SCP: The game was also a major coming out party for Rick Pitino at Kentucky. But, he almost didn’t take the head job there. Why did Pitino decide to leave the Knicks for bluegrass country? Was it a decision he was always comfortable with?
GW: Pitino is and was a COLLEGE hoops coach. It’s what he loves most. Kentucky was the Roman Empire of college basketball. He was fascinated by the challenge. Plus, he said he thought he might lose a power struggle with the Knicks GM. In retrospect, had he known one important piece of information (also detailed in the book), he said he would have never left the Knicks.
SCP: Following the shot, Laettner was arguably the most famous basketball player in the world. He went from there to a title to the Dream Team and then… to Minnesota. His NBA career was above average, but certainly nothing compared to his fellow draft class players Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning or even Jamal Mashburn. Was he a bust?
GW: A bust? Nah. He played for a number of years in the NBA and was fairly productive. He suffered some injuries, and also suffered from playing on some crummy teams and for some crummy coaches. But here’s the thing to remember about Laettner: he was used to competing at the highest level. I think he was disappointed with the commitment (or lack of it) by some of his fellow NBA teammates. I think he loved college hoops and liked pro hoops. I think success in the NBA is dictated partly by which team you play for and what system and coach you’re paired with. I’m not sure Laettner was ever put in the right situation to succeed as a pro. But don’t get me wrong: I think he actually had a nice NBA career. But it wasn’t an extraordinary NBA career by any stretch. He also suffered his share of injuries.
SCP: The shot was amazing, but the pass that led to it was arguably more difficult. It helped turn Grant Hill into a star. Is he the best player to ever come out of Duke?
GW: From a pure athletic standpoint, yes. Duke had never had anyone like him, and I’m not sure they’ve had anyone close to him since. They’ve had guys in his mold, but nobody who actually did everything he did on a consistent basis. He transformed those 90-91 and 91-92 Duke teams. I’m not sure they would have won back-to-back championships without him. Every player on those teams would tell you Grant was the best player.
SCP: The ’92 tournament final was Duke-Michigan. That means the Fab Five. Obviously, a lot was written about what that team meant at the time, and ESPN did a great 30 for 30 on the Fab Five last year. 20 years later, what did that particular Michigan team mean to college basketball and society overall?
GW: I loved that 30 For 30 doc too on the Fab Five. But it killed me to see it on film. That’s because I had reported out all of the backstories, including the tense racial component, between Duke and Michigan a year earlier. So the doc, which aired before the release of my book, sort of undercut my project. But that’s how it goes, right? Anyway, I’m not sure that Michigan team had any lasting basketball meaning. It didn’t transform the actual way we played the game. But it did do two things: it redefined the thinking relative to true freshmen, and it resonated with a growing hip-hop culture. We’re never going back to short shorts. Black socks are here to stay. The Fab Five was the anti-Duke. But the truth is, the Fab Five never won a national championship. In one sense, it overachieved culturally, but underachieved in a basketball sense.
SCP: What are some of the lesser stars of that game up to these days? I’m especially interested in Gimel Martinez from Kentucky. He looked like he was 35, it felt like he was at Kentucky for 10 years and he had a championship mustache.