Monday, January 16, 2012

Half the title is right in book detailing 1992 Duke-Kentucky game

When TV shows air highlights of great finishes in NCAA basketball tournament history, they usually include moments like Michael Jordan's game-winning shot for North Carolina against Georgetown in 1982 and Lorenzo Charles' buzzer-beating dunk for North Carolina State a year later. They always finish with Christian Laettner.

The Duke senior made one of the most famous shots in basketball history in 1992 when he sent the Blue Devils to the Final Four with a jumper from the foul line after a length-of-the-court pass from Grant Hill. This also seems to be where college basketball's heyday stopped, because it's rare to hear about a team since then being held in the same regard - not even the Fab Five and Michigan, which Duke defeated for its second straight NCAA championship that season.

That makes one half of the title for the new book, "The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball," by ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski accurate. The game featured an amazing ending, and it was at the end of the era when players stayed in college for more than one or two years. With Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Jamal Mashburn, the game featured all-time college basketball players.

The second half of the title -- the claim that it changed basketball -- is a hook the book didn't really need.The shot is so famous that anyone who follows any level of basketball either remembers the game or has seen it on YouTube (it's been 20 years, so if you want to feel old, today's high school players weren't alive).

The book tells the story from each team's perspective, alternating between the two. For Duke, it starts with mini biographies of Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Christian Laettner and Brian Davis. For Kentucky, it starts when the Wildcats were nearly given the death penalty by the NCAA and Coach Rick Pitino was lured away from the Knicks in 1989.

It goes into the homes of potential recruits to show how the teams were put together. Then it goes inside practices and games -- the methods Kentucky strength and conditioning coach Ray "Rock" Oliver used to get players in shape will make you tired just reading them -- leading up to the game, which was held March 28, 1992 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

The recounting of the game is only about 25 percent of the book. But it includes the perspective of almost everyone involved, including the referees and the TV broadcast crew. The scenes after the game are telling, especially inside the tearful Kentucky locker room.

Part of the suspense is waiting for Wojciechowski to explain how the final play and those 2.1 seconds changed basketball. But it never happens.

The book continues with the Blue Devils on to the Final Four, where they win the national championship, and concludes with the participants reflecting on the game.

Perhaps it doesn't explain how those 2.1 seconds changed basketball because they didn't. They changed the lives of the people involved, but not the sport. In the mid-1990s, the best players began jumping from high school to the NBA, or staying in college for a couple years at the most. Teams lost their identities because they weren't together long enough like Duke or UNLV in the early 1990s.

But that wasn't a result of Laettner's shot or the Duke-Kentucky game. It just so happened that one of the greatest college basketball games ever played happened right before America's powerhouse teams turned into turnstiles on the way to the NBA.

The misleading hook aside, "The Last Great Game" is a must-read for college basketball fans. It tells readers a lot about the character of the players involved and the excitement and emotion in the arena that night. Kentucky nicknamed four players on that year's team "The Unforgettables." That's an apt description for the game, too.

- Howard Primer


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