BEMIDJI – It is not too often that children are able to get basketball instruction from an NBA all-star, Olympic gold medalist or one of the greatest players in the history of college basketball.
On Saturday young basketball players in the Bemidji area were able to receive that instruction at the Bemidji Middle School from the founder of Christian Laettner’s Basketball Academy.
The event was put on by Oak Hills Christian College. The school’s athletic director, Dan Hovestol, said there were 115 kids at the clinic.
“I think it went well,” Laettner said of the event. “More than anything, I want to make sure the kids have a fun time. The second most important thing is to teach them drills and help them work on their skills.”
Laettner, who is best known by many for his game-winning turn-around shot that rallied Duke to a win over Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA East Regional championship game, said none of the kids at the camp imitated his shot.
“They don’t necessarily know who I am, but their parents might know,” Laettner said. “Eventually, maybe on the internet or maybe during March Madness, they will see the shot and say, ‘hey, that was that guy.’”
“If kids are still imitating the shot, that is awesome,” Laettner said. “It just shows what a historical moment in sports it was. It’s almost legendary. The neat part is, is that every March it is replayed, so it never really dies.”
Duke went on to win the NCAA National Championship in 1992 - Laettner’s senior year at Duke - for its second consecutive national title. Duke appeared in the Final Four in all four of Laettner’s seasons.
“Those teams, during all four of my years at Duke, were just unbelievable,” Laettner said. “It wasn’t solely because of our talent. It was mostly because of Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) and his system. Every second of all four years playing for him was just a dream come true.”
Laettner still holds the record for most career points and free throws made in the NCAA tournament.
In the summer of 1992, Laettner was chosen to be on the United States Olympic basketball team, later coined “The Dream Team” that cruised to a gold medal by winning every game by over 30 points. The team included stars such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton.
“That was another fantasy thing,” Laettner said of being on the 1992 Olympic team. “To be on that team and to play with those guys was a lot of fun. Just the experience of being in the Olympics and winning a gold medal is an unbelievable highlight in my life and my career.”
Laettner was the only one of the 12 players on the team without any NBA experience.
Also in the summer of 1992, Laettner was made the highest draft pick - at third overall - in Minnesota Timberwolves franchise history. Laettner spent the first three-and-a-half seasons of his 13-year NBA career with the Timberwolves before being traded to the Atlanta Hawks in 1996.
“I loved every second of it,” Laettner said of his playing career in Minnesota. “I loved living up here and loved the people up here. We may have not had the best success rate, but I still loved every minute of it.”
Laettner averaged 17.2 points per game during his time in Minnesota.
He says he enjoys Minnesota and makes it back up to the area quite regularly.
“I met my wife up here, so there are a lot of good memories,” Laettner said of Minnesota. “I still spend a lot of time up here every summer going fishing at Lake of the Woods.”
Since retiring from the NBA, Laettner has looked into buying shares in franchises, such as the Memphis Grizzlies in 2006 or the soccer team D.C. United in 2007, but his true passion is coaching.
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in coaching,” Laettner said. “Even when I was 25 I wanted to be in coaching. No offers were really coming my way in terms of coaching at the NBA or college level, so a few years ago I started my academy to make sure I could coach year-round.”
Last season Laettner got his first coaching opportunity with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA D-League as an assistant coach.
“It was a great experience,” Laettner said. “Since I have never coached before, it was really important for me to get some experience under my belt.”
Laettner remains optimistic that some day he will get his opportunity to coach at the NBA or collegiate level, but until then he will continue to direct the Christian Laettner Basketball Academy.
“Most importantly, I want them to have fun,” Laettner said. “But at the end of every day I will give the kids about 15 important things to remember. If they can remember two or three of those things and work on them, they are going to get better. That is what I want. I want these kids to get better at the game of basketball.”