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1992: The cataclysm and its aftermath

It has recently come to my attention that there are some readers out there who did not live through March 28th, 1992, or were too young to remember the basketball game that completely changed the Big Blue Nation forever.  Almost 15 years later, it is still having an impact, resonating through Kentucky history like the 9/11 or Pearl Harbor resonates through U.S. history.  It was an event of such magnitude and power that even now, people will tell you that they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time.

It is unfortunate that most of the events which had the same kind of impact on the Big Blue Faithful do not really compare well because of their geopolitical ramifications.  Some may think it unfortunate in terms of importance to compare the 1992 Duke-Kentucky game to such terrible events as the assassination of President Kennedy, or even to 9/11/2001.  But the fact is, if we are going to talk about the affect that game had on Kentucky fans, we have very few life experiences to compare it to.  I am not alone in my comparison here, as Ritchie Farmer famously said, back before the events of 9/11:

"Oh, my God. People always remind me of that game. I compare it to when President Kennedy got shot. Everybody remembers exactly where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing when Christian Laettner hit that shot."
-- Richie Farmer, Kentucky guard 1988-92.

The fact that 9/11 and Kennedy's assassination had an impact not just on Kentucky, but on the whole world, doesn't change the reality that they are the only two events in my personal life for which I can say I know exactly what I was doing, who I was with, and remember the events in stark relief as if they were etched into my mind by the finger of God.  Those who grew up after 1992 can still watch the game on video, and read articles about it, but unless those articles are written by Kentucky fans, they often seem sterile and are almost always absent context.  So I will tell you about my memories of this great game, and the events of the aftermath.

It was a beautiful day in Kentucky, in my recollection.  A perfect spring day.  The anticipation of the Duke-UK match up was electric, but reaction in the Commonwealth was fairly muted.  Kentucky fans know thier basketball, and we all knew that Duke was far and away the better team in every measurable way -- talent, size, depth and experience.  All-American senior Christian Laettner was the Duke team leader and captain, and he was surrounded by future All-Americans like sophomore Grant Hill and junior Bobby Hurley.

Regardless, the Commonwealth was tremendously excited by the prospect of playing for a Final Four berth, even though very few dared hope that Kentucky would actually pull it off.  We were prepared for anything, even a blowout defeat or an upset victory.  But nobody was prepared for what happened that night -- not Rick Pitino, or Mike Krzyzewski, or Cawood Ledford -- nobody.

The first half of the game was exciting for both teams.  There was a lot of give and take.  Kentucky lead in the first few moments, and by the first TV timeout, the Cats were still up.  But by the second TV timeout, Duke had taken a lead it would not relinquish until very late in regulation.  But just before the half ended, with only 15 seconds left on the clock, an event would occur that to the Big Blue Nation can best be described in the words of Frank Herbert's Fremen: "Never to forgive.  Never to forget" -- the famous Laettner Stomp.

It happened strangely, when little-used UK sub Aminu Timberlake was fighting the much heavier and stronger Laettner for a rebound.  A foul was called on Laettner, and Timberlake fell to the floor and rolled on his back.  At this point, Christian Laettner inexplicably raised his foot and lightly stepped on Timberlake's chest.  It was, as anyone who saw it will tell you, the absolute height of unsportsmanlike behavior -- not really intended to injure, but the ultimate act of disrespect -- spurning an opponent with your foot.

This outrage went utterly unnoticed by the officials, but the TV announcers commented on it quite a bit, and rightfully so.  Timberlake made one of the two free throws, but they were not awarded because of Laettner's villainous behavior, but as a result of the rebound foul.  No action was taken against Laettner by the game officials, although he arguably should have been thrown out of the game for such misconduct.  Although Laettner received a technical foul for his misconduct, many, including me, thought that Laettner should have been thrown out of the game for his actions -- not because of an intent to harm a helpless man, but because what he did was so dastardly, so clearly deliberate, so filled with malice.  The Big Blue Nation was now fully aroused in its wrath, and Duke, who previous to this point had been considered and honorable foe, became an enemy.

By the last TV timeout in the second half, UK was down 12 points, and most of the Big Blue Faithful were preparing to resign themselves to a noble, hard-fought defeat.  I recall consoling myself at this point, and according the game log, this was with about 11:00 left in the game.  Mashburn had 3 fouls, and had come within an eyelash several times of getting his fourth.  Starting center Gimel Martinez had fouled out of the game.  Duke was beginning to show it's superior skills, and things were looking bleak for the Valiant Underdogs.

But suddenly, after Kentucky's first charged timeout in the second half, the Wildcats came alive.  Dale Brown made a driving layup and Mashburn drilled a three from the top of the key after a steal by Feldhaus, and suddenly, it was on again.  Duke called time with 10:25 to go, and what followed will live in UK legend for all time.

From that Duke timeout, the first of their charged timeouts in the second half, until the next stoppage over 5 minutes later, both Kentucky and Duke put on the most astonishing display of offensive basketball ever seen in NCAA history.  Dale Brown and Jamaal Mashburn, along with Christian Laettner and Thomas Hill, simply smoked the nets.  History will record that in that 5 minute stretch, nobody from either team missed a shot from the field.  In fact, from that point until the end of regulation, a combined total of only 3 shots would be missed from the field by both teams.  

