Yes, Kentucky Fans Still Hate Christian Laettner -- & Now There's a Film About It
March 29, 1992, is the one day that the proud Kentucky basketball fanbase would like to forget, the day that Christian Laettner famously knocked Kentucky out of the Elite Eight in the East Regional Final with a buzzer-beating dagger from just inside the key.
More than anything else, the shot created an overwhelming disdain for Laettner in the UK fan culture that is still very much alive in the present day. ESPN’s documentary series, ‘30 for 30,’ recently announced a new film called ‘I Hate Christian Laettner,’ to be aired March 15 on ESPN following Bracketology, an annual March Madness program that projects which teams will make the NCAA Tournament.
As much as Kentucky basketball fans hate to admit it, Laettner’s 1992 buzzer beater became the modern “shot heard ‘round the world,” to be endlessly repeated every year around tournament time, much to their chagrin. But what’s compelling about it is that fans who can’t remember the shot, or who weren’t even alive to see it, still hold a grudge.
During the recent broadcast of the Champions Classic, an annual event for four top basketball programs (Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State) to play one another, Kentucky fans were seen wearing blue shirts reading “I Still Hate Christian Laettner.” The C-A-T-S chant was started and audible during the Duke and Michigan State game.
Alex Robertson, 29, and Store Manager of Underground Printing, a Kentucky themed clothing store, does not remember the shot but still hates seeing it.
“It makes me want to puke,” said Robertson.
In one word, Robertson said Laettner’s shot can be described as “heartbreaking.” When asked why he felt that way without being able to remember the shot, his response was simple.
“You look at the banners,” said Robertson, describing Kentucky’s national championships. “You see one that’s not there that could be there.”
Robertson says part of the reason that he holds on to the grudge is because he was raised as a Kentucky fan. Both of his parents were big basketball fans, Robertson says, and would recall being infuriated by Laettner’s shot.
As for other younger generation fans, Robertson believes that their hate comes from being reminded of it in the media. Laettner’s shot is a common staple among March Madness highlight reels. A UPS commercial was released in March 2012 featuring the shot, famously angering the Kentucky fanbase, as well.
“Any good UK fan is going to not like that,” said Robertson. “We don’t like losing. We want to win by 30.”
Laettner, who has been framed as a Kentucky villain for over two decades, is not the only person to have a hand in taking away potential championships. Yet ill feelings don’t seem to follow the others around.
Miami Heat rookie point guard Shabazz Napier took part in two Connecticut tournament victories over Kentucky in the past four years. During his freshman year, Napier played 27 minutes in a Final Four game beating Kentucky, 56-55.
In the 2014 tournament, Napier met Kentucky again as a senior, this time leading the team to victory with 22 of Connecticut's 60 points in 39 minutes. Napier played a vital role in sealing another national championship, contributing over a third of the team’s final score.
The difference between Napier and Laettner is the media hype around them, says Robertson.
“You don’t see Shabazz Napier beating us every year in the tournament,” says Robertson, distinguishing the two players. “You don’t see a UPS commercial with that on there.”
While Laettner is best known for his game-winner, it was not his only infamous moment in the East Regional Final. During the heated game, Laettner received a technical foul for appearing to intentionally stomp on Kentucky forward Aminu Timberlake’s chest after he had fallen on the court.
“That was unseemly, unsportsmanlike, and just downright evil,” said Glenn Logan, Managing Editor of A Sea Of Blue, a SportsNation blog following Kentucky basketball. “That just outraged everyone, and then the rest of it made it worse.”
Emanuel Rawlings, a faithful Kentucky basketball fan for over 30 years, had similar thoughts on Laettner’s technical foul.
“It was one of the best games ever,” said Rawling. “Laettner was arrogant but great. But that stomp was personal.”
Rawlings remembers watching the Eastern Regional Final well at the Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge. More specifically, he recalls being “heated” following the buzzer beater.
Without selecting curse words, Rawlings’ only single word reaction was “Unbelievable.”
Logan, on the other hand, said the only word “that comes close” is “Apocalyptic.”
“It was a basketball apocalypse,” said Logan. “It was just as if the world stopped for a minute, like gravity had reversed itself or something.”
Logan described the surreal feeling of going to work the next day, where none of the fans would talk about the game. People would shake their heads, Logan said, but no one wanted to acknowledge it.
“It was like a funeral,” said Logan. “It was like somebody died.”
Logan now thinks of the shot as a basketball urban legend, suggesting people pass it on to one another as time goes on. He described the fanbase feelings toward Laettner as similar to something you grow up believing in as a child.
“It’s become like something you might read in the bible,” said Logan. “A sort of story you’ll never forget. Something you’re taught to feel a certain way about. It’s something passed on from father to son. We’re taught that we should hate Christian Laettner.”
Laettner literally became the “UK Villain” in 2011 when he coached the Villains, a team of NBA players known best in college for playing Kentucky, for a charity game against ex-Kentucky college players. The game reportedly raised $50,000.
Robertson sees the good in Laettner’s ability to embrace the hate for a good cause.
“Sometimes you just have to assume your role,” said Robertson. “If you gotta play a villain for a charity game that raises more money because you’re the villain, you’re still doing good.”
As for Laettner’s chances of being forgotten by the Kentucky fanbase, Robertson is convinced “it’s a wound that will never be closed.”
And one must assume that it is a wound that will keep being opened for young fans bleeding blue for generations to come.
This article first appeared at KyForward.com and is written by Jonathan Coffman. It is re-published with permission.