When I received a review copy of “The Last Great Game” in the mail last week, I halfheartedly joked that I was “excited to read the second best college basketball book released in the last few months.” I knew I’d enjoy it, but truthfully didn’t expect to enjoy it right away. I figured I’d probably skim a few chapters here and there, then dive in with two feet after March, when I needed to further my college hoops fix.
Yeah, about that.
Within a few pages I was hooked, and it was clear to me that this book wasn’t about a basketball game, so much as a different time for us as sports fans. It was a time when college basketball still mattered, not just as a four week event in March, but as a four month season starting in late November. It was a time when you could go into a barbershop, sit down at a bar, hang out in a dorm room and have an argument with buddies about Duke, or the Fab Five, or Jerry Tarkanian’s Vegas teams; an argument about college basketball. With all due respect to Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson, you can’t walk into a bar in 2012 (at least outside Lawrence and Lexington) and engage in a debate about which of them deserves National Player of the Year. You could in 1992 about Christian Laettner, Jamal Mashburn and Chris Webber thought.
As for the book itself, well, chances are pretty good that if you’re bothering to read this review, you know that it’s about the Kentucky-Duke, 1992 East Regional Final, and for the shot Laettner hit to win it at the buzzer in overtime. You know that as the single greatest game in college basketball history. What you probably don’t know is all the ancillary stuff that led up to that shot, not just in that NCAA Tournament, but in the years before that. To his credit, author Gene Wojciechowski does a masterful job of setting up the narrative around that; I consider myself a bit of a college basketball aficionado, and Icannot tell you how much I learned from this book.From the Duke perspective, I’ll be blunt: I had no idea what a prick Christian Laettner was. Yes I knew he was a prick and yes I knew he was reviled, in large part because I still remember my mother- a woman who doesn’t care much for college basketball, and cares less for name calling- telling me exactly what a punk he was. It takes a lot for my mom to get worked up, but apparently all it took in 1992 was seeing Laettner’s snotty mug flash across her TV screen.
But while I knew how much the casual, non-Duke fan hated Laettner, what I had no idea about was how much his own teammates did too. After seeing a million lousy Coach K interviews over the years, and seeing him preach the value of the “Duke family,” about “12 guys becoming one,” and all that non-sense, well, I kinda bought the company line.
And I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Read this book and you’ll find that if the 1992 Duke Blue Devils were a family, they were dysfunctional enough to have their own MTV reality show. Maybe my favorite story was when Laettner had pushed fellow superstar Bobby Hurley so hard and for so long, that one day Hurley finally snapped in practice. The team was scrimmaging, and as Hurley turned the corner off a ball screen and was driving into the paint, he decided to throw a picture perfect chest-pass… right into Laettner’s face from five feet away, before turning around and sprinting out the gym. Laettner had literally pushed Hurley to the brink of insanity at that point, but what’s even stranger is that Laettner actually wasn’t bothered by the incident. Instead, he was simply happy that his point guard had finally stood up for himself. After all, if Hurley was tough enough to stand up to Laettner every day in practice, then playing UNLV in the tournament would be no big deal. Christian Laettner was a prick, yes. But he was also a prick that wanted to win more than anyone on the court.
Also as much as I hate to say, this book also gave me a little bit of introspection into Coach K, and an appreciation for his coaching. Now obviously no one gets 900+ wins by accident, but I always felt like… well… I felt like the guy was a little overrated. After all, when you’re no worse than the second most talented team in the ACC every year, should it really be that hard to win 25 games every year? Given that half the schedule is against cupcakes, and half of the ACC is God awful in a given year, how many challenging games are there really on the schedule? 10? 12?
But beyond just the talent he amassed, it was the way Coach K handled that 1992 team which gave me a newfound appreciation for him. As they say, it’s always easier to get to the top of the mountain than stay there, but to his credit, after winning a title in 1991, Coach K was able to keep the team level-headed in 1992. He knew when to push, and knew when to back off, and even once surprised his players with cake and ice cream after a tough loss, rather than running them into the ground in practice. It paid off, when his team peaked entering March, rather than getting overwhelmed by the moment.
(On a different note, one of my favorite nuggets in the book came early on, when Wojciechowski gave a bit of a backstory on Coach K’s first date with his wife, Mickey. After the date, a young K was so enthralled with Mickey that he decided to send her flowers…but instead of sending her a dozen red roses, he sent her nine yellow ones instead. Why? Well, as Coach K explained, any guy can send a gal dozen red roses. But nine yellow roses will make her think. You, Coach K, are a G.)
