Manuel, who was banned from NCAA basketball. Center LeRon Ellis was not cited but decided he wanted no part of a tournament ban and transferred to Syracuse.

It’s hard to convey, all these years later, how devastating that punishment was for Kentucky and for Big Blue Nation. Fans of a certain age still bitterly remember the Sports Illustrated cover that was headlined, “Kentucky’s Shame.”

The Duke game did not erase all of that. The memory lingers, even now. It changed the direction of the story, though, as abruptly and gloriously as Rocky’s “Gonna Fly Now” training run through the streets of Philly and his successful dash up the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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“Our athletic director, C.M. Newton, was a former coach, really a statesman in the game, and always had a great perspective, brought a tremendous amount of experience and wisdom to any situation,” Herb Sendek, then Pitino’s top assistant, told SN.

“We can remember being in the locker room after the game, guys were inconsolable — literally sobbing, crying. With the opportunity to be in the Final Four just a few years after the program had been brought to its knees, C.M. said, ‘In the growth of any program, although painful, these are necessary steps. And we have to go through this together in order to get to where we ultimately want to be.'”

Evidence that there still was a lot of Kentucky left in Kentucky — even after the NCAA dealt its justifiable body blows to the program — was present in the abundant acclaim for the Wildcats finishing .500 in the 1989-90 season, Pitino’s first as head coach. In 2008, then-Indiana coach Tom Crean told the Lexington Herald-Leader that had been “one of the greatest stories in my time following college basketball.”

The Wildcats wound up 14-14 overall and 10-8 in a Southeastern Conference that sent just three teams to the NCAA Tournament. They played only five games against ranked opponents and lost four of them. They had only eight scholarship players, but forwards Derrick Miller and Reggie Hanson averaged a combined 35 points, and not a single one of the top seven players missed a game because of injury or illness.

That such meager accomplishments were met with such enthusiasm served as evidence of UK basketball’s enduring appeal, and of the power of Pitino’s persona in shifting the focus regarding what had happened to the Wildcats under Eddie Sutton toward what was about to happen with Coach P in charge.

By the time the Wildcats arrived in Philadelphia, they had added elite freshman Mashburn to the now-junior quartet of John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods and Richie Farmer. They then produced a 22-6 season in 1990-91 — when they compiled a 14-4 SEC record but were denied the league title and excluded from March Madness — and followed with a 28-6 record that included a conference tournament championship and NCAA Tournament wins over Old Dominion and Iowa State.

Victory in the Sweet 16 over UMass had been a chore. The game remained in doubt until Calipari, then coaching the Minutemen, was called for a late technical foul — from across the court, about 60 feet away — for allegedly violating the coaching box rule as he protested the absence of an over-the-back call against UK. (He insists, to this day, he did not step over the line).

This set up a game against No. 1 Duke, which had won the prior year’s NCAA championship in large part by upsetting undefeated UNLV in the national semifinals before returning nearly every essential player and tearing through the regular season. The Blue Devils lost just twice, by a combined six points: once when point guard Bobby Hurley tried to play with a broken foot against North Carolina, and then when he missed a visit to Wake Forest.

FLASHBACK: Hurley, Woods reflected on game with SN in 2015

“I wonder how many Kentucky fans really thought they had a shot at winning that game,” said Dick Gabriel, who then was a TV sportscaster in Lexington and now hosts a nightly sports talk show there. “It was not exactly Jamal and the Miracles, but compared to Duke’s talent level that’s how it shook out to a lot of people.

“I found myself sitting on the bus with those guys in Baton Rouge and I do remember they were all talking wistfully about the players who had left the program after they got nailed by the NCAA. And they were listing the kids who would have been there and how good the team would have been. And I said, ‘Guys, you wouldn’t be playing as many minutes.’ And almost in unison, they said, ‘Yeah, but we’d win a championship.’ They were about winning more than anything.”

So they gave what Pitino demanded that season, and it was a lot, and it carried them forward to that game against Duke. The game was played in prime time on CBS, the East Region’s No. 1 seed vs. No. 2 — the game’s ascending power against old, but damaged, royalty.

“Kentucky had hit the lowest of lows for a program that people here love so dearly,” Leach said. “To go toe-to-toe with Duke — it was about as little a chance as a 2-seed would be given in a matchup with a 1-seed in the tournament.”

And through 44 minutes, 57.9 seconds, Kentucky managed to be the better team. In a game that featured All-American Christian Laettner hitting every shot he took (every jump shot, every layup, every free throw), point guard Hurley passing for 10 assists and hitting five 3-pointers and wing Grant Hill coming off the bench to nearly ring up a triple-double, the Wildcats managed to ride Mashburn’s 28 points and 10 rebounds to a 103-102 lead with 2.1 seconds left on a running hook shot by Woods over Laettner’s outstretched arm.

You know the rest.

“Having taken a visit there and spent time with that group of seniors, it was a tough loss,” said Tony Delk, then a McDonald’s All-American recruit who would become a Wildcats All-American. “It was such a miraculous shot Sean Woods made and you thought, ‘Wow, Kentucky’s going to get the chance to go to a Final Four.’ And all of a sudden, Christian Laettner hit the shot.

