Tonight’s NCAA national championship game between storied basketball programs Kentucky and Kansas probably won’t top the 1992 East Regional final between Duke and Kentucky. Sportswriter and ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski meticulously recaps that March Madness landmark twenty years later in The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball.
You’ll likely recall this contest or maybe you’ve seen the famous pass and shot this year in a UPS commercial as the perfect example of “logistics.” I was a sophomore on the Kentucky campus at the time and, like so many others throughout the Commonwealth, anxious to see the Wildcats emerge from shame and rebuilding. The game took place in the Philadelphia Spectrum. Wojciechowski couldn’t have offered a more appropriate metaphor than his comparison to the fictional fight that took place in the same arena, “Kentucky was Rocky Balboa. Duke was Apollo Creed.”
Though most know the game’s outcome, Wojciechowski generates anticipation. The author watched in awe from the stands as a Los Angeles Times reporter, and more recently unearthed the back story from a mountain of source material and a long series of interviews. The actual game tips off in chapter 12 of the 15 chapter book. The first 11 take the reader alternately to each campus during preceding seasons, explaining two very unique coaches, dynasties, and squads.
Duke had lost to Kentucky in the 1978 championship game, but had never won the prize when the university hired West Point grad Mike Krzyzewski in 1980. The University of Kentucky legend began under Coach Adolph Rupp and remained strong into the mid-1980s, but had fallen into disrepair under Eddie Sutton. As the NCAA sentenced the school for a variety of infractions, UK brought in Knicks coach Rick Pitino as a fixer to resurrect the Wildcats.
Wojciechowski acquaints the reader with these men and their philosophies, a Chicago Polish-American who never seems ruffled versus an intense New York Italian-American who requires pick-up games at 5:30 a.m. Krzyzewski was trained under Bobby Knight before working his way to Durham, North Carolina. He went from an unknown, having to slowly spell his name at his initial press conference, to five Final Four appearances in six years and the school’s first championship in 1991. Rick Pitino had taken an underdog Providence team to The Dance in 1987 and did a brief stint with the New York Knicks before accepting the job of miracle worker in the Bluegrass.
Wojciechowski colors well the closed practices in both Lexington and Durham with his interviews of coaching staff and players recalling their glory days. He also explains the basketball culture prevalent in Kentucky and along North Carolina’s Tobacco Road. With strict NCAA penalties banishing new recruits and a dark outlook causing other aspiring stars to dodge Kentucky, Pitino had to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Three homegrown players from the state’s eastern mountains—Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhause, and John Pelphrey—remained because they’d dreamed all their life of becoming star Wildcats. They were joined by Indiana’s Sean Woods. “The Unforgettables,” as they were later dubbed, remained loyal, and weren’t talented enough to draw much attention from elsewhere. Pitino’s solution: intense conditioning, full court press, and the 3-point shot.
The author entertainingly describes the boot camp that Pitino and his chief conditioning coach, Rock Oliver (known as, “the Antichrist”), created. “Oliver believed in pain,” Wojciechowski writes, “in sweat, in garbage cans for vomiting … and in his own original sadistic training device called ‘Coach Buddy.’” The former Ohio State football player had rigged an old manual push mower with a disc brake. When the somewhat cocky Sean Woods arrived on his first day in street clothes, Oliver set him straight with Coach Buddy. After about six minutes, Oliver recalls, “His lung was hanging out of his mouth.” He then offered him “a greasy pork chop in a dirty ashtray,” sending Woods to one of Oliver’s garbage cans.
The book also goes inside Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, Coach K’s recruiting of big man Christian Laettner, electric guard Bobby Hurley, and the two Hills—Grant and Thomas. More telling is the author’s description of the Blue Devil’s team dynamics, especially with the overbearing and complicated Laettner. Readers may be surprised by the all-star’s humble roots and two-sided persona. He earned the nickname “A--hole” from his own teammates (and a variety of other monikers from UK fans that year), while he also earned a massive respect for his determination to push these same teammates, arguably harder than their own coach.
By March of 1992, UK had acquired power forward Jamal Mashburn, who became the centerpiece for the Wildcats. Christian Laettner recalls the irony of the alleged mismatch years later with the author, “It’s these little white kids from Kentucky, and Mashburn, and I’m worried.” It turned out to be an evenly matched contest that no one in the Spectrum or in CBS’s broad television audience will ever forget. Both teams earned over 100 points and took the game into overtime, with Duke winning by a point. As you watch Kentucky and Kansas tonight, consider making The Last Great Game your next great read.
David Wolfford teaches government and politics in Cincinnati.