Christian Laettner exclusive: From the 'Dream Team' to the 'Z Team'

The 1992 Olympic champion, who features in the latest Olympic Channel original series, opens up on Coach K, 'The Shot' and why basketball players should refrain from social media.

Team USA, Duke and NBA legend Christian Laettner is one of the Olympic 'Super Coaches' of the second season of The Z Team.

The Olympic Channel original series features Olympic legends who have just one week to turn around a struggling youth team.

Laettner uses his coaching skills to revive the fortunes of the Garinger High School boy's varsity basketball team in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Barcelona '92 gold medallist sat down with the Olympic Channel to talk about his life in basketball, which saw him go from the 'Dream Team' to the 'Z Team'.

Olympic Channel: Your name is linked with the famous buzzer-beater which gave Duke University a 104-103 win against Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA tournament.

What was going through your mind before 'The Shot'?

When Sean Woods hit the bank shot over me with like three seconds left, I’m thinking: 'I don’t want to lose, I don’t want to lose'. And that’s the overriding factor. Nothing else is going on in my mind. The only thing is 'I love Duke, I love playing for Duke. I want to win another national championship. I want to win. I got to win. We got to win'. We were very well trained in that situation – that’s why you go to Duke, to be in the big games, to try to win at the last second, to try to be in the national championship. I mean, that’s why you go to Duke.

Laettner played for the basketball team  of Duke Universityfrom 1988–92 under coach Mike Krzyzewski.

And one of the things I’m most proud of is, as Sean Woods hits the shot I’m the first one callin’ time out. If you go to slo-mo and look at the videos, I think I’m the first person on the whole court to call time out. So, that only happens because you love Duke, and everything is so important to you about Duke basketball and then you’re also well trained in that situation, that end of game situation, which Coach K, he’s brilliant at teaching end of game situations. That’s one of my fondest memories, that we called time out so fast.

So we had 2.1 seconds left on the clock and then the next thing I remember is we’re walking over to Coach K to the time-out huddle and he immediately says, we’re gonna win, we can do this. And over the years, over the last 30 years, I’ve learned that Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley were like we’re not going to win, we’re going to Myrtle Beach, our season’s over.

But not me. I was maybe the only sucker on the team that believed in Coach K 100% and if that guy said we’re gonna win, I believed him. But it also comes from history and experience because two years before that, when I was a sophomore, I hit a shot against U of Connecticut to send us to the final four. So we had done it in the past. So Coach K says we’re gonna win, some of us are believing him, some of us aren’t.

And then he does a magnificent job in the huddle infusing us with some confidence. He asked Grant, can you make a pass? And Grant says, yeah I can make a pass. And that kind of makes everyone go yeah, maybe we can do this impossible feat. Then, he looks at me and in front of everybody, 'Can you make the catch?' 'Sure, coach, I’ll make the catch'. So he’s trying to slowly infuse a little bit of maybe we can do this. Even though all our fans in the crowd are 'oh my God, we’re going to lose'. Everybody’s crying, everybody’s breaking down. Even the players might be breaking down at that point, Coach K is doing everything he can to infuse us with a little bit of hope.

He did a great job there and then, we just went out and ran a play that we had worked on and practised it. We failed at the play against Wake Forest about two weeks earlier, so you know, failure and practice and doing it again and putting yourself in that same situation, it all comes back. And everything just worked out good. We got really lucky. Grant made a great pass. And I got lucky and made a nice shot at the end. It’s just some of the greatest memories and feelings of your life and that’s why people play sports and why people go to Duke and why everyone wants to hit a last second shot. It’s just awesome.

Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke Blue Devils celebrate their second consecutive NCAA championship in 1992

It sounds like Coach K instilled a lot of confidence, obviously taught you a lot. What was the biggest lesson you took from him?

I took a lot of good things away from him. I would say the single most important thing is perseverance, continue working and work hard and hang in there, all those types of things. But there were other things he emphasised, he emphasised team work and family, and passion and love for craft or love what you’re doing. But the biggest things are perseverance, discipline, hard work, intensity, I mean, he’s getting old himself and he still loves the game. I think he’s got at least 3-5 years left in him. It looks like he can continue to do it with his health and his passion and his love for the game and sure you can tell he’s older and he doesn’t yell and jump around as when I was there playing, but he’s still a very passionate coach.

Mike Krzyzewski has been coaching Duke University since 1980

You worked with Coach K when you went to the Olympics and you were part of the 'Dream Team'. How did he help you adjust to playing with those superstars?

