On March 15, 2015, the ESPN Films: 30 for 30 franchise debuted its latest documentary, “I Hate Christian Laettner,” focusing on the life and career of one of the most talented and enigmatic college basketball players of the past 40 years. Per usual, I watched. I watched because I have watched almost every one of the 30 for 30 documentaries, and not one of them has disappointed. I watched because the story was right in my wheelhouse – I was in high school when Laettner was in college, and can remember watching almost every one of his signature games.
This article is going to touch on a common theme for me – sports and what they say about life. Many of you know, without me explaining to you, that sports always have a ton to say about the human condition. Some of you do not know this. It is this second group to which I have trouble relating. It is like having to explain to someone why the Grand Canyon is beautiful. Except that sports are more awesome than the Grand Canyon. I would eventually get tired of watching the Grand Canyon. I will never get tired of watching a montage of buzzer beaters and emotional players from the NCAA tournament (not sure if I can say “March Madness” without getting the blog sued for trademark infringement).
Already this year in the NCAA tournament, SMU’s Yanick Moreira choked back years while apologizing to his teammates for a “mistake” (goal tend that ended up being the winning basket) that the vast majority of professional analysts didn’t even think was a violation at the 2:00 minute mark.
Or what about the week that Georgia State coach Ron Hunter gave us? On March 15, Georgia State, whose leading scorer is Ron’s son, R.J., won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to clinch a ticket to the Big Dance. Ron celebrated so hard he tore his Achilles. So on March 19 he coached Georgia State’s game from a stool. When R.J. hit a three pointer to win the game, Ron celebrated so hard he fell off said stool. Then on March 21, Georgia State lost its second round game. But the lessons do not stop at the final whistle. Ron gave a very impressive, articulate performance in the post-game conference. That is, until he made the mistake of looking to the right and trying to talk about the son who just played his last game for his dad. And then he starts sobbing like a baby.
(If you are a dad and watch that and do not get teared up, go check with your family physician to see if you are, in fact, a Vulcan.) If you cannot find something in those two stories that teaches you about taking responsibility, love, family and why we are here . . . then I have to be honest, I can’t help you.
Inevitably watching the 30 for 30 documentaries will start my thoughts churning, and from the Laettner piece, I had four takeaways:
1. Christian Laettner is the best college player of my conscious lifetime.
I have memories of watching basketball that start around when I was 6 in 1980. I am confident in saying that from that time forward Laettner is the greatest college basketball player of my life. Laettner did not play a year of college basketball that his team did not go to the Final Four. He won two national championships. He still holds records for most points scored , free throws made and free throws attempted in the NCAA tournament. In Laettner’s college career he could have conceivably played in 24 NCAA tournament games. He played in 23. Laettner was the alpha male leader on what became the most hated team in college basketball, and he forever elevated the status of Duke basketball from pretty good to iconic. Laettner’s college career was so great that his pro career – which was really good – only looks disappointing because of its comparison to his college resume.
And here’s the other thing -- he won’t get knocked off that throne. Laettner is a vestige of a bygone era when players stayed in college for four years. These days if you are a great player you are gone in one year. If a basketball player stays for four years, it is prima facie evidence he is not elite. Thus, at whatever time I close my eyes in death, Christian Laettner will be still the greatest college basketball player of my lifetime.
2. It is impossible to get to know someone better, without liking them at least a little more.
“I Hate Christian Laettner” did a great job uncovering some things even I did not know about Laettner. For instance, that despite going to a private school and then Duke, his was a very blue-collar family. And it reminded me of exactly how vile some of the taunts he endured were, such as an arena full of opposing fans chanting homophobic slurs. I came away knowing him better, and liking him a little more.
This is not just true of the Laettner documentary . Rather, it is true of all documentaries I watch because it is a truth about life. It is almost impossible to get to know someone better without becoming at least a little fonder of them, without understanding them at least a little better and without at least having a little more context in which to evaluate their faults. During the Laettner documentary, his team plays the Michigan “Fab Five” team. I find myself, even though I know the results of the games, rooting a little for Duke, because I am seeing the story from their perspective. But guess what? Last year, when I watched the 30 for 30 on the Fab Five (curiously entitled The Fab Five), I was sort of rooting for Michigan in the exact same game.
Part of this, of course, is that I am getting pulled in by professional storytellers. But the other part is a truth I can apply. Getting to know someone may not, and sometimes should not, erase all their faults in your eyes. But you will always be the better for it.
Forget about Church v. World for a second, let’s just talk about inside the Church. We all know that there any number of sandbox fights we who call ourselves Christ-followers engage in with others who call themselves Christ-followers every day across denominational, generational and theological lines. Usually we make sure we do it on social media lest any outside the Church not get the chance to see us trading jabs with one another. Some of these issues we will never see eye-to-eye on. But how many of these skirmishes would be more civil, more productive, dare I say, more Christ-like, if we sat down with the person on the other end of that Facebook comment war? If we asked them about their kids and told them about ours. If we commiserated about raising toddlers and how our brackets were both busted.
3. Christian Laettner is still a jerk.
It would not be a Laettner documentary if it were all warm and fuzzies. In fact, given my past experiences with these, I expected to come away liking him more than I did. I remember watching “Brian and the Boz” the 30 for 30 on another outsized personality who engendered equal amounts love and hate, former Oklahoma football player Brian “The Boz” Bosworth. In that documentary I was amazed at Bosworth’s ability to be introspective and sometimes very critical of the choices he had made in his youth.
