Dream Team: Laettner over Shaq was an Easy Decision

Christian Laettner was a two-time national champion at Duke and the easy choice to fill the Dream Team roster spot reserved for a college player.

I’m in the midst of reading Jack McCallum’s book on the original Dream Team that was released last summer. Sometimes it’s hard to put down. No stone is left unturned.

How about this one? The team’s lone collegian, Duke’s Christian Laettner, was an arrogant jerk – at least back then – McCallum wrote.

Or this? McCallum was definitive in his stance that, among college players, Laettner belonged on the roster ahead of LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal.

Upon the presentation of The Dream Team documentary on NBA TV this past June, there seemed to be many – 20 years later – still outraged and/or befuddled by Laettner over Shaq. I noticed that the majority of such opinions came from folks too young to remember or too forgetful or ignorant to be taken seriously.

The 25-and-under crowd cannot possibly fully appreciate Laettner’s glowing achievements as a collegian. The same group grew up with O’Neal’s championship exploits with the Lakers and Heat – never mind his overgrown personality away from the game.

Laettner over Shaq? OMG.

Then you have the case made by Jason Whitlock, who classifies Laettner’s selection to the Dream Team – as well as those of John Stockton and Chris Mullin – as an “intentional, calculated, whitening of the roster.”

Whitlock may very well be correct in his assessment as it relates to Stockton and Mullin, but it does not apply to Laettner. Even Whitlock admitted as much without admitting as much.

He wrote last summer:

(Laettner) is one of the greatest college players of all time. Given there was one position set aside for a collegian, his inclusion on the Dream Team is more defensible than Stockton’s or Mullin’s.

Yet, Whitlock quickly backtracked:

Laettner didn’t belong for two reasons: 1. Shaq was a once-in-a-generation force of nature destined for hoop immortality. He was then, and certainly proved to be later, a far superior player to Laettner. 2. Holding one collegiate spot was a ploy to leave the door open for one more white player.

Where Whitlock swings and misses is in the presentation of his first reason for Laettner not belonging. Why would any player be selected to an all-star squad or Olympic team based on possible future success? The Dream Team was selected based on existing body of work, as well it should.

As McCallum wrote in the book, there was never even a Laettner-O’Neal debate among those selecting the Dream Team.

It was Laettner all the way. It was the forward from Duke who had won back-to-back national titles, who played in four Final Fours, who connected on perhaps the greatest shot to win perhaps the greatest college basketball game ever played, who was a near consensus selection as national player of the year in 1992, who was considered one of the best college players ever.

Even O’Neal, who led the Tigers to just one NCAA Tournament victory in three years at LSU, understood why Laettner was on the squad ahead of him. This is what he told Mike Wise of 106.7 The Fan in Washington D.C. during an interview last summer:

“I was pissed off. I was jealous. But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player, but Christian Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was. Plus he stayed all four years and graduated. … I just think it helped me grow as a player.”

Of course, it seems ludicrous now that Laettner would come before O’Neal in anything basketball-related.

Laettner had an average NBA career after being selected third overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. He made one All-Star team and saw action in 45 playoff games. He never scored more than 18.2 points per game in a season. As McCallum wrote in the book, Laettner’s game wasn’t the the same after he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in a pickup game prior to the 1998-99 season.

Yet, anyone who questions Laettner’s place on the Dream Team need only a quick lesson in hardwood history.