Did Rick Pitino, then Kentucky coach, think Christian Laettner should have been ejected for "The Stomp?" You bet.
No single foul is more famous in Kentucky lore than the 1992 technical foul by Christian Laettner of the Duke Blue Devils upon the person of Aminu Timberlake in the 1992 NCAA Regional Final game in Philadelphia. No single act in the long and storied history of Kentucky Basketball is quicker to raise the hackles of the Big Blue Nation and produce "I Still Hate Christian Laettner" t-shirts and similar public excoriation of the former Blue Devils star.
But was "The Stomp" really a stomp? Larry Vaught wrote today:
Here’s what [Vaught's Views reader Glen] Story sent me: "I still believe that Laettner should have been tossed for stepping on Timberlake, but he wasn’t. I do believe that if he had literally stomped on Timberlake that the referees would have done no less than remove him from the game. That episode still gets our (UK fans) dandruff up. Duke isn’t very popular with UK fans. Someone once said, ‘The human race must find the equivalent of war if we are to survive.’ Sports is a great outlet for that. We don’t even have to sensationalize when talking about Kentucky basketball. Just bring up the subject and an audience is quickly gathered."
Story certainly is right about UK basketball quickly igniting passion in fans as it does even 20 years later when mentioning the Laettner stomp. Was it a stomp? Was it merely stepping on Timberlake without any malice? Should he have been ejected from the game?
Since I was sitting courtside for the game, it still seems to me that if it had been any player other than Laettner he would have been ejected. But since Laettner was the face of Duke basketball and the Blue Devils were the nation’s No. 1 team, I’ll always believe he got a break that someone like UK’s Deron Feldhaus would not have got if he had done the same thing to Laettner in that Philadelphia game.
Despite our attempts to be a reasoned voice for Kentucky basketball, A Sea of Blue has an admitted hard time being objective about this particular incident. I wrote a lengthy article about the Duke-Kentucky game a few years back, but as time has worn on, the distance from the event, and the three national titles since has put the pain of it pretty far out of my mind. So let's try again to examine this event more objectively.
First, let's go to the video:
This video, of course, is part of a retrospective done on the game by ESPN, and shows Laettner admitting his contact was a deliberate act, and the video evidence leaves little doubt it was malicious as well. What is also clear is that was not dangerous, and that Laettner had no intent to injure Timberlake physically.
But was it a stomp? Well, probably not.
What happened was deliberate, illegal contact in a dead ball situation. I can't locate the NCAA rules for the 1992 season, so we'll have to settle for 2008:
Section 29, Article 3:
c. (MEN) CLASS A and CLASS B technical fouls.
A CLASS A technical foul involves unsportsmanlike conduct or behavior by a player, substitute, coach or bench personnel. A CLASS B technical foul is an infraction of the rules that neither involves contact with an opponent nor causes contact with an opponent and falls below the limit of an unsportsmanlike act.
Examples of CLASS A and CLASS B technical fouls shall include:
1. Unsportsmanlike conduct; using profanity, vulgarity, taunting, baiting (CLASS A);
2. Requesting an excessive timeout (CLASS B); and
3. Hanging on the ring, except when doing so to prevent an injury (CLASS B).
f. Flagrant technical foul, dead ball. A flagrant technical foul can be either contact or non-contact.
1. A flagrant contact technical foul is severely or extremely contacting an opponent when the ball is dead.
a. An exception may be a foul committed by an airborne shooter.
Section 49. Penalty
Art. 1. A penalty for a foul is the charging of the offender with the foul and awarding one or more free throws, or awarding the ball to the opponent for a throw-in. For any flagrant foul, the penalty includes ejection of the offender.
Assuming the rule was substantially similar (at least in spirit) then with respect to unsportsmanlike contact during a dead-ball situation, what Laettner did looks like a flagrant technical dead-ball foul. The only thing that suggests any doubt at all is whether the contact met the definitions of "extremely" or "severely." There is no doubt whatever it was deliberate and ill-intentioned.
Here are some quotes from Gene Wojciechowski's seminal work, The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky, a book I highly recommend to you:
"Aminu Timberlake was the reason we should hvave won the game because Laettner should have been thrown out of the game," says [Kentucky coach Rick] Pitino ...
"People may not talk about it, but star players are treated differently, says [Jamal] Mashburn. "I don't think the officials had the balls to toss Christian Laettner out of the game. He probably should have been, but I wasn't surprised he wasn't."
"I wanted to punch [Laettner] in the face," says [Sean] Woods. "He stepped on the only guy on our team who wouldn't have gotten up and hit him. If the had done that to anybody else on out team, it wold have been a full-fledged brawl."
There's more, but they all are substantially similar in tone and substance. Every Kentucky player and coach agrees that Laettner should have been ejected. The rules today suggest he should have been ejected. I find it interesting that Mashburn essentially agrees with Larry Vaught's take that almost anyone else would have been ejected, but not the Duke star.
I think, though, there is a more important principle at stake here. Sports is about fair play and competition, and this was perhaps the most unsportsmanlike act ever committed in the game of college basketball that did not result in an injury. It is substantially similar, in my view, to deliberately striking another player in his genitals, and may be even worse, because Timberlake was completely defenseless from Laettner's assault.
So was it a stomp? I say, probably not. But it was, in it's essence, a kick (although not a hard or dangerous one), and kicking a man that's down is considered bad form even in a fistfight. It isn't even the fact that the incident was not intended to harm, but to intimidate -- in a way, that makes it all the more disturbing. Spurning someone with your foot while they are defenseless is a deadly, insufferable insult, and as Wojciechowski's book clearly points out, would have resulted in a knock-down, drag-out brawl if it had been anyone other than the pacifistic Timberlake.
My conclusion is that Laettner should have been ejected regardless of his status. Would his ejection have tragically damaged an immortal game in college basketball history? Yes, it would have, and that would have been one more unfortunate consequence of Laettner's misbehavior, albeit one that never happened.
With all that said, you can't turn back time. Defeating Duke with an ejected Laettner might have happened, but the interesting thing is that Kentucky's loss, and the way it happened, may have done more good for the UK program than a victory against a Laettner-less Duke team, which would have been an upset, but one that always carried an asterisk. That's somewhat the argument that Wojciechowski suggests in his book, and I have a feeling it may be right. We will never know for sure, though.
What I do know is that deliberately stepping on (but not injuring) a player who was down was a mistake, not a crime. No matter what, basketball history would be vastly different without "The Stomp" and its aftermath, and maybe even the worse for it not happening. Many Kentucky fans may never get over it, but I have. It was a long time ago, and who among us has not done something sinister that we wish we could take back when we were younger? That does not excuse what Laettner did, but it does provide a basis for putting it behind us. It would perhaps be easier if Laettner had simply apologized for the affair rather than constantly trying to excuse his conduct.
Sometimes the most unfortunate and nihilistic things make for the most delicious history. This is surely such a case.