Objections first, starting with the title: The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball, which occasions three protests all by itself.
First, just 10 percent of Gene Wojciechowski's new book actually treats the game itself, and it accomplishes that mean feat only by running through the action twice, once from each team's perspective. Second, there have of course been plenty of other great games since the now-legendary 1992 NCAA Tournament East Regional Final between Duke and Kentucky in Philadelphia; had Wojciechowski called it The Greatest Game instead, he'd have been closer to the mark. Thirdly, he never tells how exactly those final 2.1 seconds—the unforgettable Hill-to-Laettner 75-foot pass, pivot and swish—"changed basketball."
It's possible to extrapolate Wojciechowski's reasoning from the story he tells, although it arises from another, milder objection. While it would be foolish to deny the import of Christian Laettner's now iconic buzzer-beater, in The Last Great Game Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski himself zeroes in on a different shot: Bobby Hurley's clutch, almost rogue three-pointer, about a year earlier, against Nevada-Las Vegas in the 1991 national semifinal. The shot kept Duke close to UNLV at a pivotal late moment, and the Blue Devils wound up beating the heavily favored Runnin' Rebels. Two days later, they downed Kansas to win Krzyzewski's first NCAA Championship.
That triumph forever changed Duke's stature: It avenged a humiliating 30-point loss to UNLV in the 1990 NCAA Final; it finally gave Krzyzewski that elusive trophy, after he made the Final Four in four of the previous five years but fell short each time; and it snuffed out the Runnin' Rebels dynastic aspirations. Dogged by improprieties and scandal, head coach Jerry Tarkanian was forced out of UNLV a year after the loss. The Runnin' Rebels have not advanced past the Sweet Sixteen since. The Rebellion was quashed, and we are still living, 20 years later, in a Dukedom.
The reversal of fortune affected not only Duke and UNLV; it also helped change the image of NCAA hoops in American culture. Duke had clean-cut "Huxtable kind of kids," as Blue Devil guard Kenny Blakeney called them (he actually resembled The Cosby Show's Theo a bit): the pretty-boy Laettner, the Bart Simpsonish Hurley, and especially the well-bred, well-mannered Grant Hill. When they vanquished Tarkanian's "Tire Iron-Wielding Hells Angels from Altamont," in Wojciechowski's jocular description, the Blue Devils restored college basketball's, well, collegiate character, and made Duke "America's Sweetheart," Wojciechowski writes—reminding us that they haven't always been the Evil Empire that America now loves to hate.
Duke consolidated its good-guy power a year after dethroning UNLV, repeating as national champions in 1992 by beating the baggy-shorts, black-socks Fab Five freshmen of Michigan, "bad boys" in the UNLV mold. Wojciechowski rightly devotes much attention to the Duke-Michigan rivalry, which in the larger context of college basketball seems more important, in retrospect, than the Duke-Kentucky game. (Duke-Michigan got a full treatment in last year's absorbing ESPN documentary, The Fab Five, which notoriously reignited the embers of enmity when former Wolverine Jalen Rose dropped the "Uncle Tom" bomb on Hill.) Duke's dynasty-making second national title could not have occurred, of course, without Laettner's 2.1 seconds.
But the reader is left to infer all of that from The Last Great Game, throughout which Wojciechowski keeps his head down while ramming through 25 years of buildup, starting with Krzyzewski meeting his future wife in 1967. Books of this type, designed to appeal to the ESPN demographic (Wojciechowski is a senior columnist with ESPN.com), are light on analysis and heavy on action. You get your characters, your subplots, your colorful details and your bad metaphors ("the announcement cut through the Blue Devils like a toothpick through a martini olive").
Nonetheless, despite all of those objections, the book is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in college basketball—and especially, in these environs, for local sports lovers. It isn't really about "the last great game" at all, but the building and rebuilding of two of college sports' greatest programs; and it's a condensed biography of Mike Krzyzewski and a number of his players.
Wojciechowski does a wonderful job taking the reader inside the way these two teams were constructed, from image making to recruiting to conditioning to relationship building. Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino came to Kentucky in 1989 from New York City, where he had taken the New York Knicks from last place to the playoffs in just two seasons. He inherited a program debilitated by NCAA probation after a pile of violations in the late 1980s.
While Pitino quickly rehabilitated the Wildcats—without some of its best players, who fled for other, healthier schools—Krzyzewski was leading the Blue Devils back to glory. His trusty charioteers were Hurley and Laettner (Hurley's tormentor—everyone's tormentor, in fact). Wojciechowski's account of the knotty relationships between these three, all of whom he interviewed for the book, provides some of its richest material. The reader is made an intimate of the intense, complex, manipulative and frankly baffling homosocial culture of men's sports, in which trust is forged from constant betrayals, love from unceasing acts of cruelty, and great victory from thousands of small defeats.
Seconds after Laettner's shot went in, Krzyzewski rushed to the Kentucky bench to console its devastated players, three of whom were Kentucky-born seniors who stayed loyal to their school through two years of probation and Pitino's Napoleonic rule. "You guys are not losers," Krzyzewski told them, but Duke's victory was Kentucky's defeat, of course.
For both blue-and-white teams, the epilogue is happy. The Wildcats reached the Final Four the following season and won the tournament in 1996 (they're now renascent under another much-traveled coach with a shady ethics reputation, John Calipari). Through more than three decades of Krzyzewski's record-setting reign—he became the winningest coach in men's NCAA Division I basketball on Nov. 15, 2011—Duke has been a devouring, indestructible machine, from Battier, Boozer and Brand to Scheyer, Singler and Smith. It's no wonder the Blue Devils are so despised.
But if it really was the Last Great Game, we need not an epilogue but an epitaph—something as weighty and lyrically grave as the moment of Laettner's heavenly shot, words to memorialize both the thrill and the agony, the benefaction and the burial. T.S. Eliot was from St. Louis and would surely have been rooting for the Wildcats that night:
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.