At this point, the Kentucky faithful had gone from resignation to realization -- this game was winnable, and not only that, we were on the brink of completing a remarkable comeback from probation to playing for the national championship in only three years.  All the angst, doubt, anger, frustration and embarrassment that Kentucky fans had suffered since the famous Emory Air package fell open was on the verge of being expunged, and replaced by the joy and satisfaction of an unlikely return to the top of NCAA basketball.  Combined with Laettner's earlier malefaction, it was this perception, this hope of redemption and righteous vengeance against a suddenly malevolent foe that would serve as the canvas upon which the overtime and its aftermath would be painted.

The overtime is often included in the description of the bewildering display of offensive skill, but really, it was all about huge shots.  It seesawed back and forth, big shot after big shot, until Sean Woods made what we all thought at the time to be the biggest of them all -- an improbable runner, which looked kind of like an attempted layup from about 12 feet which amazingly banked hard off the backboard and somehow went straight into the basket.  It was one of those "Oh, no ... YES!" kind of shots that nobody wanted to see him take except the opposition.  But it worked out for the Cats.

At this point, there were only 2.2 seconds left in the game with the Wildcats ahead by one point, and I was sure we had won.  I had no doubt of it.  Nobody scored in games this huge from full court with that little time left.  Except this time.  When Grant Hill's pass arced smoothly toward Laettner, who hadn't missed a shot all day, I was yelling "Just tip it!  Don't foul!"  But we all know what happened.  Pelphrey missed tipping it, Feldhaus backed off, and Laettner nailed the jumper just outside the foul line.

My wife and I were in shock, as we had been watching this whole game at home.  At that point, we turned off the TV commentary and turned on WHAS and Cawood.  We heard Cawoods famous signoff, and Krzyzewski's kind comments, praising defeated Kentucky.  We were up late that night, but finally managed to go to bed.  It wasn't till the next day that the full force of this game struck the Big Blue Nation like a tsunami.

Work on Monday was surreal.  Nobody, not even the U of L fans, spoke about the game.  It was very much as if someone in the office had died suddenly, and the grief was still too near for anyone to speak of it.  Finally, around lunchtime, you could hear a few quiet conversations, short and sad.  It was eerie.  It took several days before things returned to normal.  I have never experienced anything quite like it with respect to a sporting event.

A few days later, the unthinkable and unprecedented happened.  In a ceremony unlike any ever conceived at venerable old UK, the jerseys of the team seniors were retired in the rafters of Rupp along with the great heroes of the past.  This had never been done, and it was normal for players to wait many years for their jersey to find its way into a permanent place in the rafters.  But extraordinary events were everywhere that year.

Even after we redeemed this loss in 1998 with Tubby's first team, the incredible event still resonates.  This is the origin of Kentucky's "Duke hate", the spring from which our rivalry with the Blue Devils flowed.  It is hard for those who grew up after this to really appreciate the hold this one game has over the Big Blue nation, the depth of sorrow at the stunning defeat, the ache in our chest over the foot insult by Laettner, the indignation at the condescensions of the Blue Devils and their fans.  As proud as Kentucky fans are, this was the ultimate, deadly insult to our psyche, an insult much like Frodo Baggins' wound by the Morgul knife at the hands of the Witch King of Angmar on the watchtower of Amon Sûl.  

Even in defeat, history will show that Kentucky returned to the pinnacle of college basketball. Just four years later, the Wildcats won their sixth national championship, and a short two years later, a seventh.  Glory has returned to the House that Rupp built, and the agony of 1992 has been soothed by a successful return to the elite of NCAA basketball.

But every March around NCAA tournament time, when CBS inevitably replays the Laettner shot, we feel the wound in our hearts, and in our spirits.  Like Frodo, our wound will never fully heal until we pass beyond the boundaries of this world.  Its hard to imagine, sometimes, the power that "the human drama of athletic competition" can hold over our lives.  This is one example of that power, as bitter and painful as it remains to those of the Wildcat Faithful who lived through it.

Update [2007-8-18 23:34:5 by Truzenzuzex]:  Thanks to jimsumner of the Duke Basketball Report for pointing out that I misspelled Christian Laettner's name throughout the piece, now corrected.  Also, the thread points out correctly that Laettner did receive a technical foul for that misbehavior, which I had forgotten and not accurately represented above.  I have since corrected that part of my story as well.  Thanks for the corrections, gentlemen.

Update [2007-8-19 7:26:27 by Truzenzuzex]:  In the unlikely event some people didn't know what I meant when I wrote "the indignation at the condescensions of the Blue Devils and their fans", I am unsurprised to find that after all these years, almost nothing has changed.  It's pretty instructive of many Duke fans to note not one hint of remorse seems to exist for Laettner's unsportsmanlike conduct.  They seem to be content to point out endlessly that Laettner didn't actually intend to hurt Timberlake, and in my recollection of events, that is an inarguable fact.

The other inarguable fact that Duke fans don't address is that their continuing benign acceptance of Laettner's malicious act, which has apparently metastasized over the years into outright pride in the "stomp".  In my mind, this is probably one of the biggest reasons for the continuing bad blood between the fans of the two programs.