As you may have heard, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the greatest college basketball game of all time, Duke’s 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky in the 1992 East regional final in Philadelphia. To commemorate the anniversary, you’ll see endless clips of Grant Hill’s perfect three-quarter-court pass to Christian Laettner — why didn’t you guard that inbounder, Rick Pitino? (He coached Kentucky back then.) You’ll watch, once again, Laettner catching the ball with 2.1 seconds left, turning, and sinking the shot that sent Duke to its second straight Final Four — the Blue Devils would repeat as national champions — and Kentucky players into heaving tears.
That game was one of those moments many fans can recall with perfect clarity, two decades later. It also gave birth to their hatred of all things Duke basketball, thanks to Laettner’s all-too-heavy foot.
In the second half, Laettner, the ’92 national player of the year who scored 31 points in that game without missing a single shot, was fouled by Kentucky freshman Aminu Timberlake on a drive to the basket. After the ref blew the whistle, Laettner spotted Timberlake laying on the ground. Laettner and Timberlake had tussled minutes earlier, so the game’s biggest star, who already had a well-deserved reputation for arrogance, decided to send the no-name freshman a message. Laettner stomped his foot on Timberlake. CBS announcer Verne Lundquist said Laettner kicked Timberlake in the chest, but it was actually his stomach. Laettner earned a technical foul, and the enmity of those who hate bullies.
“The stomp” is probably the second-most talked about moment from that game, aside from “the shot.” Back then Kentucky, the overall top seed in this year’s tournament, was an underdog, as Pitino had inherited less-talented players who had come to the school when it was on probation for committing a host of NCAA violations. It struck a nerve: here was Johnny All-American, kicking around the meek, defenseless freshman, literally, when he was down. So on the anniversary of the Duke-Kentucky classic, Keeping Score caught up with Timberlake, the man who, since he managed to get under Laettner’s thin skin, may have you still cheering against Duke — who plays 15th-seeded Lehigh on Friday — 20 years later.
Timberlake is now a telecommunications executive in the Atlanta area. First of all, he wants you to know, the stomp looked a lot worse on TV than it actually was. “If you slow it down, you’ll see that his foot actually did stop short a bit,” says Timberlake. “Plus, I had a six-to-eight pack back then. It wasn’t hurting me.”
His first thought was shared by almost everyone watching the game. “My reaction was, he’s going to be kicked out of the game,’” Timberlake says. “He should have been kicked out of the game. Though we can’t say with certainty we would have won — who knows, maybe Grant Hill then takes over. But it definitely could have changed what transpired.” Laettner got lucky. For the cheapest of cheap shots, he was only whistled for a technical. It was probably the safe call. In such an intense game headed for a close finish, who besides Kentucky fans want to see the best player in the country on the bench? And let’s face it, the ending would not have been as exciting as Laettner’s last-second shot.
Still, some fans have been convinced Kentucky would have pulled off the upset, changing the course of college basketball history, were it not for the soft call on Laettner. Timberlake says that a few years ago, he received an invite to join a Facebook group entitled “the revenge of Aminu Timberlake.” (He declined to join the group, which no longer seems to be active on the site.) In business meetings and encounters with strangers, when his Kentucky basketball background comes up, people sometimes make the connection with the Duke game. “I sometimes get an ‘ah, yes,’” Timberlake says. “‘that’s why I hated Laettner!’”
Timberlake didn’t have a great college career, as he freely admits. As a sophomore, he warmed the bench for a Kentucky team that made the Final Four. Frustrated with his playing time, Timberlake,who grew up in Chicago, transferred to Southern Illinois University. Though he did not start there either, Timberlake met his wife at Southern Illinois, and went on a mission trip to Zimbabwe, which helped strengthened his faith. He remains a devout Christian today. Timberlake also played professionally overseas for five years, in Australia, New Zealand, China and South Korea. He holds no bitterness towards Laettner, or about the loss, really. “I would like to call myself a mature adult,” Timberlake says. “I can appreciate being a part of the greatest game ever. I’m very, very proud of that.”
He has never met Laettner, now an assistant coach for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, of the NBA’s Developmental League. (The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Laettner and his business partner, former Duke teammate Brian Davis, are embroiled in civil litigation related to the repayment of real-estate loans.) If Timberlake came across the former Duke star, what would he tell him? “I don’t know if there’s anything to be said,” says Timberlake. “Would I be happy if he apologized? Sure. I would gladly accept it.”
Timberlake will be watching this year’s tournament, especially the South region. If the favorites win out, the regional final will feature a match-up of the top two seeds: Duke and Kentucky. Who wouldn’t get a kick out of that?