As for Kentucky, well, frankly, I didn’t know much about them either, and really didn’t know just how far the program had fallen prior to Rick Pitino’s arrival in the late 1980’s. I had heard of “The Unforgettables,” but had no idea quite why they were so darn “unforgettable.” That reason being, that after an NCAA investigation put the program on life-support, the unforgettables were the only players that stuck around and saw the program through the tough times. I also had no idea that 1992 was the first season that Kentucky was actually eligible for postseason play, after being banned the previous two seasons.
But really, the thing that I had kind of forgotten about was just how good of a coach young Rick Pitino was. The truth is, that with everything that’s happened these past few years (the Karen Sypher scandal, the early NCAA Tournament losses, John Calipari wrestling the Commonwealth away from him), Pitino has turned into a punch-line. He’s low hanging fruit, who it’s almost too easy to take cheap shots at.
At the same time, what we all forget (or at least what I forgot) was just truly how innovative and ahead of his time Pitino was at Kentucky. He used the full-court press before it was cool to use the full-court press. His teams took 20 three’s a game when most teams were taking five or six. Basically everything that everyone in college basketball was doing in 1998, 1999 and 2000, Pitino was doing in 1989, 1990 and 1991. He really was a basketball innovator in every sense of the word.
(Meanwhile, if you want a fun fact on Kentucky, wrap your head around this for a second: When Pitino arrived at Kentucky, know who was on his first coaching staff? How about Billy Donovan, Herb Sendek, Tubby Smith and Ralph Willard? Are you kidding me? Frankly, with all that basketball knowledge in one room, I’m surprised Kentucky ever lost a game.
Regardless, all of this backstory led up to the game between these two programs and “The Shot” by Laettner. I won’t give all the details here, as that would be an incredible disservice to Wojiechowski’s research and reporting. Just know that every question you’ve ever had about “The Shot”- why Kentucky didn’t guard the Grant Hill, why Laettner decided to pump fake and take a dribble before shooting- is all answered in the book.
Beyond just the shot though, what I really couldn’t help but think as I finished the book, is how Kentucky-Duke in 1992 really might have been college basketball’s last great game.
Sure there have been other great games since, but none of them had the confluence of events surrounding things like this one did. You had the defending National Champion vs. the legendary program fresh off probation. You had two coaches at the peak of their powers. You had maybe the greatest player in college basketball history, flanked by Hurley and Grant Hill, and Jamal Mashburn on the sideline, essentially a bunch of pros in college uniforms. And you had it all one court, in one building, on one day. Safe to say we will never see anything quite like that again.
And really above that’s why I enjoyed this book so much.
Yes it’s about a game, but it’s also about the way we were as fans 20 years ago. To people who remember the early and mid-1990’s, this book is a snapshot of the way the game was, before the one-and-done rule, before the NBA Betting Action was determined on potential rather than production, before college basketball evolved into what it has today. I love college basketball as much as anyone. But the sport will never again be the way it was.
That’s right, in every sense of the word, Duke vs. Kentucky, in Philadelphia, in 1992 really was college basketball’s last great game.
For more information on purchasing 'The Last Great Game' click here.
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I watched that game from my dorm room on the 21st Floor of Blanding Tower. You could literally hear a pin drop after he made that shot and then about 30 seconds later a great roar throughout campus. I walked downtown immediately after, and instead of people rioting or tossing cars, there was a dead calm as if everyone's mother had died. I'll never forget that.
I think one of the saddest things about the Pitino saga has been that his "defection" to Louisville has seemingly obliterated what he did at UK in the 90's. The average fan has nothing good to say about Ricky P anymore, and I wonder how long it will take for UK to embrace him back into the fold as one of their greatest coaches -- if ever.
I love your writing Aaron. I know you've heard it a million times, but it's rare that a non-Kentuckian "gets" what UK means to most of the Commonwealth.
Thank you so much for the kind words and sharing your story.I was on UConn's campus when they lost to George Mason, and I experienced a lot of similar things. Different stakes (UConn was the clear cut championship favorite) but a similar weird, empty feeling after this game.
As for the book, the sentiment that you shared about Pitino is the BIGGEST thing I took out of this book. The absolute biggest. I grew up in Connecticut, and grew up watching Jim Calhoun and Ray Allen (not to mention John Calipari and.... Marcus Camby!!!). But what I remember is Pitino, who at that point was almost like a God among mere mortals in coaching. I mean seriously, the fact that he took UK to two straight NC games and laid the groundwork for Tubby to take a third is something that never gets spoken of. Never... Ever! Why, I'm sure.
