Don’t be fooled by the Disney Channel-style title. “I Hate Christian Laettner” is an amusing, affectionate and quite informative look at the hostility directed at the Duke basketball star of the early 1990s, presented as an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary showcased after the NCAA tournament selection show. Partly an exploration of Duke’s success in those years, partly a look at specific elements that motivated Laettner-haters, the project broadly resonates for a simple reason pertaining to the current state of college hoops — namely, that players of Laettner’s quality seldom hang around long enough anymore to engender antipathy from anybody.
Produced and rather cheekily narrated by Rob Lowe, the documentary considers a five-point perfect storm of personal qualities and sociological factors that made Laettner an irritant to opposing teams, from his movie-star good looks to Duke’s aura of privilege to, perhaps most intriguingly, the idea of the center being a “great white hope” in a game increasingly dominated by African-Americans.
Clearly, part of Laettner’s persona had to do with Duke’s inordinate success, including a pair of national championships and four consecutive Final Four appearances. Those sequences are a treat for those who can recall Laettner’s clutch performances, including, most memorably, his game-winning buzzer-beater against Kentucky. (There’s hilarious homemovie footage of a Kentucky fan experiencing the whole thrill of victory/agony defeat thing in short order.)
Yet as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and point guard Bobby Hurley acknowledge, Laettner’s competitive spirit and aggressive style rankled even some of those he played alongside, establishing him as a guy who made winning games easy, but who could be hard for teammates to like. And the doc follows Laettner beyond his storybook college days to a relatively undistinguished pro career, and the frustration associated with playing for a series of losing teams.
Writer-director Rory Karpf (“The Book of Manning”) also has a first-rate leading man in Laettner, who comes across as someone completely at ease with himself and willing to concede the extent to which his personality attracted some of the venom. That said, there are also jarring demonstrations of the disturbing extent to which fans can take such animosity, including a visit to LSU, where the crowd taunted Laettner by chanting a homophobic slur at him.
In addition to Laettner and his family, Karpf interviews a wide assortment of basketball experts, contemporaries who played with Laettner and against him, and even some random Duke alums, among them actor Ken Jeong.
Still, the key observation belongs to the otherwise-overused Andy Bagwell, author of the book “Duke Sucks,” a tome devoted to the blowback elicited by Krzyzewski’s ridiculously successful Blue Devils.
In terms of college players becoming that sort of target today, Bagwell says, “No one’s going to ever top Laettner, because people don’t stay in school long enough now.”
As the film notes, nearly a generation later there are still a lot of people who “hate” Christian Laettner, in the manner people can feel belligerent toward somebody famous they have never met. As a wider referendum on sports, though, what “I Hate Christian Laettner” really does is take viewers back to a time when there was a lot more to love about college basketball.