With March approaching, Christian Laettner would not be human if sometimes his mind didn't wander back to 1992, to the night in the NCAA East Region final at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, when he felled Kentucky with one lethal shot.
Laettner already had helped Duke to the 1991 national title, but a repeat required a minor miracle. It came in the form of his 17-footer, launched with a feathery touch. When the ball dropped through the net as time ran out, Duke had a 104-103 overtime victory and Laettner's lasting fame was secured like a lock. Glory doesn't get much greater for a college athlete.
Of course, he's often reminded of that shot. And since all this time has passed and he is now 34 years old, it's certain that he will be reminded of it for the rest of his life. "When a long pass is thrown and somebody catches it and turns around and shoots and makes it, they'll call it a Christian Laettner," he said. "When March Madness rolls around and they show it more and more on ESPN, I think about it. I might daydream about it, and think back to those glory days, think back to how much fun it was."
A small smile played at his lips, hardly more noticeable than a few strands of gray hair that have crept in sometime recently as he has plied his trade for an 11th NBA season. The Wizards are his fifth team. The Shot may have heightened some people's expectations for his pro career, but that was the extent of the burden he brought to the pros. "It would be hard to top my college career, so I wasn't worried about that so much," he said. "I just wanted to go and be as good a pro player as I could."
The Shot was merely the end of a remarkable four years at Duke, years that were so distinctive that to this day he relishes "a lot of good memories, fun things from that time and from that one game." And his Duke career is a big part of the school's golden era of basketball. Those four years remain a benchmark for college athletes, and his advice to them -- to take in the whole college experience -- comes as no surprise.
His experience speaks to possibility. Not necessarily of greatness or glory, but of experiencing life as it comes. One never knows what stops await on a journey. For one thing, by sticking around for four years, Laettner became the only collegian named to the initial Dream Team.
His success is reminiscent of that of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, and Bill Walton at UCLA, when players had no choice but to stay four years. Maybe more, though, Laettner's college career magnifies the current trend of players too easily discarding a time in life that can't be repeated.
"I thought about leaving early, but not for very long, because I was enjoying college too much," he said. "It was just too important to me. I knew the NBA would be there and I thought it would be more fun, and neater, for me to repeat as a champion than go to the NBA early. A lot of people win a championship, but not many win two in a row."
But the fun, not the titles, Laettner insisted, would keep him in school four years even had he come along in more recent times, when the money that beckons is even greater.
"I hear people say all the time, 'Go to the pros and get some money because you might get hurt and never get that money.' " he said. "But if you're big and strong and lifting weights and staying in shape, you'll be fine. The chances of getting hurt and never playing pro ball are slim to none. You can get [an insurance] policy anyway.
"There's no reason to come out early unless you totally hate school, if you're getting D's all the time and you hate going to class."
When Laettner thinks back, he thinks of Grant Hill and Thomas Hill and Brian Davis and Bobby Hurley -- his teammates. Hurley's pro career ended after he survived a life-threatening car crash. "I felt horrible about his career -- when he was trying to come back and play he looked really thin, a little sickly. He didn't look like the same Bobby I'd known. But it's much more important that he's alive and married and has three beautiful kids."
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is never far from Laettner's thoughts either.
"Coach K is an outstanding coach in terms of making you get along with each other and making you have good chemistry, making you love each other and making you play for each other, all those things," he said. "He's a master at building chemistry. He forces it. He educates you about it, he lets you know how important it is. That helps you more than anything, being on a good team with good coach."
It must have been something like playing for Vince Lombardi, who all but codified teamwork.
That's what Laettner took from Duke. The remembrance of something greater than the individual.
There was little way that his NBA career could be as glamorous as his days at Duke. He has made a fortune; his most recent contract calls for $21 million over four years, and yet: "It's a job, and just because of that it's different. It's hard for it to be as much fun.
"It's different when you're playing 100 games a year than when you're playing 40 games a year. Way harder. It's way harder as you get older. A lot of things play into it, but it is harder to have the joy and the love of the game."