My dad and I were on opposing sides during the greatest college basketball game ever played. He liked Duke and I rooted for Kentucky. At the time, I didn't really have a favorite basketball team because two years earlier my team, North Carolina State, fired Jimmy Valvano. That was the first blow to the team I grew up watching, and it was never going to recover. First it was Jimmy V, then Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe (Fire and Ice), and then Googs (Tom Gugliotta) was the last of the good recruits. Corchiani was the first NCAA point guard to 1,000 assists, contributing to Monroe's scoring. Monroe is still North Carolina State's leading scorer, and the two formed possibly the best back court in the country at the time. Valvano's replacement, Les Robinson, was never able to get the program going again.
Over the last 25 years Pop has become a solid Duke fan, and he watches nearly every game. Back then he liked Duke, but he really was just a fan of the ACC. What most excited him were point guards who hustled, so we shared Corchiani while he was at State. But I think if you asked my dad who his favorite basketball player of all time is, it would be Bobby Hurley. He is still the guard by which we measure Duke point guards even though he would probably begrudgingly say that Jay Williams is better.
It cant be overstated how much hatred there was for Duke and its players then. Pretty much everyone stayed until his senior season, so we all had time to grow to love or hate certain players, and everyone outside of Duke fans hated Christian Laettner. If you haven't seen the 30 for 30 documentary Everybody Hates Christian Laettner it's worth it if you love college basketball. I hated Laettner and hated Hurley maybe a little less, so it was an easy choice to root for Kentucky that night.
Our stance on the game mirrored our personal lives then too. I was independent and becoming more combative and preoccupied with friends. I remember arguing a lot and not really liking him much of the time through my teenage years. I know that's not unusual, and there were plenty of good things, but our age gap was especially large. My dad graduated high school in 1950 and was married before his senior year. By my senior year in 1994 I was busy trying to figure out pulling off getting an earring or smoking weed without him noticing.
The first four years of the 1990s will always be my favorite college basketball years. I was still young enough to look up to the players and there were great ones, some of whom you may only remember by my mentioning them now - Calbert Cheaney, Malik Sealy, "Baby Jordan" Harold Miner, Jimmy Jackson, and Walt Williams. Then there are the ones we all know - Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, and the Fab Five at Michigan, led by Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard. My intention is not to make a list, but for a young sports fan these players were and always will be the ones I say are the greatest college players ever. The heroes of our youth are always heroes to us in some way. There was no context then for me for those players or anything else for that matter, and the time period is so far gone it's hard to look back and see everything for what it really was.
But maybe those players mean more to me than just the guys I tried to dress like or play like, even if I had no business wearing black socks and sneakers since I have the whitest legs ever. In many ways those guys and the games were the life raft that kept my dad's and my relationship afloat during my teenage years. We watched a lot of college basketball together. It was the only thing I remember being able to talk about freely without one of us provoking the other over an issue large or small.
I had never, and have never, seen my dad as excited over a game as he was the Duke/Kentucky game of 1992. The game was so back and forth, and even though Kentucky got behind, Duke let them back in it, and the game went into overtime. During the timeout with 2.1 seconds left in the game Pop said that Grant Hill would throw the ball to Laettner and that he would make the shot. I said no way. It was impossible to throw the ball 3/4 of the court and get the shot off. Surely someone would tip it, or the player catching the ball would be in a bad spot and not get a good shot off. We were both on the edge of our seats in the living room. Grant Hill took a few steps to his right after receiving the ball from the referee and threw the pass. While the ball was in the air I was desperately waiting for someone to tip it and Pop was waiting for Laettner to catch it. He caught it, but I smiled when he dribbled. He didn't have enough time to dribble and Grant Hill agrees with me. We all know he had time ultimately and he ended the greatest game of all time with the most clutch shot of all time. My dad shouted, Ha!, and slapped the ottoman, falling forward out of the chair and kneeling on the floor. The only thing I remember feeling was disbelief. I do know there will never be a greater game. I have no objections to players leaving early, but it's lessened the college game. The stakes will never be as high as they were then. That Kentucky team was led by seniors, and the trip to the Finals would be Laettner's third as a Duke player.
The next season I found my favorite team. It was the Duke Blue Devils and they still are and will be no matter what. I know that because the '94-'95 team is probably my favorite and they went 13-18 under Pete Gaudet. That year they added a spunky little point guard named Steve Wojciechowski that my dad and I would bond over for the next four years. I may have started liking them because of Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, but I can't help but think that somewhere it was that I knew it was something I could share with my dad when I didn't feel like I could share much else. We still share it. He doesn't use the internet and after some dispute with his local newspaper a few years ago he doesn't get that either, so I call him before most every game to let him know they're on. We rehash the games and would have caught the first couple of rounds in Greenville this year had I been on the ball about getting tickets and not so preoccupied with my two young kids. Not that that's a bad thing of course, because there are a few things I've learned from him. Put your children first, grow and change for the better as you get older, and always enjoy that hustling Duke player that everyone else in the country hates.
And here's a little Fire and Ice if you need to be schooled...