“Just watching how those guys competed and the effort they gave, it made me feel like, ‘Wow, I want to get us back to the promised land.’“

With no NCAA Tournament to show on television this year, CBS has aired archived telecasts of classic March Madness games on the weekends; CBS Sports Network has done this during the week. There is no more classic game than Duke 104, Kentucky 103. Even though it was not broadcast in high definition, it was a must for inclusion in this initiative.

When it first aired on March 21, Ford began receiving text messages from friends, maybe 100 of them. This wasn’t anything new, just something current.

“People bring up the game all the time and they usually preface it with, ‘I hate to bring up a bad subject,’ or something like that,” Ford, now the head coach of the Saint Louis Billikens, told SN. “When they say what it is, I respond: No, I don’t mind talking about it. It was one of the greatest college games ever.

“The thing I hated the most was for those four seniors. John Pelphrey was my roommate and obviously someone I admired. The locker room was dead silence before Coach Pitino came in, except for the crying. It was just the worst feeling, but it was more for my roommate, more for the seniors. Yes, I was excited about maybe heading to the Final Four, but it was their last game. And I knew what those seniors had meant to the program at that time.”

Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Woods and Farmer had been recruited to Kentucky when the NCAA investigation was just starting to broil and remained in the program after the punishment was imposed. When Pitino arrived, they chose to remain even though it meant not getting to play in the postseason nor on TV until they would be seniors. Three of the four were Kentuckians, and Woods was from up the road in Indianapolis.

However improbable it might have seemed in advance, the opportunity to advance to the Final Four had seemed almost a certainty for those few minutes after Woods’ shot went in, through the timeout called by Mike Krzyzewski, right up until Laettner caught the pass and Feldhaus — and especially Pelphrey, mindful of Pitino’s warning not to foul — backed away and allowed him to shoot uncontested.

We know the result now, but when the Wildcats returned to Lexington, they were greeted and treated as though that shot never existed. A substantial portion of the supporters Ford called “the most loyal fans there are” filled Rupp Arena and witnessed a moment none had expected: the jersey retirements of all four seniors, who earned an enduring nickname like so many of the program’s greatest teams.

“It really was about those seniors who stayed and helped build that bridge to those successful years that were around the corner,” Sendek, now the head coach at Santa Clara, told SN. “When you think about it, with all the great players Kentucky’s had, you look up to the rafters and there’s that space where you have the jerseys of “the Unforgettables.” To be able to do that contemporaneously shows the kind of leadership Coach Newton and Coach Pitino have. That was those guys really having a great feel for the situation.”

With 104-103 firmly established on the scoreboard, never to change, Krzyzewski went out of his way to stop by Kentucky’s courtside broadcast station. Coach K was aware it was the final radio broadcast for Cawood Ledford and congratulated the legendary UK voice for his magnificent career. Coach K noted how much he and his staff empathized with the Wildcats players because “they were absolutely sensational. It was one of the best college basketball games — maybe the best I’ve ever been associated with.”

It was a sporting gesture, but one certain residual of that game that night is almost universal enmity among Kentucky fans for Duke. Laettner is loathed not just for making the shot, but for stepping on the chest of UK freshman Aminu Timberlake late in regulation, and more than anything for not being ejected as a result of that infraction. He was issued a technical foul but stayed in the game to accomplish you-know-what.

“To this day, Krzyzewski is Darth Vader,” Gabriel said. “And Laettner is Darth Jr.”

The rest of the 1990s in NCAA basketball belonged to the Kentucky Wildcats, however. Not exclusively, of course. Arkansas had its back-to-back Four Fours and national championship, Duke made Final Four runs in 1994 and 1999, UCLA returned to the top of the ladder for its most recent title and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo commenced building a power at Michigan State.

When Delk was a freshman in 1992-93, the Wildcats stormed into the Final Four by an average margin of 31 points — remember what Ford said about the motivation to get there being ignited by the Duke loss — but there they fell by just three points, in overtime, to Michigan’s Fab Five.

“When we came back, the reception — those people were just thankful we made it that far — and I was like: ‘Wow, what if we won a championship?'” said Delk, who runs basketball camps and serves as a studio analyst for Turner’s NCAA Tournament coverage. “If they’re going crazy going to the Final Four and losing, what if we came back and won a championship?”

He would discover the answer as a senior, when he was named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four and scored a combined 44 points in victories over Massachusetts (Calipari, again) and Syracuse. The following season, the Wildcats survived his departure, and that of fellow seniors Walter McCarty and Mark Pope, as well as a mid-season injury to star guard Derek Anderson, and reached the title game again — but lost in overtime to Arizona.

What had commenced on that long-ago night in Philly even survived a coaching change, when Pitino left following those consecutive title-game appearances in 1996 and 1997 to accept a life-changing bucket of money from the Boston Celtics. He was replaced by Tubby Smith, who was in charge for the 1998 national championship and nine victories in his first 10 NCAA Tournament games.

PAYBACK: Kentucky downs Duke in ’98 Elite Eight

From 1993 to 1999, 15 players who would go on to play in the NBA wore the Kentucky uniform. A dozen of them were first-round picks.

“I think probably what happened afterward, that maybe has lessened the impact over time of the Duke game. It probably did even in that time,” Leach, now the voice of the Wildcats, told SN. “I’ve heard some of the players that played in the game talk about this, and there’s some percentage of the fans that feel this way, that being in a game that many consider the greatest game of all time, both teams playing at such a high level, so there’s some element of pride that comes with that, just to have participated in the game.

“Obviously, it’s better to be on the winning end.”

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