He helped me during the 'Dream Team' experience because, if Coach K wasn’t there, I would have been kind of alone and maybe felt more like an outsider or a little more like the rookie because I was the rookie on the team. Having Coach K there I had a friend with me, I had a buddy. Someone who is supporting me and loves me. So that made the whole thing about being on the Dream Team a little easier, a little smoother for me.

How hard was it to come into a team like that?

On the Dream Team, I had just had to stay out of the way and not hurt anybody. And not get into anyone’s way. They were going to win. We were going to win without me or with me. I didn’t have to score any points. I loved that about being on the 'Dream Team'. I loved being on a team where I didn’t have to play well for us to win. That’s called no responsibility. Everybody loves no responsibility at some times. It was an absolute pleasure to be on that team.

I’m joking around a little bit but I’m also serious. I had to stay out of the way. Be a good quiet rookie and do the laundry and get their cigars when they wanted to but really stay out of the way, not hurt anybody. But it was so much fun. It was so much fun playing with the people that you designed your game after. In 1983, the first people I saw that were 6’10 that could handle the ball like guards were Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

So when I’m 14, 15 years old and 6’11, I’m trying to be like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, so it was so much fun to play with them.

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How did the Dream Team change international basketball?

You can’t even explain it. It’s just huge. When I was on the 'Dream Team' in 1992 they told us, they said this is going to make the game go global. And none of us knew what they were talking about and it did. It definitely did. And it started off because of the Dream Team. To go to Barcelona and have as much as the fanfare that we had, it was just crazy. The fans and the people over there in Europe, they were kind of ahead of our expectations on what we were thinking what was going to happen. And it was even bigger and more than we thought.

It was awesome to be a part of it. Even though I went something awesome with my senior year at Duke – we were like rock stars, everywhere we went it was a sellout. I went through that my senior year at Duke, but the 'Dream Team' experience for that month, or that month and a half, it was every crazier. It was a lot of fun and one of the best parts for me was that I got to invite my whole family. My whole family was involved in the experience so it was awesome.

What about the Olympics is so special that makes people like you or Michael Jordan or LeBron want to be a part of it?

Well, I think everyone grows up watching the Olympics. Every four years the Summer Olympics are on. Every four years the Winter Olympics are on. My parents did a great job of sitting us down and forcing us to watch the Olympics. The first year or two, they might have to force it on you but after that you do it by yourself because you love it. Jeez, even the speedskating is fun to watch. I was raised on all that stuff. To then be a part of it, to be able to represent your country and come back with a gold medal, if you asked 10-15 kids across the country, half of them might write something about the Olympics on it – at least when I was young they would do that. Now, it might be they want to be Facebook or something, I don’t know. When I was young a lot of kids would write, I want to be in the Olympics.

It was a great experience just to do it without being part of the 'Dream Team', just to be the Olympics. That would have been awesome. But then to do it with the Dream Team, it was very, very unique.

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How has your perspective changed on that success since then?

It just makes you realise that there were some awesome things going on there, some awesome memories. The thing that only gets you through it when you’re 22, you don’t really know the perspective or you can’t put it in context. You’re not mature enough to know how the world works and what makes the world turn and all that stuff. So you can’t even appreciate it. You don’t get caught up in it. You don’t realise the importance of it. I think that one of the things that lets you get through it untarnished is that you don’t know how important it is. You don’t realise that a sport is so important but jeez every Sunday during the NFL season people like to go watch the games. It pushes commerce. You don’t realise when you’re at Duke, you’re pushing the economic commerce of the world. Really. You don’t realise stuff like that when you’re young.

Most hated moniker. Were you aware of that at the time? Did you like that? Did you use that?

Was I aware of it when I was at Duke? We knew that there was a lot of people that loved Duke basketball when I was there. And we also knew there were a lot of people that did not like Duke basketball when I was there. You have a lot of rivals and a lot of foes. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what’s sports is all about.

Zion WIlliamson and RJ Barrett with Duke University

Social media has changed the way that people react to sports and sporting events. Have you ever thought what it would have been like to play in the social media era?

A few things would have gone viral, that’s for sure. When I hit UConn shot my sophomore year. It might have gone crazy then. And then when I hit the Kentucky shot my senior year, it might have gone crazy. And then when we lost by 30 to UNLV, that would have been fun to see. And then when we finally won our first championships. It would have been crazy. But I don’t mind that I wasn’t a part of that. The social media stuff is a little beyond me. Maybe I’m a little too old fashioned. It would have been crazy. Things would have gone viral. And I think I would have liked it less.