Regardless, thanks again, and there's no need to thank me about my writing. I love and appreciate any fan base where the hometown team means as much to them as Kentucky basketball does to Kentucky fans. On a much smaller scale, I grew up with that as a UConn fan. (I have more thoughts on this that I'll save for another day!)
Thanks again for reading, and swing back any time.
@Aaron Torres Ironically, about the only time UK fans stand up for Pitino anymore is when the discussion turns to that '98 team. Then it's "but those were Pitino's kids!"
Ah, the logic of sports fans :-)
Once again - you knocked it out of the park - a homer! I, too, enjoyed the book - that is hard to say while that game was one of the worst (and best) sports memories of my life in BBN (my son - who was only 6 months old when the game was played - has a "I Still Hate Laetner" t-shirt). Gene W. did a great job. One point, the book is Duke weighted. My fav story, and one I knew before the book, was when Coach K (and I still have a hard time liking him) went to the UK radio announcer, my broadcasting hero - Caywood Ledford, and spoke to BBN after the game. Keep up your great writing - and I agree with micjaeluk26 - write a book about UKbasketball!!!
Thanks for the excellent review. If you like it that much then I will to because I mostly agree with all of your writing. I know a LOT of UK fans love your work. As I have told others, I just absolutely love your style of writing. It is very engaging. Your not one of these bland sports writers whose work I usually put down in 1 paragraph because it is boring. Please write a book on UK hoops. I hate admitting this but you are the single reason I dont hate UCONN basketball and I dont know why on earth that is. Anyways look forward to more of your writing.
You're entirely too kind my friend.
Honestly, all I've ever done is tried to write articles which are interesting, engaging and make people think. The second that I can't do that anymore, I'll stop writing.
As for this book itself, I can't blame any UK fan for not wanting to read it. Two years before as a sophomore, Laettner ended UConn's "Dream Season" with a buzzer beater in the Elite Eight. In the Christian Laettner lore of college basketball, that one has been forgotten, except by UConn fans. This one was just as painful, with just as much on the line. And while I didn't come out of the book "liking" Laettner anymore than I had previously, I did have a new found respect for him.
And finally, yes, my beloved Huskies. A lot of people have paid me the compliment "that the only reason I can stomach UConn is because I enjoy your work." It always means a lot, if only because I know the way that Jim Calhoun comes off to others. The truth is, that like all these guys, he has a bit of ego, but he also does a lot of great things that goes unreported. For example, he does a charity bike ride every summer, which has raised over $1 million for cancer research. Like Calipari did with the victims of Haiti, THESE are the stories that don't get reported enough.
Regardless, thank you again for the kind words, and I hope I continue to write things that you and fellow Kentucky fans enjoy. And yes, maybe someday I'll be fortunate enough to write a book on Kentucky basketball. It really would be my honor.
@Aaron Torres Exactly man. Thats exactly what I was talking about. People literally hate both coaches. Most people only see there egos, which you have to have to coach at UK and UCONN. because no one wants to write that. They want to make them look as bad a possible. There were dozens and dozens of articles leading up to the final four game about how Cal and Calhoun were cheaters. See this is why I dont pass judgements on people. I knew Calhoun does a lot for charity just like Cal but you will maybe find 1 article about it in the small print on the backs of newspapers.
See here is where you come in. You try to write about a subject from different perspectives to tell the whole story.. This is why you have so many UK fans that love your writing. I read your FINAL FOUR IN NOVEMBER article the very next day and it was the FIRST time in my life that an article made me feel like I was at MSG watching it. And thats what makes your articles great. I am not saying all of this because you like Cal and always talk good about him. I tell you this cause your articles are the most unique and engaging I have ever read.
Sorry for writing so much. I am def gonna get that book. When Laettner came to UK over summer to coach the villians at Rupp Arena was maybe the classiest thing I have ever seen. Are you planning on coming to KSR again and what games you think you will be covering in the tournament cause I am hoping you could go watch UK and me having to watch it on tv, I know I will be able to feel like I was there if you did. I wish you could work at ESPN. You are clearly way better than most of the writers.
@aaron_torres good article as usual, Aaron. But it's ANY city in KY,and yes esp. LOU, that one can have the POY barbershop talk not just LEX