Every day for three basketball seasons, Jack Vance has stared at the same name painted on the cinder block wall overlooking Nichols School's lower gymnasium. The 17-year-old from Orchard Park, who is entering his senior year at Nichols, was hoping to someday put a face to a name.
He had heard plenty about Christian Laettner, who had become almost mythical on campus at the Buffalo private school. Last year, Vance watched an ESPN documentary about Duke's back-to-back championship run in the early 1990s, which ended four years before Vance was born, and realized just how much he dominated.
So pardon the kid for being a little spooked the other day when Laettner buckled down on defense while Vance was driving the lane for an attempted layup. Anyone standing 6-foot-11 would be an imposing figure to a high school player, never mind the tiny tots attending his basketball camp this week. That was one thing.
This was Christian Laettner.
And that meant something else.
“It's nice seeing him in our gym,” Vance said during a drill. “We see his name every day at practice. Everybody talks about him. I remember watching all the highlight films. The game against Kentucky? I don't know how many times I've seen that.”
Yes, the Kentucky game.
Laettner will forever have a place in history for catching Grant Hill's long pass and beating Kentucky with a turnaround jumper in the national semifinals in 1992. A photo of Laettner celebrating the moment with arms raised hangs in a corridor at Cameron Indoor Stadium. His No. 32 jersey rests in a glass showcase.
The Angola native finished his career with 407 points in the NCAA Tournament, the most in history, and played in four Final Fours. He played for the original Dream Team, which included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, in the 1992 Summer Olympics. It's largely viewed as the best collection of basketball players ever assembled.
Fans know about the Kentucky game but many forget that he was the third pick overall in 1992, by Minnesota. Or that he was an NBA All-Star. Or that he spent 13 years in the NBA. Most kids attending his basketball camp this week were too young to remember his career. Some weren't even born before he retired in 2005.
Laettner is 43 years old and still in good shape. He has more gray hair today than he had last week. He's a father who lives in Ponte Vedra, Fla., with his wife and their three kids. And every time he returns to Western New York, he's reminded that he's doesn't get home often enough.
“I'm always melancholy or sad or homesick or whatever you want to call it when I'm in Buffalo,” Laettner said. “I had the greatest upbringing, the greatest childhood. When I drive from Buffalo to Angola, I drive like a grandma. I'm going really slow, looking at everything and saying, 'I used to do that there and do that there.'
“I just love it here. It's so much fun. It's not weird at all coming back. I just miss it, I miss it, I miss it. I love the weather. I love the people. It's home. I breathe better. I feel better. My heart rate is better. Everything is better.”
It was eerie this week watching Laettner in the stifling gymnasium that bears his name, the structure that was completed after he donated $1 million to Nichols in 2001. If you ignored the kids around him and focused just solely on Laettner, you couldn't help but flash back to his playing days.
Laettner had a certain way of hunching over, of clapping his hands and pumping enthusiasm into his teammates when he was on the court. His eyes, bright and friendly away from the floor, turned cold and intense when sizing up his opponents. Years later, nothing had changed other than the opponent and the stakes.
It was all on display during the camp, which attracted 66 boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 18. They're spending four days this week learning and working and sweating and having the time of their lives. Laettner was right there with them, far more in body than in name, sharing his passion for the game.
He didn't just show up and direct traffic. He was the central figure throughout the camp. He corrected players and encouraged them with a positive message. The kids didn't spend the week hanging out with an all-time great in college basketball. They made friends with the tall guy whose name was on the wall.
“I'm having as much fun as the kids,” Laettner said. “I love bumping them and fouling them. I love bending over and trying to strip them. I just hope they can see it and feel my passion for the game. I try to express to them that basketball is a great sport. The kids and the parents don't even realize how much I'm getting out of it. It's very easy for me.”
Laettner didn't realize how much he would enjoy teaching the game until he conducted successful basketball camps near his home in Florida three years ago. He wanted to start one in his hometown. He needed help creating a better experience for the kids, so he called local sponsors who were close to his heart.
Nichols was a natural site. Connors Hot Dog stand is near his home in Angola. Elmwood Taco and Sub is a must-visit when he's home. He had a connection to Lancaster Dental through former Nichols teammate Kevin Flanagan. He had another hookup with Insurance Service of Western New York.
All climbed aboard.
Before the camp began, Laettner prepared his coaching staff for more than two hours, breaking down simple drills with painstaking detail to make sure they were done his way, the right way, the only way. Instructors who initially questioned whether it was necessary quickly realized there was method to his Mike Krzyzewski-like madness.
“Uh, yeah,” Laettner said with a laugh. “That was the abbreviated version. It's straight out of Coach K. It's the brilliance of his drills and his programs.”
Laettner already is making plans to return next year, which is hardly a surprise when you spend a little time at the camp. It was a major success.
Kids come together in much the same way as teams on all levels. The core of basketball isn't converting three-pointers and reverse dunks and making ESPN's highlight reel. It's getting kids to play the proper way and play together, which goes to the heart of what Laettner's message was about.
He had 18-year-old dunkers in the same drills with 6-year-old munchkins. The older kids were forced to set a good example, and the little ones followed. He separated them during scrimmages so the younger kids could watch. He took the approach from Bob Torgalski, who ran camps at St. Francis High in Athol Springs when Laettner was a kid.
“It's like a well-oiled machine,” said instructor Brad Gay, who grew up playing against Laettner and later played for Hilbert College. “It's 14 minutes, station to station, boom, boom, boom. The respect we get out of these kids, just from him talking to them, is incredible. He demands respect, and he gets it.”
Laettner's goal, other than having fun, was getting them to work on dribbling, passing, catching the ball with two hands and making layups. If they can master those skills, they were certain to become better players no matter how tall or how young or how athletic they were before camp began.
Here's hoping the kids understood the experience, which ends today with gifts from Laettner and an awards ceremony. There are worse ways to spend four days than playing basketball with one of the best college players in history. By the end, players like Jack Vance weren't just staring at the wall that bears Laettner's name.
They were ready to run through it.
“It's awesome watching someone of his caliber, watching how he does things and knowing he's been at the top of the top,” Vance said. “It's different because there aren't a lot of guys who can say they set a pick on M.J., who went to the NBA, who won a gold medal in the Olympics, and won two national titles.
“He's a hard worker who wants things done a certain way. It's understandable because he played at the highest level. He's a really nice guy who reaches out to the kids. It's fun going against him, and I think he's doing a great job. I've talked to a lot of kids, and we're all having a lot of fun.”