Leadership Lessons from ESPN’s 30 for 30: I Hate Christian Laettner
Christian Laettner was an All-American collegiate basketball player for the Duke University Blue Devils from 1989 to 1992 and is widely regarded as one of the greatest college players of all time. During his tenure at Duke, he reached four consecutive final fours and won two back-to-back NCAA National Championships. Laettner was the only college player selected for the US national team in 1992, nicknamed the “Dream Team,” which won the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. He was recently inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame as an individual, and, as a member of the “Dream Team,” he was inducted into both the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. After being selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1992 NBA Draft, Laettner played for six different teams during his thirteen year tenure in the NBA. He is also a former minority holder in the Major League Soccer (MLS) club D.C. United and has been an assistant coach of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Development League.
There are various leadership principles reiterated throughout ESPN’s 30 for 30: I Hate Christian Laettner documentary. While winning seemed to come natural to Laettner in the eyes of many spectators, his outstanding stats shown below do not do his career justice.
Listed below are my three core takeaways from the film:
1) FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL.
Most spectators saw Laettner as an entitled, pompous, condescending jerk with a “screw you” attitude. Perception is often not reality, and such people don’t know the backstory behind Christian’s upbringing. His own former teammate Brian Davis even states about Laettner, “His personality didn’t match what I had this perception of.”
Born in a lower middle class suburb of Buffalo, NY to a father who was a printer and a mother who was an elementary school teacher, Laettner faced adversity in all facets in life from an early age. During the summers when his mom was not teaching, he was at her disposal to do various chores such as shoveling horse manure and could never talk back to her. Whatever she needed done, he would do it. His older brother Chris bullied Christian throughout his childhood. They constantly fought with one another, which made Christian tougher.
Laettner channeled these obstacles towards his relentless drive and grittiness on the court, allowing nothing to stand in his way. He earned a scholarship to local college preparatory school Nichols School, where he played high school basketball. Although he received a financial aid package that paid a substantial part of his tuition at the exclusive prep school, his family had to sacrifice to send him there, and he also did janitorial work at the school to further mitigate tuition costs. According to ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski,
He was, in all probability, the poorest student at the school and almost certainly the only one whose parents ordered his clothes from the Sears catalog, which was the one place they could find pants that fit his growing frame.
Nevertheless, Laettner’s height, looks, and on-court demeanor made him a target starting from high school. When Nichols, which was perceived as a preppy, rich school, played inner city South Park, Laettner’s opponents kept challenging him physically and verbally. He simply laughed at them, took control of the game, and let them know it. He states in the documentary that whenever he was faced with such animosity, he would say to himself, “You’re going to be like that? F you. I’m going to go harder now.” This unapologetic attitude resulted in the South Park players initiating a massive fight, which resulted in the game being stopped and Laettner being escorted out of the building, where he ran off the court victoriously with his hands up.
Similar to his time at Nichols, Laettner was the consistent target of chants against him at Duke. Laettner was constantly harassed by spectators and the media and was even accused of being homosexual with fellow Duke teammate Brian Davis. Most people, including myself, would likely react to such noise. But what did Laettner do? He jokingly held hands with the teammate he was accused of being romantically involved with and continued to dazzle audiences with his spectacular on-court play. Laettner never allowed others’ opinions to interfere with his ultimate goal of winning and being the best.
In short, don’t let the opinions of others steer you away from your destiny. Gain satisfaction in knowing you can quiet a crowd through hard work and tenacity.
2) FIND COMFORT IN ADVERSITY.
Laettner’s former teammate Bobby Hurley states, “I’m not sure I’ve ever been around someone who has such a combination of belief in himself and desire to win.” Laettner funneled all his emotions from being screamed at by fans to his magnetic intensity and competitiveness on the court. Laettner explains the disparity between his tremendous successes at Duke and his reputation when he states, “You would think that we would build a bigger fan base, but we were building haters. Since I couldn’t control or stop them from hating, I tried to use it to my benefit.”
The more Duke won and the more Laettner continued to display grace under pressure, the more people hated Duke. This hate reached a pinnacle in his senior year at the 1992 NCAA Elite 8 against Kentucky, where he hit a last-second, back-to-the-basket, turn-around, game-winning jump shot, shown in the video below, in Duke’s dramatic 104–103 overtime victory over Kentucky.
The game is acclaimed by many to be the “greatest college basketball game ever played” and, as shown below, Laettner’s shot continues to live on with various types of “I Still Hate Laettner” apparel.
Laettner didn’t fear failing. He wanted the ball in his hand and methodically took his time to position himself to sink the shot despite the enormous stakes on the line.
3) GET TO KNOW YOUR TEAM AND PERSONALIZE YOUR MOTIVATION TACTICS FOR EACH INDIVIDUAL.
Laettner didn’t just demand the best out of himself, but he also possesses a distinct toughness and desire to make all those around him better. Sometimes, this resulted in tough love to his own teammates, particularly Bobby Hurley. Laettner states about his leadership style towards his teammates, “I would wrestle them, fight them, tease them, just to get them to be a little tougher because that’s what I learned growing up with my older brother.”
He sensed early on it was easy to get under Bobby’s skin and took advantage of it to make him tougher and get the best out of Bobby. He would tell Bobby he looked like Bart Simpson and, when bringing the ball inbounds to Bobby, who was a guard, he would often not throw the ball to him but throw it down so Bobby would have to come back to get it. He was sending a message to Bobby to play tougher and with more passion and intensity, which Bobby always responded to by elevating his game. As shown in the picture of the pair below, Bobby clearly appreciated and deeply respected Laettner’s leadership.
Laettner knew he couldn’t do it alone and could only win if others were good and continuing to improve. He faced tremendous adversities and channeled such obstacles towards making him and his teammates part of one of the most dominant periods for any individual team in college sports history.
Laettner is a true leader in every sense of the word.