I never hated Christian Laettner.
Then again, I confess that I have a fetish for rude, bad boys who throw elbows and don’t seem to give a f*** whether they are athletes, musicians or politicians. A lot of people simply call these types a**holes. And if you watched the ESPN documentary on Sunday night about Laettner, you would think that the former Duke basketball star was the biggest jerk to ever walk the Earth. Trust me, there have been others before and after Laettner.
For Generation X sports fans, Laettner was a household name, a basketball star who played for Duke University. An All-American, he took Duke to four NCAA championships of which Duke won two. He is the only player in NCAA history to start in four consecutive Final Fours. And people really hated him.
The ESPN documentary, actually titled “I Hate Christian Laettner”, was aimed at showing how the player was loathed by fans, peers and even fellow teammates during the late 1980s and early 1990s because of his arrogant attitude and brash bullying on and off the court. It was perfectly timed to debut after the 2015 NCAA tournament brackets were announced.
Laettner represented, so the documentary wants us to believe, everything that was wrong during that era with white privilege. After all, Laettner, who came from a lower-to-middle-class family in upstate New York, attended Duke, a private college in Durham, N.C. Duke, with its Gothic architecture and Southern charm, was an expensive and elite landing spot for rich, preppy white kids – the type usually played by James Spader in John Hughes movies. (Ironically, the documentary was produced and narrated by ’80s heartthrob and fellow bad boy Rob Lowe.)
Laettner was that Spader character come to life. He was attractive, arrogant and excelled at his sport. He was the only college player selected for the “Dream Team” — the U.S. national team in the 1992 Olympics that included Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. He went on to a career in the NBA that wasn’t exactly stellar and that certainly knocked his ego down a peg or two.
But the documentary made us think about one critical thing – the race card in the 1990s. In fact, director Rory Karpf wrote on the ESPN website: “Of all the films I’ve been fortunate to direct, this film was the most challenging creatively. ESPN didn’t want the film to be a straight bio. We took an unorthodox approach that hopefully entertains and enlightens. We attempted to explore some tough topics while still being fair.”
It certainly made me think about that era when I, too, was in college.
Laettner was white at a time when American culture preferred hip hop and rap, the all-black “Five Fab” Michigan Wolverines to the Blue Devils and street lingo to anything that reeked of upper-class elitism. Duke was the symbol of that, and Laettner became its poster child. The documentary failed to point out that even Bill Clinton was labeled America’s first “Black president” when he was elected in 1992. But it did examine 1992 loosely because it was that year Laettner did nothing to endear fans to him.
That year, Laettner purposely stomped on University of Kentucky player Aminu Timberlake after a play at the basket during the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final game. Duke took the championship that year, beating the Wolverines, which included stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard, 71–51.
But people grow up and mature. Even basketball players. And even Laettner. During his live-tweeting of the documentary Sunday night, Laettner, now 45 and a father of three, called fans, tweeted to them and apologized to Timberlake in a video on Twitter.
Ultimately, the hatred for Laettner seemed to be based on “DNA envy”, as Lowe said, or a lot of jealousy – a rampant epidemic in any field when the stakes are high– rather than the fact that he was white. His peers and fellow players — black and white — were jealous of his fame and skills whether some admit it or not. Coaches and fans were jealous their teams didn’t have a player like Laettner. But let’s give Laettner credit for one thing. He just did what a lot of kids do when they get an opportunity – he took it.
We should remember going into March Madness. These players we love – and yes, hate – are just kids. Some aren’t haven’t even hit the age to drink legally, yet they are thrust into the limelight with immense pressure to excel and win. Many star players are thinking of nothing but winning the next game to woo a lucrative contract with the NBA. They see dollar signs amid ego and points. Is that good? No. But then again, neither is worshipping sports, and that’s what we do in America. That’s how we feed the beasts we love to hate.
Suzi Parker, TBS’ resident mixologist and cultural editor, is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Echo Ellis: Adventures of a Girl Reporter,” “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes.” She writes frequently for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, and numerous other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.
To schedule an interview with Suzi or book her for a speaking engagement, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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