TULSA, Okla. — It is arguably the NCAA tournament’s most enduring image.
With defending national champion Duke trailing by one and only 2 seconds left in an epic overtime struggle with Kentucky, Christian Laettner catches a desperation pass from three-quarters of a court away. He dribbles once, whirls — and hits the game-winner. Never a doubt.
Pandemonium follows. The game’s best player runs off in jubilation as the Blue Devils head off to the Final Four. There, they’ll go on to win a second straight title.
Twenty years later, through an up-and-down NBA career and an even more turbulent venture into real estate, The Shot still follows Laettner. He’ll always be the subject of “Whatever happened to …” questions. Even more so as the NCAA tournament gets underway and especially this year, on the 20th anniversary.
The answer, for now: After a three-year period during which creditors have obtained judgments totaling more than $26 million against Laettner, a business partner and their companies, the former NBA All-Star is trying to rebuild and make a new mark in basketball — as a coach.
In a Tulsa convention center gym where most of the bright red seats were empty, Laettner got out on the court an hour before a recent game. He set a screen on an imaginary defender to free up a shot during pregame warm-ups, and stuck a hand in the face of a shooter.
Laettner’s job is to develop these young players to the point they’re ready to play in the NBA. If he does well enough, he’ll seek his own call-up to the big leagues.
“These guys are ready to go,” said Laettner, the lone assistant for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants of the NBA Developmental League. “They just need a break, they need an opportunity, they need to improve maybe just a very little bit.”
Laettner landed in Fort Wayne in January after some rocky times in his post-playing career.
He and former Duke teammate Brian Davis run a real estate business in Durham, N.C., and built up millions of dollars in debts while redeveloping old tobacco warehouses into apartments, condos and retail space.
Since 2009, at least 10 creditors have obtained judgments against Laettner, Davis and their companies because of debts related to real estate and a failed attempt to purchase the NBA Memphis Grizzlies in 2006, court and other public records reviewed by The Associated Press show.
Buffalo Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, who grew up with Davis in the Washington, D.C., area, obtained a $3.8 million judgment against Laettner and Davis in 2010 after the pair failed to repay a $3 million loan for real estate ventures in 2007. Merriman’s attorney, David Deitch, said Laettner and Davis still owe that money plus more than $300,000 in attorney’s fees.
Scottie Pippen, who played with Laettner on the “Dream Team” at the Olympics in 1992, won a $2.55 million judgment against the pair in 2010 after they failed to pay back money the ex-Bulls star contributed to their attempt to buy the Grizzlies.
In November 2010, Laettner’s attorney even raised the possibility of filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
“We’re getting through it and it’s been a huge battle, one of the hardest battles of my life because of … what happened to the economy four years ago,” Laettner said. “That battle is every day of my life.”
Bryan Sampson, the attorney for a San Diego man owed $1 million from the Grizzlies deal, called Laettner and Davis “novices” caught with too many highly-leveraged deals when the economy soured.
“What they were doing would have worked if the economy had continued to grow, but it didn’t,” Sampson said.
Laettner says he’s involved every day with the development that first crossed his mind when he was having trouble finding an apartment his senior year at Duke. He saw a market for professors and medical students seeking a place to live in the growing Research Triangle area.
But recently, he has had to sell off four buildings, bringing in $35 million to pay off debts.
Acknowledging his financial difficulties are a challenge, Laettner said “you’ve just got to persevere and hang in there and use all of your relationships and connections to get through it all.”
Whether or not he will succeed, there’s little doubt of Laettner’s willingness to fight.
“That kid was never afraid. And he loved playing on your home court. He loved playing in big games. And, boy, when you get a great player who likes those moments, I mean, you’re going to win a lot,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who puts Laettner in the top five college players all-time based on accomplishments and not talent.
“We won two national championships. He took us to four Final Fours. And he’s the same guy now, for me, the same guy. He believes in everything and I love Christian.”
Laettner’s hunger for the game never went away after 13 NBA seasons with Minnesota, Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, Washington and Miami. The forward averaged 12.8 points and was an All-Star once but laments now that he never had extended time in one city, or with one coach, to make a bid for a title.
After retiring in 2005, Laettner first got back into basketball by forming his own youth academy near his home in Jacksonville, Fla. But that only led to a desire see immediate results.
Laettner made it known at last year’s NBA combine that he was looking for a job, and got one this year in Fort Wayne.
“The idea of him coaching is not a surprise,” said former Duke teammate Grant Hill, noting that Laettner taught at youth basketball camps while in the NBA. “He’s always wanted to coach. He’s got a lot to offer.
“I think it’s hard to get your foot in the door as an assistant in the NBA, but I respect that he’s willing to do something that may not be super attractive in going down to the D-League and he’s working and he’s enjoying himself.”
After trading in his jersey for a double-breasted suit, the 42-year-old Laettner believes he has a base of knowledge to instill in his new pupils. Beyond leading Duke’s run, he was also the only college player on the “Dream Team” that won Olympic gold and the No. 3 overall pick in the 1992 NBA draft.
Success hasn’t come quickly for him as a coach. His Mad Ants are near the bottom of the D-League standings, having lost all 10 of their games in February, and yet he says he’s having an “absolute blast” — except for missing his wife and children back home.
Perhaps along the way, his players will pick up some of Laettner’s edge that rubbed people the wrong way. Earlier in the Kentucky game, he stepped on the chest of the Wildcats’ Aminu Timberlake.
He even had friction with his own point guard, Bobby Hurley, that seemed to drive both to play their best.
“He was demanding of himself and of the players that played with him and he liked to provoke guys but I had a blast playing with him,” said Hill, now with the Phoenix Suns and in his 17th year in the NBA.
“He was competitive.”
Laettner and Hill created a documentary called “Duke 91 & 92: Back to Back” that first aired Sunday night on truTV and takes a fresh look at that game in Philadelphia’s Spectrum and a play against Rick Pitino’s Wildcats that have never been forgotten.
It figures to be brought up even more if Duke and Kentucky — the top two teams in this year’s South Regional — end up playing again for a trip to the Final Four.
“I’m impressed by (the interest) but not surprised by it. It was a big game,” Laettner said. “I’m not the one that’s promoting it and keeping it out there on the forefront. It’s March Madness and it’s the power of college basketball, the power of the NCAA tournament — how it’s such a big sports spectacle.”