College basketball coaches forever have spoken of the importance of team chemistry, and, from all appearances, top-ranked and defending national champion Duke is an example of a team whose players seem to be in perfect sync.
Did you see the Blue Devils rolling around the court Saturday night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, celebrating Christian Laettner's game-winning shot against Kentucky?
In this case, appearances can be a little deceiving.
No, the Duke players didn't go their separate ways once they got back to Durham, N.C. But the team's two major stars, Laettner and Bobby Hurley, probably did, given that they hardly have been the best of friends since Hurley showed up three years ago.
"We get along better than we used to on the court," Hurley said last week. "Off the court, he's not one of my better friends."
They come from dissimilar personal and playing backgrounds. Laettner, a 6-foot-11 center, was the star at a prep school outside Buffalo, N.Y. Hurley, a 6-0 point guard, was the coach's son on a St. Anthony's High School team filled with other future Division I players in Jersey City, N.J.
But the relationship got off to a rocky start during Hurley's freshman season. When he would force passes inside or shots outside, Laettner, then a sophomore, would scream at Hurley. The low point came during the semifinals of the ACC tournament, when the two seemed to be battling each other more than Georgia Tech.
"We were just arguing on the court," recalled Hurley. "I was dribbling and he was yelling at me, so I started yelling back at him. I almost got a 10-second count [backcourt violation]. It's gotten a little better over the years, but he really hasn't changed."
Fast forward to Saturday's overtime win in the NCAA East Regional final, which put Duke (32-2) in its fifth straight Final Four. Aside from the game-winning basket, aside from the perfect 10 Laettner shot from both the field and free-throw line in a 31-point performance, the lasting memory came midway through the second half.
After Laettner was fouled by Kentucky freshman Aminu Timberlake, both players tumbled to the ground. As Laettner got up, he stepped over -- and then on -- Timberlake. He received a technical foul, as well as a personal, and Wildcats guard Richie Farmer said later that it helped fuel his team's comeback from a 12-point deficit.
"What it really told me about Laettner is that he's capable of being dumb," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils will play Indiana in the national semifinals Saturday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. "We lost our momentum.
"Christian's just very competitive, and most of the time he'll react by doing something positive," said Krzyzewski. "But I'd rather coach someone who'll react to what's going on around him than someone who won't."
It's the way they react that separates Hurley and Laettner. Earlier in his career, Hurley would whine, make a face or wave disgustedly at officials. Laettner merely would smirk. More recently, Hurley has tried to keep his emotions under control while Laettner's have become more apparent.
As Duke guard Thomas Hill said: "I think they're a bit alike. Maybe Bobby tries to keep it in, but you can usually tell how he feels. Christian wears his emotions on the cuff."
Each needs the other to be successful. Laettner would not have become the NCAA tournament's all-time leading scorer -- he passed Elvin Hayes Saturday night -- if he didn't have Hurley penetrating the lane. And Laettner has such good hands that even the toughest passes by Hurley, the record holder for assists in the NCAA tournament, often are turned into baskets.
"They both have had something to give the other," said Illinois State coach Bob Bender, who, as a Duke assistant, helped recruit Laettner and Hurley. "Bobby being that gritty Jersey City kid has worn off on Christian becoming tougher. I think that Christian having such a dominant personality has helped take some of the pressure off Bobby. Normally, the point guard is the leader, but, in this case, Christian is the leader."
"Both are similar in a lot of ways," said Krzyzewski. "Both have a good sense of humor. How they dress is different. How they comb their hair is different. One guys combs it on the side, and the other guy doesn't comb it. They're very competitive. I enjoy having different personalities on the team."
The way they relate to their teammates is different as well. Senior forward Brian Davis, Laettner's best friend and roommate, said at this year's ACC tournament that the center can come off as being "beyond arrogant."
"You have to understand that when you're on the court with your teammates, it's like being in a war," said Davis. "What somebody else is saying is in your best interest, so you should listen. When Christian yells at Bobby, he takes it personally."
Said Laettner: "When he was younger, Bobby would react vindictively. You don't want vindictiveness on a basketball team. But I think lately he's taking it a little better."
Said Hurley: "When I was a freshman and even last year, when Christian yelled at me, I would let it get to me no matter what he was saying. Now, if I agree with him, I'll change what I'm doing. But, if I don't, it'll go in one ear and out the other."
Said Laettner: "On every team, all the players don't have to get along. The most important thing a team can do is win."