What advice do you have for current players regarding that?

I would say: 'hire a company to do it all for you'. Because there are things you need to focus on, like your physical body, your mental body, your health, your family, your loved one, yourself, feeding yourself, working out. There are so many things you need to handle in your own life and believe it or not, life will really go on even if social media will be eliminated from the world. Life will go on. While it’s a part of life and it’s marketing yourself, and it is important for some reasons, I would tell someone like a Zion (Williamson) or RJ Barrett, go ahead, have your own personal Twitter account, and do some stuff on there once in a while. But it is a distraction eventually.

And hire a firm or a company to do your daily three or four tweets that everyone suggests and do your two Facebook posts that everyone suggests. And everyone acts like it’s so fricking important, but the world would go on if Twitter and Facebook were annihilated from the face of the earth right now. The world would still go on. I understand the importance of it. And what it does. My perspective – and I’m 50 putting it all in context – but I still don’t agree with it all. So I would say because of that, hire a firm where a lady goes everywhere you go and she has your phone and she can do all the tweets, because that’s not what life is about.

When you’re 30 and you’re 35 and you realise you have kids, you realise that life is not about all that stuff.

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How has college basketball changed since you played?

College basketball has evolved with the game just like the NBA game is evolving. And when I was young, there were no centers shooting three pointers. And then, when I got in the NBA, half of the centers were shooting three pointers. Now, in the NBA, every center can shoot a three pointer. And every center has guard skills. And a lot of centers in the NBA can get triple doubles now because they all have guard skills. So the game has evolved like that. And the college game has evolved and the three point shot has changed things. The three point line has changed the way defence is played nowadays.

When I was in college, we took away the lane. We took away the pain.

We let the pass go to the three point shot but everyone’s getting better at that. So the defence has to change. I think it’s all changed for the better. I love seeing centers out there who have guard skills. That’s what I tried to be when I was young, my whole career when I played.

Basketball has been part of your life probably since you were a little kid. You are part of the Z Team for Olympic Channel. What has made you want to coach?

My last year in the NBA was '05 and for four years I didn’t step on a court. I didn’t go the YMCA and shoot around or anything. And then finally in 2010, I said something’s missing in my life. What is it? And the answer is: being on the court. So I immediately went and did a three month stint with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the D league which is now called the G league. So I did that and I was a little happier being on the court again.

I missed the game. I missed my life. My life is basketball. It is.

So coming back from that three month stint with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, I said I’m going to start my own academy and start doing camps and clinics and training sessions and working with high schools, and I’ve loved it. I love getting immediate results, so I love walking in the gym and saying, “do this!” and immediately the team’s a little better. I love doing coaches’ clinics because the coaches love to learn something that maybe Coach K taught me. Almost every coach in the country would love that. It’s a lot of fun.

I get a great response. People respect me and they show me so much respect and love that I appreciate it so much. I go there and I work with their team and you can tell the coach told the whole team 'this guy was awesome 30 years ago'. You can tell that the kids go home after the first night and they watch YouTube with their parents and they look at me a little different the second day. It’s a lot of fun but I do it because the person I look up to in my whole life more than anyone is my father and my mother and they were a coach and a teacher. I look up to that so much. And I love, love my dad so much and love my mother so much. I love the thought of being a coach and maybe having an effect on a player as much as my father had an effect on me.

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What was your Z Team experience like?

CL: The Z Team experience was awesome because first of all I think the concept is neat. I think having an old, retired Olympian to come back and to work with a team that’s struggling is a really neat idea. Over the last 9 years, I’ve realised that I enjoy working with teams that are struggling the most because they’re the ones that look at me when I’m talking to them with the most want in their eyes. They want to get better. If they really stink, they want to get better. I can just do the most simple, basic things with them and they appreciate it. When I go and workout with a team that’s a really good team, maybe a state championship team, there’s a little bit of we’ve already been there, we’re already a good team. So even though I’m from Duke and whatever that I’ve done in the NBA, the response is not the same from when you go to a team that’s really struggling and they’re so, they desire so much to get a little better.

And that’s what I love to see. I love to see the desire in their eyes.

Like 'geez, just give us anything and we’ll eat it up'. That’s how I tried to be when I was sitting on the bench looking at Coach K. I wanted him to know that 'just give us everything you’ve got and we’ll eat it up!'. It’s fun. It’s fun to be received like that. That’s why the Olympic Channel and the Z Team project appealed to me so much. I loved the fact that they were on a like an 11 game losing streak. And they would appreciate my help even if it was only a little bit.

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