Christian Laettner was once the lone collegiate member of the 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball “Dream Team.”
But his most recent travel experience has brought him to Fort Wayne, Ind.—a place quite different from his gold medal experience in Spain. Beginning in January, he served as an assistant coach for the Mad Ants, the local affiliate in the NBA Development League, the NBA’s minor league basketball system.
Laettner is perhaps most remembered for his collegiate exploits, leading Duke to four consecutive Final Four appearances from 1989 to 1992, winning back-to-back national championships in those final two years. And Blue Devil fans will never forget “The Shot,” his turn-around jumper off a full-court heave from Grant Hill to beat Kentucky with time expiring in the 1992 Elite Eight.
Despite his college notoriety, Laettner aspires to coach in the NBA.
“That pro level of basketball is what you always strive to reach and play at and coach,” Laettner said, addressing the media last week at the 10th annual K Academy. “Just because you’re more renowned for something doesn’t mean you like it better. And I loved the college experience, but the pros is just a lot of fun.”
Years ago at the K Academy, Duke basketball’s annual fantasy camp, Laettner first planted the seeds to become a coach. There he met Chris Lauten, who was working at the camp as one of the basketball team managers, a position he held from 2003 to 2008.
Now the coordinator of basketball operations for the D-League, Lauten reconnected with Laettner last summer when they were both at the K Academy.
“Everyone you meet there is part of a family, checking in to see what I’m up to, and I ask them what they’re up to.” Lauten said. “The conversation grew organically from there.”
Laettner expressed an interest in begnning a career as a coach to Lauten, who subsequently gave him information on the D-League, which did not exist in its current form while Laettner was in the NBA.
That opportunity came when the head coach of the Mad Ants was fired and replaced by 26-year-old Steve Gansey, then an assistant with the team. With Gansey only having played two years of college basketball at Cleveland State, the Mad Ants needed a coach with experience.
Laettner and Lauten had remained in touch and spoke “by sheer coincidence” the week of that firing, planning to discuss opportunities further down the road because midseason hirings are rare, Lauten recalled. Even so, Lauten put the 13-year NBA veteran in touch with the Mad Ants, and he soon became their new assistant coach.
“We were looking for a guy with experience and he certainly fit the bill—a guy who played a while in the NBA,” Jeff Potter, president of the Mad Ants, said. “Christian did a great job. He could really communicate the game very well and relate to the players.”
Potter first heard of Laettner from Eldridge Recasner, a former college and NBA player who spent time coaching in the D-League. Laettner’s former teammate with the Atlanta Hawks, Recasner helped seal the deal by forwarding Laettner’s resume to Potter.
The Mad Ants hired him in January, and, while the Mad Ants struggled on the court finishing with a 14-36 record on the season, Laettner battled personal issues of debt from his real-estate ventures, owing a reported $30 million to creditors, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Potter and Laettner discussed these issues, but it never deterred either party from joining forces.
“After talking with him, I didn’t have any concerns,” Potter said. “That turned out to be correct. We didn’t worry about it.”
Although Laettner’s financial woes are connected to Duke, notably owing money to former Blue Devil coach and player Johnny Dawkins, Laettner still remains close to the program and attends the K Academy, using head coach Mike Krzyzewski as a source for advice.
“He’s somebody I confide in and ask for advice and suggestions from,” Laettner said. “He helps me in good times. He helps me in bad times. He helps me through everything, and that’s the greatest resource he is to me.”
This extends both on and off the court as Laettner said Krzyzewski influences his coaching style, from the way he speaks to his defensive philosophies.
As a player, Laettner was often known for his passion, never shying from showing emotion and getting in another player’s face. But as a coach, he has learned to adapt, especially in his role as an assistant.
“As an assistant coach, I tried to be friends with them more than anything—real respectful to them, have fun with them and goof around with them,” Laettner said. “And once they accepted me, I might mention one or two things they can do a little better.”
Laettner is now continuing to try and advance his career as a coach, working with powerful NBA coaching agent Lonnie Cooper, whose current and former clients include big names like Lenny Wilkens, Chuck Daly and Doc Rivers.
Although Laettner did not shut the door on returning to the college ranks as a coach, he said coaching with the Blue Devils would be unlikely because of the team’s deep crew of assistants that features Chris Collins, Steve Wojciechowski and Jeff Capel.
“If the opportunity arose, I would probably consider it. But they’ve got a long line, and I don’t want to leap frog anybody or screw up the system in anyway,” Laettner said. “Now, if they had Coach K and then one assistant, maybe I’d consider that.”