Kentucky / Duke and the Greatest Basketball Game Ever Played

I love college basketball. Though I went to and love Purdue basketball, my favourite place I’ve ever been to for a game is Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, KS (the birthplace of basketball where the Jayhawks call home), going to games there with my friends Paul & Lynn, Mindy & Dan and Brandon & Holly two years in a row.

It’s tournament time; and tomorrow begins March Madness in the States. Arguably one of the best times on the sporting calendar, family pools, friends pools and office pools are all getting ready. Vegas is in heaven. This is where blue bloods like Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, and Duke shine, where old school traditions like Indiana (which is tough for me to write and admit since I am a Purdue alum) and UCLA come to the forefront and Cinderellas like Butler become real. Those last second buzzer beating shots to win the game become the stuff of legend, and those players who make them forever alive and forever young. I love this time of year.

I get chills if you even say Danny and the Miracles or Mario’s Miracle, memories of Bryce Drew’s buzzer beater (as his father Homer is coaching him), Glen “Big Dog” Robinson’s pure offensive awesomeness, Robbie Hummel’s huge heart on and off the court, Gordon Heyward’s near but failed buzzer beater and the incredible underdog Butler teams, Tyus Edny’s mad dash, Princeton’s backdoor…

These last ten plus years at this time, I always think of one of my best friends, one of the best people I’ve ever known, who is a brother to me – Aminu Timberlake. He’s played in the tournament before, most famously in the epic 1992 Kentucky/Duke game that solidified Duke’s place among the elites with another championship that year and brought Kentucky back to being a powerhouse culminating their ascent to the college basketball world in 1995. Considered by many to be one of the, if not the, greatest games ever played, Aminu played under coach Rick Pitino. Duke had an all star cast led by Christian Laettner with Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill coached by Mike Kryzewski.

I hated that Duke team. I hated Laettner. I actually hung out with Bobby Hurley one night in college at Purdue (with Erik Anderson of Indiana and Eric Riley of Michigan, the same night Shaq was carded and not allowed in, for being underage at the bar) around the time the movie Blue Chips was being filmed not too far away from West Lafayette, IN. I couldn’t wait to tell Hurley what I thought of him, Laettner and the Duke program (and I didn’t wait, letting him have it). He wouldn’t take the bait. After a few Jameson shots, we were fast friends; at least that night we were. He was one of the nicest guys I’d met. I still have an autographed $2 bill. If he didn’t get injured, that bill could have been worth something. As it stands, I think it’s worth two dollars.

“I Hate Christian Laettner” is the title of the newest 30 for 30 ESPN documentary. Shrewdly released just before the tournament, it captures the collective hate people have felt for this guy. As a caricature, he’s easy to hate. I’m surprised even after all these years, he’s still at the top of many hate lists. I’m sure he’s not the nicest guy, but I’m sure he’s probably not a bad guy either.

What really struck me about the episode was not Laettner, but instead my buddy Aminu. His few minutes in the show was no doubt narrowed down from hours of interviews. And try as the producers might, they couldn’t get Aminu to say a bad thing about Laettner. His Kentucky teammate said Aminu being the better person was the one guy who would not have turned that moment into a fight, further escalating a tense situation, instead laughing it off. (For the record, Laettner should have been kicked out of the game and not even been on the court for the game-winning shot.) Knowing Aminu as an adult, it doesn’t surprise me one bit. The man is all class. A giant of a man, he’s always carried himself with dignity and a quiet pride. He’s the devoted father of three beautiful children and devoted husband to a beautiful wife. He’s a great friend. He’s a brother. Whether he had a leadership title or not, he always led by both his actions and his words. As our friendship has grown over the past decade, the more I admire him. This episode only accentuated his core character.

Of course, it’s not surprising that we met tournament time eleven years ago. I knew his name even before we actually met; who didn’t? We both marveled at Hakeem Warick’s monster dunks and crazy wingspan. A year or so later, I would work for him taking in his pearls of wisdom (and I’d like to think gave out some of my own), our friendship growing even stronger. I should have known then that this guy (as well as a few other people at Careerbuilder where we worked), who was only a name before I met him, would become one of my closest friends, brothers to this day. One basketball game did not define Aminu’s life. One basketball career did not define Aminu’s life. Instead, day in and day out, it is his convictions and his strength of character, his devotion to his family, and his loyalty to his friends that do define his life. That, in my mind, is a true legacy.

The tables have somewhat changed this year, but yet remain the same. Duke is a number one seed yet again. Kentucky is the overall number one, clearly the best team in college basketball this year, maybe even rivaling what in my opinion is the greatest team I ever saw – Larry Johnson’s UNLV 1990 and 1991 teams (though the latter was bested by, you guessed it, Laettner’s Duke team).

In rewatching the episode, I’ve decided to rename the episode from “I Hate Christian Laettner” to “I Love Aminu Timberlake”.

For the record, I have Kentucky winning it all, over Duke, of course. Paybacks are a…

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