So, foolishly I expected the same of Laettner. Mistakes you say? When given the chance, Laettner stated that in looking back on those days he would not change a thing. Really, Christian? Really? Because you stepped on a dude’s midsection while he lay on the ground, in front of a national TV audience and at the risk of getting ejected, just because you could. Wouldn’t change that little detail?
Speaking of that detail, as the documentary aired, Laettner posts a video apology on Twitter to Aminu Timberlake, the Kentucky player on the other end of the stomp, saying, “I made a mistake when I stepped on you.” My questions are legion. If you want to apologize to Aminu Timberlake, how about calling Aminu Timberlake instead of tweeting him an apology? Why wait until a documentary about you is airing to apologize? And, you felt it necessary to clarify that you “made a mistake”? Thank goodness, Christian. All the years I have been wondering who was at fault in that incident – you or the dude you stepped on. So happy to have that cleared up.
But, good try anyway, Christian. It is difficult to match the rapid maturation of a guy who used to shave the sides of his head and call himself “the Boz.”
4. Christian’s people had his back, like they are supposed to do.
While I was watching “I Hate Christian Laettner,” my good friend Laura Rhoads was on my mind. Laura met Laettner on a tour of Duke when she was 14, was a die-hard Duke fan throughout high school, and graduated from Duke University. I thought about how Laura was watching the documentary through different eyes, ones more likely to give Christian the benefit of the doubt, or to see his side. Lest you think I am critical of Laura in that regard, I am not. Quite the contrary, if she did anything else I would be disappointed in her. Christian is her dude – childhood hero, reason she went to Duke, champion of her alma mater. She is supposed to see him through different eyes. Much like if you dare to criticize Jimmye Laycock (for the uninitiated – William and Mary alum and head football coach who turned down major college offers to be the backbone of my school’s football program 35 years) in my presence, even if your point is a good one, then you and I are about to have a problem, and have said problem quickly.
So Laura is in the back of my mind when I get near the end of the documentary, and they start focusing on the relationship between Duke head basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, and Laettner. There is this grainy video of Coack K (so called because no one wants to have to spell or say Krzyzewski) and Laettner each speaking about how much the other has meant to them at a year-end banquet. The fuzziness of the video makes it cooler, because you know that these were not remarks intended for public consumption. Both Coack K and Laettner get choked up, and the clip ends with Laettner saying, “I’ll miss playing for Coach K more than I miss playing for Duke.”
And there it is -- the bond -- my favorite part of sports. I listen to a more than healthy amount of sports radio. So, I speak with some authority when I say that ex-athletes, when asked what they miss most, almost to a man say “the locker room.” By that do they mean the smell of stale sweat and the off-chance of a MRSA infection? No, they mean the relationships, the camaraderie formed in pursuing a goal side-by-side with a person such that they become closer than all but your immediate family. Not the touch downs, not the slam dunks, not the championships – it is the bond that is hardest to replace.
I met Doug Paul, co-founder of this blog, when I was his coach in a little enterprise called tenn Bible quizzing. (Fill in your joke here. Doug’s wife Elizabeth swears there is a mockumentary waiting to be made here that would make the characters in “Best in Show” look cool by comparison.) We chased some goals together. We achieved some and missed others. Our relationship at the time was close, but sometimes volatile. We were both a little too young, too dumb and blessed with a weird combination of arrogance and self-doubt. This produced a number of cringe-worthy moments I hope are long forgotten.
But in the midst of it, we formed the bond. I do not see Doug as much as I would like. But when I do, he is one of those friends where you pick right back up. He is a pretty accomplished chap, and there is not much not to like. But if you do have an issue with him, take it up with someone else. I don’t want to hear about it.
Sean tries to explain the bond to Gerald in Good Will Hunting: “And why does he hang out with those retarded gorillas, as you called them? Because any one of them, if he asked them to, would take a fucking bat to your head, okay? It's called loyalty.”
So what do we make of the bond, or loyalty, or whatever you want to call it? I think we tend to minimize or trivialize it. “Of course Laura takes Laettner’s side, she went to Duke.” Or, “Of course Coach K loves Laettner, he got two championships out of it.” Or, “He is saying that just because he is Doug’s friend.” I think we treat it as less valuable or noteworthy than affection we bestow on someone because they are worthy.
But I think perhaps this might be backwards. I think perhaps this love based on a bond, this “just because” love, is maybe the closest we ever tread to divine love.
I try every day to grow in my relationship with Christ. I try to learn to act and think in ways that please him. But I fail a lot. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, there have been moments when the best, the very best, he could muster to say in my defense is, “He’s an asshole. But he’s my asshole. Created him, crossed the line that divides heaven and earth to pursue him, died for him, and will do anything save take away his free will to be in a relationship with him. So, say what you will about him, but say it somewhere else, because he’s mine.”
So we learn of this love through those with whom we have the bond. Now, of course, the trick is that he are supposed to learn to love everyone – strangers, enemies – with the same love we have for those with whom we have the bond. Like most things we are called to in Jesus’ teaching, it is hard, and we probably won’t get it finished on this side of eternity. But those persons of whom we say, “I have got their back no matter what,” those persons are our training wheels, our first taste of what it means to love as God loves us.