Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: The Last Great Game (2012)

By Gene Wojciechowski

The video of the play has become almost iconic in association with March Madness. In fact, it might be the most famous play in college basketball history.

With 2.1 seconds to go and Duke trailing Kentucky by one point, Grant Hill of the Blue Devils throws the ball about 75 feet to teammate Christian Laettner. The center catches the ball, dribbles once, fakes, and shoots a 15-footer that goes through the basket for the winning points. Pandemonium isn't an adequate word to describe the reaction in Philadelphia's Spectrum.

What's been slightly forgotten in the nearly 20 years since Hill's pass and Laettner's shot is how good the entire game was. Both teams made several great plays when it counted most; Duke simply made the last one.

It's a game worthy of a good-sized recap, and Gene Wojciechowski delivers that story in excellent fashion in "The Last Great Game."

The contrast between the teams was quite stark back then. Duke was the defending national champion entering the 1991-92 season. It had stars like Laettner, Hill and Bobby Hurley, and was hoping to play in its fourth straight Final Four. Duke had been adopted by fans across the nation as a program that did things the "right way," a roster filled with student-athletes.

Meanwhile, Kentucky was part of basketball aristocracy as well, but had fallen on hard times. A scandal almost resulted in the death penalty for the Wildcats. Instead, Kentucky wound up on probation and ineligible for a conference championship and postseason play for a while. Players scattered, leaving very little talent for Rick Pitino when he arrived in Lexington as the new coach.

Wojciechowski nicely goes back and forth between the two teams as they slowly march toward their meeting. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is a constant presence in that half of the book, but the most compelling figure for the Blue Devils is Laettner. We all figured his level of self-confidence was off the charts, but the author shows that Laettner pushed and pushed his teammates in his own way to excel. Sometimes they swung back.

Meanwhile at Kentucky, Pitino was the star of the show, forcing the program to climb out of the abyss. His training methods bordered on distant and brutal, but the ones that survived -- Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods -- won't soon be forgotten in Lexington. Pitino convinced Jamal Mashburn to come to Kentucky, and the future pro helped put the Wildcats back on the map.

The author takes the back-and-forth approach through part of the game. In other words, the story is first told from a Kentucky perspective, and then the tale jumps to cover some of the same events from the Duke side. It all comes together for the final seconds. The technique works quite well, and it's easy for the reader to race through the final 75 pages even while knowing the outcome.

What's particularly impressive about Wojciechowski's work is how detailed it is, and the details matter in a book like this. Yes, he talked to the players and coaches about the game and the events leading up to it. But he talked to the parents -- the Laettners must have been sick of Wojciechowski by the time the book was done -- and the officials and the administrators and the broadcasters. Luckily, everyone seemed to remember plenty about what they were doing at key moments. In hindsight, it's a little amazing how many people instantly walked away from the contest thinking, "That was the greatest game ever."

There have been lots and lots of great games, of course, but considering the stakes and the circumstances, this one certainly is in the argument for that label. An interest in the subject is necessary to open up the book in the first place, of course. But for those that do, they couldn't expect to find a recap of a game that the one Wojciechowski puts together in "The Last Great Game."

Four stars

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