' ' Cinema Romantico: 30 for 30: I Hate Christian Laettner

Thursday, March 19, 2015

30 for 30: I Hate Christian Laettner

Alexander Wolff, in recounting for Sports Illustrated perhaps the greatest college basketball game ever played, summarized the contest’s most important player, Duke’s Christian Laettner, this way: “the plot honored the cardinal rule of good storytelling – don't make the hero a one-dimensional character.” Laettner was the hero, yes, in so much as he sank the winning shot but he was also the villain, a designation earned by stomping on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake who was defenselessly sprawled on the floor. Laettner may have already been the most reviled player in the sport but this was the singular moment cementing his legendarily maleficent status, the stomp seen around the world. In the ensuing years, no matter what defense anyone raised for him, you could roll that clip and say “Yeah? So?”

In Rory Karpf’s inflammatorily titled “I Hate Christian Laettner”, the latest entry into ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, the titular subject says he stomped on Timberlake because he thought Timberlake had pushed him, only to realize later he’d singled out the wrong guy. That sounds like a roll-your-eyes justification. Except Karpf shows the moment to which Laettner is referring when, sure enough, a Kentucky player blindsides Laettner, shoving him out of bounds and to the floor. It is, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, more malicious than Laettner’s stomp. That’s not to excuse Laettner, of course. After all, it’s a classic case of Second Guy Gets Caught. Yet, it muddies the pictures, and it crystallizes the intent of “I Hate Christian Laettner”, which seeks not to exonerate the man for whom it’s named but add extra dimension to his story.

How did this one person come to carry so much of collective college basketball fandom’s animosity on his back? And while it might make sports stats geeks throw up in their mouths, Karpf ties it back to culture’s need to impose narrative on sports, to cast athletes as heroes and villains. It’s the populist viewpoint, and though Twitter autocrats like Jay Bilas view sports populism as “drivel”, well, his former pupil (Bilas was an assistant coach at Duke during that era) is proof positive that sports populism holds serious cultural cache. It’s why Karpf interviews wrestling heel Ric Flair and employs no less authority than Dr. Evil’s #2 as his narrator. And when interviewees speak of their Laettner hatred, they often resort to ancient storytelling archetypes, and the doc boils this eternal aversion down to “5 Points” – privilege, bullying, whiteness, looks, and plain greatness.

Some points Karpf backs up, like the bullying that was apparently born, in another storytelling archetype come true, from his big brother. Other points he is intent to refute, like the privilege, which went hand-in-hand more with Laettner’s scholarship to a prestigious university than his actual background. Michigan’s Jalen Rose smites Duke for recruiting players of affluence, yet Duke recruited Chris Webber, Rose's teammate, and Laettner's family life trends lower to middle class much more than hoity-toity. Yet the doc whiffs on more incendiary subject matter, like race. Rose and other black basketball players interviewed, such as UNLV’s Anderson Hunt, admit to pre-conceived suspicions about Laettner’s actual abilities before competing against him. It alludes to the origin of these doubts stemming from his “whiteness” but Karpf doesn’t have the cojones to press the matter. Nor does he follow up Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson’s theorizing that Laettner's style of aggressive, trash-talking play was “appropriating black styles of basketball projection but onto white bodies.” The film just lets this intriguing analysis lie there, feeling frustratingly incomplete, as if Karpf doesn’t want to wrestle with anything more significant than how Laettner kind of resembles Billy Zabka in “The Karate Kid.”

The real Christian Laettner, frankly, remains an enigma, and perhaps that’s the point. The doc’s overriding argument is less about the person than the person becoming the face of an institution viewed in general terms as “the establishment”. This effete school was already on its way to becoming the sport’s evil empire and Laettner turned out to be its timeless face. People still hate Christian Laettner because they still hate Duke, and vice-versa. Nevertheless, by portraying him as a symbol, the film shortchanges his psychological makeup. He claims only to care about what his friends and family think of him and comes across okay with his place as pop culture antihero, but it’s impossible not to be left with the sense of some motivational force left unearthed.

Early in the film we see home video of a game during Laettner’s prep school days when a fight between his team and another erupts. As it does, the camera catches Laettner evading harm’s way just as the event escalates to an out-and-out brawl, and you can’t help but wonder the question no one asks – did he incite it? Who knows? Like that fight, he spends the film in the open even as he’s subtly sliding right out of view.


Dan said...

I'm so intrigued to see this movie, and I didn't know Ric Flair was in it. Woo! I did not like Laettner as a player, and the material on him in the Fab Five movie (and the Dream Team one I think) was fascinating.

Alex Withrow said...

This sounds like a great 30 for 30. Going to check it out right away. Thanks for the review!