As king of hill, Duke can be a royal perfect pain

April 03, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

MINNEAPOLIS -- Is there anything quite as irritating, quite as difficult to tolerate in others, as perfection?

Which would account for those out there who are actually rooting against Duke, the Practically Perfect Team.

There are those who have had more of the Dookies and their unrelenting success than they can possibly stomach, and now PTC they want the smirks wiped right off those smarmy, pompous, arrogant, infuriatingly angelic little faces.

"You'd be amazed at the stuff people throw at us some places, the things they say," said Mike Krzyzewski, the Practically Perfect Coach.

"I mean, it's like rasslin'. I would never have perceived old ladies with umbrellas saying those things."

Ah, but it is the American way. Nothing so churns our bile as someone who hasn't the decency to lose at least occasionally. We applaud excellence, but only until we perceive the winner to have overstayed his welcome at the trough. Then we want his head on a stick.

We can only take perfection in short bursts.

Krzyzewski, who frequently says just the right thing, observed: "Some people like people who win. Some people hate people who win. But people who win will never go unnoticed."

This, of course, will cause the anti-Dookies to go ballistic because it sounds so, well, so condescending, so detached, so Olympian, so Dookie. How dare he take an insult and then turn it to his advantage? And remain unemotional, too. He's not fighting fair.

"I've been all over this nation," said Christian Laettner, the Practically Perfect Player, "and I've found out one thing -- a lot of people in America don't like us."

In particular, they don't like him. Him with his moussed hair and his air of superiority. Him with his hypocritical chippiness and his overbearing cockiness. Him with his aloofness and his haughtiness.

They can't wait for him to get to the NBA. Try that act on Charles Barkley.

Laettner is touted as the next Larry Bird by some. But there are others who suspect he will turn out to be the next Danny Ferry instead.

He gave them exactly what they were looking for six nights ago in the Philadelphia Spectrum when he played the Practically Perfect Game against Kentucky, that 104-103 overtime pulsation that you never wanted to end.

He took 20 shots and made 20 shots -- nine two-pointers, one trey, 10 free throws -- including the turnaround fadeaway that redefined what is meant by "buzzer-beater."

"He's not afraid to fail," said Krzyzewski, which is a nice way to describe the supreme self-confidence such a play requires.

But it was what Laettner had done before that seemed even more revealing.

About him.

And about the Practically Perfect Team.

He took the most-watched single step since Neil Armstrong puffed up moon dust with "one small step for man, one giant step for mankind." In front of several million witnesses, and replay, Laettner planted one sneaker midway between the stomach and the chest of a Kentucky player who had fouled him and who was prone on the floor.

He did it on purpose, not to stomp in a rib cage, but in petulance. It was a pouty, adolescent act, gratuitous, designed not to injure but to intimidate and to instigate.

He turned his back and walked away, and it reminded you of the snotty little playground provocateur in grade school who would push from behind and then run inside.

Aminu Timberlake, the steppee, grinned and clapped gleefully as a technical was assessed Laettner, as though saying: "Ha! Caught you. Now everyone knows you're not the goody-goody they think."

Teacher's pet had been exposed.

So the Devils aren't angels after all.

Cherokee Parks, the tall freshman who is Laettner's heir apparent, confirmed suspicions when he said: "It's so Laettner. He's supposed to be like this all-America, this glamour boy, Mr. GQ. If you know Laettner, it's such a Laettner move to do something like that."

He and the other Dookies are familiar with the competitive ferocity, the ongoing criticism of their efforts, and the frequent insensitivity of the teammate they call "Late."

"What it revealed to me about Christian," said Krzyzewski, dryly, "was that he is capable of being dumb, because we lost momentum with that."

It also revealed what Krzyzewski said two years ago, when Duke was pitted against Nevada-Las Vegas in the national championship game, a match hyped as Boys Town against the Evil Empire.

"They make it sound like we don't even get acne," Krzyzewski said, clearly uncomfortable with Duke's too-pristine reputation.

"I mean, nobody's that perfect."

No one wanted to listen then.

But now they've had about all the perfection they can stand.

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