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March 26, 2019

Christian Laettner riffs on Zion controversy, Coach K’s future and his new show on Olympic Channel

March 5, 2019

As Zion Williamson prepares to amaze us all again with his superhuman powers, Duke legend Christian Laettner believes all that talk about the projected No. 1 pick shutting it down was poppycock.

“It’s crazy,” Laettner said in an interview with the Daily News. “It’s obvious to see the kid loves to play basketball so he’s not going to take four or five months off. Especially when he committed to Duke and has dreams of playing for Duke and he loves playing for Duke and for Coach K. So I think that talk is crazy. You can tell by the way he plays the game that he loves doing it, he needs to do it and it’s favorite thing to do in life. So he’ll be out there as soon as he’s ready.”

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Williamson, the object of all Knick fans affections, is in “phase 4” of his recovery from a knee sprain, according to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who apparently provides injury updates like a Star Trek captain. Williamson could be beamed up for action again this week.

For as long as Duke is in the NCAA Tournament, the 19-year-old will be the star and main attraction — similar, though even more magnified, to Laettner roughly 30 years ago.

Christian Laettner was part of a very different era of college basketball. (John Bazemore / AP)

“It could be one of funnest (experiences), that’s for sure,” Laettner said. “And you could just tell by how hard he plays and the effort that he puts out there and how hard he cheers from the bench when he’s not playing that the kid loves it. So he’s biting at the bit and he can’t wait to get 100 percent and test his knee out and get out there and play the game he loves. So I think the talk of him shutting it down and waiting to sign a big contract is crazy talk.”

Among the many comparisons being thrown at Williamson is one of Laettner’s old NCAA nemeses — former UNLV stud Larry Johnson. But Laettner believes Williamson is more physically gifted, which is saying something because Johnson was a supreme athlete before his back injury.

“Larry was a very special player, but I think Zion is maybe three inches taller. And 25 pounds heavier. And seems to be getting up higher,” Laettner said. “Larry Johnson was fun to watch. Isaiah Rider (another former UNLV star) was fun to watch. But this kid seems bigger and more powerful and more explosive.”

Laettner points to Zion's love of the game for why the Duke star won't shut things down.
Laettner points to Zion’s love of the game for why the Duke star won’t shut things down. (Nick Lisi / AP)

Laettner was from another time in college when stars weren’t automatic one-and-done’s. This debate about Williamson shutting it down after a minor injury to preserve his NBA money would’ve never entered the stratosphere. Laettner stayed four years at Duke, won two titles, hit an iconic shot against Kentucky and became the (often hated) face of a dynastic run.

He was picked third overall in the 1992 draft and played 13 seasons in the NBA, earning $61 million in salary.

“If I were in college today, I think I would’ve stayed at least two years. I mean I went to Duke and I stayed at Duke all four years because I wanted as many years under Coach K’s tutelage as I could get,” said Laettner. “I think every year you get with him the more it’s going help you for basketball and life. So I wanted to play for him as long as I could. So I think if I was still playing today I would stay two years.

“I didn’t miss out on much money. I missed out on making a little money maybe. But that’s not important. What’s important is playing under Coach K and in his system for another year.”

Laettner says he wanted every minute he could get with Coach K at Duke.
Laettner says he wanted every minute he could get with Coach K at Duke. (Amy Sancetta / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Coach K remains on the Duke sideline with the same parted hair and, perhaps, more talent assembled than ever with Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. Krzyzewski will be gunning for his sixth NCAA title, and, whether he accomplishes it or not, there will always be a post-tournament drumbeat for his transition to the NBA (the Lakers are expected to have a job opening).

Laettner, though, doesn’t think Coach K will ever leave his kingdom.

“I think he’s always ready for a jump to the NBA. It would be fun to see how successful he’d be at that level. And he’s been offered big NBA jobs in the past and I know he probably still gets offered them even to this day,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll ever leave Duke. When you’re the king of someplace you don’t voluntarily leave. And he is the king of Duke and the king of the Duke basketball program and he’s as good now as when I was there. And was almost 30 years ago so it’s incredible to think about.”

COACH FOR A WEEK

Laettner not only played four years in college before signing his NBA contract, he spent a summer as the obligatory college tack-on with the original ‘Dream Team’ at the ‘92 Olympics. That led to his latest opportunity as a guest coach for a new series — dubbed ‘The Z Team’ — on the Olympic Channel.

Laettner, who runs his own basketball camps, is tasked with transforming a struggling Charlotte-area high school team in just one week.

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“You cannot really turn them around in a week. But you hope the coaches and the kids remember a few things and carry it with them for a month or two. And it would be nice if they carried it with them longer than that,” he said. “And I think the coaches can do that. The kids might forget it after a little while, but that’s what the coaches are there for. They’re there to try to remind them, ‘Hey hang in there with each other, don’t get so frustrated if we don’t win the game. Remember some of the things that Laettner said.’”

The episode is on the Olympic Channel or available at Olympicchannel.com.

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