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People Top 5
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- March 16, 1992
- Vol. 37
- No. 10
He's the Center of Attention
Duke's Christian Laettner Controls the Game on and Off the Basketball Court
"What you should write about me," says Laettner, his killer-blue eyes throwing sparks, "is this: 'He likes big cats and birds of prey! He likes Prince, and he likes Stephen King!' Write that, and you'll have a good picture of Christian Laettner."
Watching him trying to control the interview provides an even better picture. He can't seem to help himself. At 6'11" and 255 lbs., Laettner is a consensus All-America who led the Duke University Blue Devils to a national collegiate basketball championship last year and now, as a senior, is threatening to do it again. (This year's tournament begins March 19.) Along with Louisiana State University's Shaquille O'Neal, he is the premier big man in the college game, and he is certainly the most versatile. But preeminence on the court isn't enough for him. Neither, apparently, was appearing on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED or being named the Harvard Lampoon's Man of the Year in 1991. (He was the first collegiate sports star to be so honored.) Laettner has to dominate—or, at the very least, upset the existing order—everywhere he goes.
Take the so-called gay flap. According to his mother, Bonnie, and assorted Duke teammates, Laettner, 22, is an enterprising heterosexual who dates more than his share of women at Duke and elsewhere. Indeed, according to Laettner, he broke ties with a woman six months ago after virtually living with her for a year and has since found a new steady at another North Carolina school.
But freshman year he created a stir when he decided to shock some people by walking around campus holding another male student's hand. As Laettner saw it, he was joking at macho jock stereotypes. "I enjoy being mysterious," he says. "I enjoy the notoriety it brings."
He got more of it during sophomore year by winking at rumors that he and Brian Davis, his teammate and housemate, were gay. (Exhibit A for the prosecution? In a moment of exuberance during a nationally televised home game, Christian bussed Brian on the forehead after Brian had made a monster dunk.) Not one to give an inch on or off the court, Laettner told the Raleigh (N.C) News and Observer, "I spend 95 percent of my time with Brian. All I want to do is be with Brian." Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski advised SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that Davis and Laettner were having satirical fun at the expense of the media, à la Madonna and Sandra Bernhard. But to Laettner's amusement, the rumors persist. "I think Brian and I are both secure enough in our identity not to get uptight about such things," says Christian. "We're best friends, that's all."
Secure? If Laettner were any more secure, he'd be Fort Knox. The man was born confident. Bonnie likes to tell people how Christian brought home a kindergarten report card that warned, "Shows too much self-confidence." But then, Bonnie—a third-grade teacher in Angola, N.Y., who has three other children with her husband, newspaper printer George Laettner—may have unwittingly launched her third child's outsize ego. She named him after the moody, self-involved Marlon Brando character, Fletcher Christian, in Mutiny on the Bounty.
If anyone in the family tried to cut Christian down to size, it was his oldest brother, Christopher. "We played air hockey, football, any sport you can think of," says Christian, "and since Chris was four years older than me, he always beat me. I hated to lose, because every time I did, I would cry and he would laugh at me. I used to hate him for making me cry, but the overall thing was he was making me hate to lose, which is a good quality in my profession." (Today, coach Krzyzewski likens Laettner's competitive drive to "a forest fire.")
By his second year at Buffalo's posh Nichols School—which he attended on an athletic scholarship—it was clear that Christian, already well over 6', was going to be a basketball superstar. Ask Laettner how many colleges tried to recruit him and he grins. "Everyone!" he says. But he picked Duke because he admired both coach Krzyzewski and the school's academic reputation. As a freshman he played understudy to Danny Ferry, the 1989 National Player of the Year. But he hinted at things to come when he threw in 24 points against Georgetown University in the NCAA East Regional final.
During his four years at Duke, Laettner has proved to be a big-game player—most notably outscoring I Uiversity of Nevada—Las Vegas phenom Larry Johnson 28—13 in last year's NCAA tournament semifinals. He is hell on his opponents, a master at talking trash and wielding the well-placed elbow. Said University of Connecticut center Rod Sellers after one especially ferocious tête-à-tête: "I just wanted to kill him. In fact I still do."
Laettner is only slightly easier on his own teammates. Last year point guard Bobby Hurley, a star in his own right, got sick of Laettner's constant criticism and fought back. "It got so bad," says Hurley, "that I'd be dribbling up court—in the middle of a game!—and we'd be screaming at each other. See, I wasn't used to having people telling me what to do. But Laettner has so much confidence that he's not afraid to tell you how to improve your game."
To a man, though, the Duke players say they have benefited from being in Christian Laettner's classroom. Besides, what choice do they have? It's like a disease, they say. He competes in everything from Ping-Pong to piano, which he plays well enough to garner a living in a hotel bar. "He's fun to be around, because he's always trying to challenge you," says teammate Grant Hill with a laugh. "And you want to hurt him sooo bad!"
Heading toward this year's NCAA tournament, Laettner's star is only increasing in magnitude. This summer he expects to be one of the Top 5 players in the National Basketball Association draft and to sign a contract for millions. Laettner also has hopes of being picked for the Olympic team—though that will be dominated by established NBA players.
So he was not about to be offended a few weeks back when a bunch of North Carolina State fans spotted him during warm-ups and started chanting, "Fag-got! Fag-got!" Says Laettner: "I just winked at them."
Actually, he did more than wink. He puckered up and, with an operatic flourish, blew them a feathery kiss.
TOM NUGENT in Durham
- Tom Nugent.
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