Christian Laettner is polarizing, often considered an NBA bust, and tends to be on the wrong side of many jokes. All of which are fine thoughts on the surface, but it undercuts some of the impact he had during his playing days.
Honestly, the more we treat him as many things he may tangibly be, but while ignoring what he very much was, we are doing a disservice to his playing career. A playing career, mind you, that I would argue earned a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
It feels redundant to do this, but nearly every Naismith Hall of Fame discussion NEEDS to start with this caveat: The Naismith Hall of Fame is not a professional hall of fame, or a domestic hall of fame, or any type of very specific hall… it is just a basketball hall of fame.
That’s important in the Laettner discussion because it is his college career that would theoretically help him get the nod, not his NBA career.
It is worth noting that his NBA career wasn’t as horrific as some make it seem, though. Maybe it was because he was such a polarizing player, or expectations on him were so incredibly high at the time due to his college career, but we often overlook the fact he did make an actual All-Star team (1997).
We also ignore that his career ended with him having scored 11,121 points, grabbed 5,806 rebounds, and despite trailing off towards the end of his run, finished with an admirable career average of 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Those are not bust numbers. Those are fine, if not slightly above-average, counting-stats for any player of any generation.
Are those numbers enough to get him in the Naismith Hall of Fame? Of course not, but we’re not discussing this in a professional-only vacuum.
Now that we’ve established he had a solid, even if only unspectacular NBA career, let’s take a gander at his college days.
Laettner, who is sincerely — at least arguably — one of the 10 best college players of all-time, had a hell of a career with the Duke Blue Devils.
During his four seasons at Duke, he reached the Final Four each and every season. Think about that for a second. Let that wash over your body. Because the patent absurdity of that happening — with help from teammates obviously — is insane.
Save for John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins teams, sheer preeminence isn’t the norm for college basketball. The design of the sport’s most popular attraction, the NCAA Tournament, is to have formulaic — if not planned to a minor degree — anarchy.
A single-game elimination tournament does not normally let greatness reign supreme consistently. Yet, those Duke teams, led by Laettner, did just that.
He would also win two national titles. That seems pretty important from a historical perspective, especially since “rings” is the thing most people seem to care about.
Furthermore, he was THE GUY on those Duke teams. Without trying to do a disservice to the talent he had around him, as they were indeed very good themselves, Laettner essentially forced future NBA prospect that scouts will salivate over, Grant Hill, to being the Robin to his Batman.
Finally, Laettner scored nearly 2,500 career points and was the college player of the year in 1992, setting numerous tournament records along the way. Just a few extra anecdotal stats to help put him in perspective. A cherry on this figurative milkshake of awesomeness.
Despite those impressive feats, he hasn’t even been nominated to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. Sure, he “got in” as a member of the original Dream Team, but that’s like claiming you kissed Halle Berry because you watched Swordfish a bunch of times.
Point being, at least bluntly: We should not hold his perceived failures at the NBA level against him. Coaches, such as Rick Pitino (inducted in 2013), who have had iffy at best professional coaching careers get the benefit of the doubt because of their complete and utter dominance at the college level.
And, at the college level, no matter how you feel about him as a person, Laettner was a world-beater, dominant, and a fixture on a Duke team that was the very literal face of the sport for four years.
With that, can’t the man at least get an honest look? Can’t he just get a nomination at this point?
After all, this is a general basketball Hall of Fame we are talking about. Leaving one of the greatest collegiate players of all-time, coupled with the historical significance he had in numerous areas, seems like a misguided attempt to leave a guy out simply because his NBA numbers weren’t that of seven-time All-Star.
Is this the Naismith Hall of Fame a general basketball hall or is it a professional one? Because it is meant to be the former, and because of that, Christian Laettner should have been inducted years ago.
Then again, better late than never.