Duke-Kentucky classic was welcome reprieve from sports' seamy side

March 30, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA -- It came along just when we needed it most.

Just when Sportsworld needed a good fumigating, a vigorous scrubbing.

Just when we were once again growing mold, rotting in the tawdry and the seamy, decomposing in more greed, more arrogance -- Mike Tyson, a looming hockey strike, David Cone, hTC those insanely escalating baseball salaries -- just when the stench had become unbearable in Sports-world, along came this game.

The Best Basketball Game Ever Played.

Duke 104, Kentucky 103, in overtime.

Wait, now. Don't lose it totally.

Best ever? Really? Is that an exaggeration?

Have we gotten swept up in the passion of the moment?

Does it need a qualifier?

Something like, best "college" game ever, thereby allowing room on the marquee for a personal favorite: Boston Celtics 128, Phoenix Suns 126, in triple overtime, 1976 NBA finals, a game played by walking dead.

Maybe what happened on Saturday night at The Spectrum, in the championship game of the East Regional, has its equals. Arguably, even its superiors.

But whenever hoopheads gather to debate, this is one that will be dredged from the memory banks. It may also live on longer than what preceded it because there were so many witnesses to this one.

Certainly no game of roundball with such consequence ever had a larger audience. The television ratings must have been stupendous. And even for the theatrical excess of TV, this was an incendiary moment.

There unfurled one of those extraordinary games that define a sport, that define the whole notion of competition.

Or as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a remarkably composed man in a profession of maniacs, told his players: "Fellas, I think we've just been part of history."

Indeed.

His coaching counterpart, the combustible Rick Pitino, said: "We don't think we lost. Oh, the score, yeah ... maybe. But we don't think we lost."

And they hadn't.

In the larger sense, they hadn't.

Duke won, and in the most gloriously theatrical way possible, on a shot taken with two-tenths of one second left, which is faster, for example, than you can hiccup.

But in defeat there was glory aplenty for Kentucky. In a strange way, perhaps more glory even than had it pulled off the upset.

Duke should forever cherish its opponent, because without Kentucky pushing them, the Devils never would have exceeded what they had presumed to be their limits.

And that, of course, is when sports is its grandest.

The defining face belonged to Thomas Hill, a spindly, spring-legged junior from Duke.

As Christian Laettner's winning jump shot splashed the netting and the arena shuddered with sound, Hill's face contorted into a contradictory mask of unspeakable anguish and indescribable elation.

He was caught between sob and shout.

Part of him tried to weep in disbelief and part of him tried to scream hosannas.

It was rather like the face of childbirth -- so much pain, so much release, so much rapture, all at once.

It was that kind of game, quivering with emotional tremors.

"How many kids, from each team," Krzyzewski wondered aloud, "made great plays today?"

Exactly the point. Too many to count.

In the last 33 seconds alone, when you should be paralyzed with fright, there were five different scores, 11 points in all.

There was no way to keep track of what you thought were turning points, no way to chronicle them all, to do them justice in the retelling. Each possession you were certain you had just seen the decisive play, and three seconds later it would be trumped, and three seconds after that the trump would be trumped.

Even literati who have been at this silly business for going on 36 years finally gave up trying to punch out words. What was the use? Everything changed, moment to moment. Just surrender to the moment.

And steal time you didn't have to savor something special.

What you carry away is the memory of the knotted-tie poise of Krzyzewski, who never lost his head while all about him others were, and how that grace under pressure was reflected in his unrattled players.

None was cooler than the man-child named Christian.

Laettner was nerveless at the free-throw line. It is the crucible of the sport. More players melt there than deliver.

But his face never betrayed so much as a tic of anxiety; his stroke was never the spasmed, short-armed jerk of the undone.

And he never missed.

The play that won the game, he was so coldly deliberate -- leaping to snatch that 80-foot pass, coming down, taking the time to dribble once, pivot, fake and then put up the shot -- you were certain he would never squeeze the trigger before the klaxon.

But he did.

With not half a heartbeat to spare.

He has a patrician bearing, the look of one who is a product of privilege and pampering. But he has the passion of the blacktop in him, too.

When he felt he had been undercut by a Kentucky defender who had fouled him, he stepped on the supine offender's stomach. It was decidedly premeditated.

Grievous lack of sportsmanship, to be sure. But at the moment, you also knew that Christian Laettner, appearances aside, would stand his ground and take no guff.

From anyone.

He can play on your team. Damn straight.

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