The Last Great Game
How the 1992 Duke and Kentucky teams took a trip into college basketball immortality.
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Reeling from the scandal, in 1989 the school hired C.M. Newton, who played for Adolph Rupp on Kentucky’s 1951 national championship team, as athletic director to restore the program’s integrity and credentials. Despite the certainty of sanctions, Newton, a widely respected college coach at Vanderbilt before taking over the Kentucky athletic department, lured hotshot coach Rick Pitino from the NBA to take on the reclamation project.Skip to next paragraph
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Pitino arrived as a brash New Yorker in bluegrass country but quickly won converts with his predictions of a rapid return to basketball prominence. Four players – Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods, and John Pelphrey – would survive the end of the disgraced Sutton era and the grueling regimen installed by Pitino to revive the Kentucky program. The odds remained considerable, as Pitino’s first Wildcats team lacked a player taller than 6-feet-7-inches.
It didn’t matter. The players who stayed, along with Pitino’s blend of basketball smarts, relentless drive, and motivation, carried Kentucky through a two-year penalty preventing the team from playing in the NCAA tournament. Pitino looked to New York for his savior, signing blue-chip prospect Jamal Mashburn early in his tenure. Mashburn and the four holdovers would form the heart of the 1991-92 Wildcats team, a squad known as The Unforgettables after the unexpected tournament run and near-upset of Duke.
As for the Blue Devils, Wojciechowski details Duke's rise to basketball dynasty under Mike Krzyzewski, who still coaches Duke and recently set the record for career wins in college basketball.
Known as Coach K, Krzyzewski landed the Duke job in 1980 at age 33. Despite the endorsement of his mentor, Indiana coach Bobby Knight, and a strong reputation, Krzyzewski proved a controversial choice since he had just posted a 9-17 record the previous season at Army. Upon his hiring, one local sportscaster introduced the future Coach K as “Mike Prishevski.” Starting salary: $40,000.
By the time Duke played Kentucky in 1992, Krzyzewski had built a program renowned not just for consistent appearances in the Final Four and dozens of wins, but also a squeaky-clean reputation and a track record of accompanying academic success.
The 1991-92 Blue Devils, as defending national champions, were the rock stars of college hoops. The versatile Hill, the ultra-competitive (and, to many, obnoxious) Laettner and fearless point guard Bobby Hurley became love-them-or-hate-them attractions. All of them offer insightful anecdotes, from locker-room feuds (Wojciechowski labels the Hurley-Laettner relationship “the Lennon/McCartney of the Blue Devils”) to the racial perceptions and comparisons of the Duke players and Michigan’s all-freshmen Fab Five team that played for the championship.
The book offers a strong reminder that the game was great throughout, not just for its finish. There were nine lead changes or ties during the last five minutes of regulation and Kentucky led four times in overtime. Laettner, in the opinion of some, should not have even been in the game to win it. Earlier, he stepped on a Kentucky player and drew a technical foul. Says Elmore: “My honest opinion of Christian Laettner? I thought he was kind of smarmy in some ways.”
When the shot went in, Krzyzewski didn’t immediately celebrate. He hugged Farmer as the Kentucky player collapsed in agony in front of the Duke bench. “I couldn’t … it’s almost like I couldn’t stand to see that kid like that,” Krzyzewski says, watching a replay of the game with the author.
Hill, who still plays in the NBA, reveals just how improbable Duke’s win was. Woods had just banked in an all-but-impossible shot over Laettner to give Kentucky a 1-point lead with 2.1 seconds left. Krzyzewski told his players during the ensuing timeout that they would win (a familiar tactic), but, as Wojciechowski recounts, few believed him.
“Honestly, I had checked out going back to the huddle,” Hill tells Wojciechowski. “Literally, I was thinking, You know what, I guess I’ll go to Myrtle Beach next week.”
Instead, Hill, Laettner and Duke took a trip into college basketball immortality.
Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.