Laettner craves chance to revive career

Presence of Jordan, Collins excites veteran

Pro Basketball

October 04, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- He has faded into the oblivion of a career as an NBA journeyman, nearly a decade removed from leading Duke to its second straight national championship and being the only college player on the original U.S. Olympic Dream Team.

Christian Laettner has played for five teams and nine coaches in nine seasons as a pro, briefly finding success during a three-year run with the Atlanta Hawks before moving on again. At 32, Laettner is hoping that Michael Jordan's return to the NBA will also help resuscitate his own sagging career.

"Every year is a great opportunity," Laettner said earlier this week before heading with Jordan and the rest of the Washington Wizards to the team's training camp at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. "This is no different ... but I'm a little more excited this year."

Certainly more than he was toward the end of last season, when Laettner was traded from an up-and-coming team in Dallas to the downtrodden Wizards in the seven-player deal that sent Juwan Howard to the Mavericks. With a chance to start at power forward this year, Laettner's productivity could increase from the 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game he averaged in 28 starts with the Wizards last season.

It is not just the chance to play with Jordan for the first time since Laettner was a "wide-eyed kid" on the star-studded, gold-medal winning team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. It is also a chance to play for new Wizards coach Doug Collins.

"I think it helps me in my situation here," said Laettner. "I wanted to be here regardless of whether he [Jordan] was going to be here. Once I found out he was playing, I was excited. ... I expect his presence and Doug Collins' presence to [get us) over a .500 record."

Laettner believes the coaching style Collins brings to the Wizards -- that of a detail-oriented disciplinarian -- is reminiscent of his college coach, Mike Krzyzewski. It is something Laettner said he has been looking for since being drafted third overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1992.

While Laettner has played for a wide range of coaches -- four in a little less than four years in Minnesota alone -- he described most as being laid back, a personality trait that never has been used in talking about Collins in his stops in Chicago and Detroit.

"If Doug Collins lays some rules out ... I've heard if you don't do what he says, he'll say something to you," said Laettner. "That's great. It'll just be easier for us all to stay on the same page, to look at the way we have to play."

After a remarkable college career during which he was named national Player of the Year as a senior and hit two game-winning shots in NCAA tournament games -- including the famous shot to beat Kentucky in the Sweet 16 -- Laettner's pro career has been filled with a lot of moot points.

"What I'm hoping for is that he can finish his career with such a positive that maybe it will wash away some of the negative experiences," Collins said of a player who has been with more bad teams than good ones.

A player who has averaged 14.6 points a game -- including 18.1 points and a career-best 8.8 rebounds in Atlanta in 1996-97, when he made his only All-Star appearance, Laettner finished last season under 10 points for the first time in a full season.

Despite the modest statistics the 6-11, 245-pound forward averaged with the Wizards last season, the team saw enough to resign Laettner to a four-year, $21 million contract. It has mostly to do with Collins, whose son Chris was being recruited by Duke during Laettner's senior year.

"I've always felt that Christian was a terrific basketball player," Collins said after practice last night. "He's a very skilled player, he knows how to play. He loves to play the game when it's being played the right way.

"And when it's not, he gets very frustrated and very disappointed and those feelings show. I see in Christian everything I wanted and more."

In many ways, Laettner was as demanding of the Blue Devils as Jordan was during his 13-year, six-championship career with the Bulls and is expected to be with the Wizards.

Laettner is looking forward to Jordan pushing him, even if it means being the focal point of one of Jordan's famous putdowns.

"You want that atmosphere," said Laettner. "The more people you have on your team like that, the better your team will be."

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