Duke fans, or at least those who have been around for a while, will remember Bonnie Laettner.
Most of us knew her as Mrs. Laettner or Christian’s mom and most of us got to know her through television. She was a very visible parent and fan.
The irony of Christian choosing Duke is that she had her heart set on UNC and, the story linked here tells us, she cried when he chose Duke.
Smith may have cried too when he realized how good Laettner was going to be.
The media circus is long gone over that team of course but Laettner was the unquestioned star. He had GQ looks and a mysterious charisma that drove people, whether you liked him or not, crazy.
We had courtside seats one Christmas and were literally steps away from the corner opposite Duke’s bench. The score was about 57-19 and the poor kid on the other team fell on a loose ball just in front of us.
Laettner was on him in a heartbeat and we mean all over him. He had his arms spread and he was screaming like a marine storming a machine gun nest, just yelling his head off.
It was amazing to see. Who cared about this game? Duke was up by a ton, it was a Christmas game, and here this poor schmuck was on the floor with this giant screaming his head off and it was NOT friendly.
Even three rows back it was intimidating.
And of course he was a polarizing figure. Duke fans mostly loved him. Teenage girls definitely loved him. But not everyone did, including, at times, his teammates.
We saw a Coach K quote recently that said he was like a building super and if you got him going the right way the building would stay stoked and warm but if you got him going the wrong way he might burn it down.
People loved him or hated him. There wasn’t much in between when it came to Christian Laettner.
Yet it’s safe to say that no one loved him more than his mother.
And you say well yes, of course she did and that’s true. She was his mom. Obviously she loved him.
Even from a distance though you could tell that Bonnie Laettner loved her son fiercely as she no doubt loved all of her children, but Christian got an extra dose, at least after he got to Duke.
And it was precisely because he was so polarizing.
Can you imagine what it was like for his mother? The woman who fought for him, who pushed to get him into the Nichol School, where young Christian had to do janitorial duties to help with his tuition? Who was always in his corner?
Can you begin to imagine seeing your son smeared and derided on a daily basis? Good thing it was before the Web took off.
Christian was strong enough to take it. One suspected he relished it, that he got up to see who had insulted him that morning and just put it in that boiler that heated the building he watched over.
But his mother...what did she think when Shaquille O’ Neal went to the locker room and started screaming about “that faggot Laettner!” What would she think about the big deal made when he put his foot on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake’s stomach and tapped, and that was transmogrified into a stomp? Timberlake got up and laughed and clapped, remember, because he had gotten the better of Laettner. There was no pain involved. But it became iconic and an example of something people came to hate about Laettner and which stuck to Duke long after he left.
She watched as people said horrible things about her son, who she loved dearly, and read cruel comments about him in the media.
In 1992, one of the more memorable images of Mrs. Laettner was of her in a neck brace, muttering, obviously angry as Duke beat Michigan to win its second straight national championship.
We asked someone later - why was she angry?
And we were told that she was essentially cursing all the people who had said cruel and unfair things about her son and how glad she was that it was over and she wouldn't have to hear her baby lied about and insulted like that anymore.
Didn’t completely work out that way of course. The intensity faded but people who disliked Laettner never really stopped disliking him. It became a sort of cottage industry.
Years later he made a conscious effort to come to terms with that. He spent time in Kentucky, even coaching a charity team in Rupp. He as much as said that he had grown up and he didn’t much like who he had been then either.
His mother of course knew his deepest nature as all mothers do. She recognized his finer points that he hid from most of the world.
All we saw was this raw competitive fire, this fierce nature that scared opponents, this young man who tapped into something most us could never understand.
Even his mother wasn't sure. Where did it come from? She mused once. It wasn’t from his father who, she said, was a gentle, easy man.
Well, you don’t have to look too far. Bonnie Laettner was an extraordinarily tough lady. She had vast amounts of love for her children, but if you’re looking for the secrets of Laettner’s fire, you can start with her.
We feel bad for everything she endured as a result of his meteoric ride through college basketball but everyone should be loved the way she loved her son.
Everyone should be that lucky once in their life.
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