Book review: The Last Great Game by Gene Wojciechowski

“There’s nobody guarding the passer!  Kentucky doesn’t have anybody on the ball!”

-Dick Vitale, March 28, 1992

One pass, one shot, the unlikeliest of victories.

When college basketball fans are asked about the greatest game ever played, the answer is unanimous.

Duke vs. Kentucky, 1992, NCAA East Regional Finals.  There is no close second.

That game, and the events leading up to it, is the topic of Gene Wojciechowski’s The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball.  Not only does the book time machine us back twenty years to when Christian Laettner ripped out Kentucky’s heart with a single, yet miraculous, turn-around jumper, it interviews every last player, coach, official and journalist involved with the game, to remind us just how special that afternoon was.

It was the kind of game where the people who played in it, who coached it, who watched it were, in varying degrees, forever changed.

Wojciechowski left no stone unturned.  He recounts Coach K’s high school days, when he actually first turned down the opportunity to play for Bobby Knight at West Point, only to later change his mind, then to the day he was plucked from coaching at Army by a school called Duke University.  Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

When Knight, Krzyzewski’s mentor, was asked to give a recommendation about him for the Duke job, he said “He has all of my good qualities and none of my bad ones.”  Apparently Knight is pretty good at recognizing talent.

Here are a few other tidbits from Wojciechowski’s must-read account that you may have forgotten over the years. Did you know that Coach K’s starting salary at Duke was $40,000, or that Kentucky almost hired PJ Carlesimo over Rick Pitino, or that Christian Laettner’s family wanted him to go to Notre Dame, or that Billy Donovan played 44 games for the Knicks under Pitino, then worked on Wall Street for four months before asking Pitino for a coaching job, or that Jamal Mashburn’s father was a professional boxer who once fought Ken Norton, or that 75 different schools recruited Grant Hill or that, in preparation for the UNLV rematch, Coach K had his starters run scrimmages against seven defenders to replicate their defensive intensity?   In The Last Great Game, there’s all that and more.

Rick Majerus, Dick Vitale, PJ Carlesimo, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Jalen Rose and many more were interviewed for the project, as they recall the day college basketball’s planets aligned to give us the greatest game ever played, perhaps in any sport.  Wojciechowski brings us back to a special time, when seniors stayed in school, the phrase one-and-done did not apply and dynasties still existed.  His book is as entertaining as that time in college basketball and is well worth the read for it.

The last one hundred pages describe the frenetic final minutes of the game but don’t skip ahead.  You’ll do yourself and the book a great injustice.  You’ll be drawn to his tale as if you’re watching the game again, not knowing who wins, and thinking that there’s no way in hell Laettner makes that final shot.  But he does.

Krzyzewsi diagrammed the play.  Grant Hill would throw the inbounds pass.  Lang and Thomas Hill would run the wings and then dart toward the basket, in case of a tipped pass.  Hurley would peel off toward mid-court.  Laettner would start in the far corner and make his way to the free throw line.  The play hadn’t worked in late February, but that hadn’t stopped Krzyzewski from having his team practice it over and over again in March.

‘Grant, can you throw the ball 75 feet?’ said Krzyzewski.

Meanwhile, the Spectrum was one collective held breath.

The rest, as you probably know, is history.  Laettner hit the shot then rushed the floor with his hands held in the air.  Thomas Hill remained on the sidelines, hands behind his head, tears rolling uncontrollably off his wrinkled, Shar-Pei-like face.  Duke repeated as college basketball’s national champion after beating Michigan in the final game.  Kentucky lost that game but went on to win a national championship under Pitino four years later, to a small extent exorcising some of those demons.

Wojciechowski truly enjoyed researching this project and it shows in his writing.  The acknowledgments at the end of The Last Great Game are also a must read.  Now that basketball season is officially over, if you need a quick fix to cure your basketball jones, I highly recommend giving this book a shot.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a game to watch.

15 thoughts on “Book review: The Last Great Game by Gene Wojciechowski

  1. Pingback: Book review: The Last Great Game by Gene Wojciechowski - BallHyped, NCAA Basketball | BallHyped Sports Blogs

  2. And look at what we now have in today’s game ……. the one and done system .

    NCAA Basketball evokes memories of a rich environment when the game was indeed pure . Now it has been bastardized and corrupted to an infinitesimal degree .

    And even the programs thought to be ” pristine ” and above reproach now has that ” odor” of fecal matter attached to it .

  3. I hear pink will be the “in color ” this year for the players on display in terms of their outfits for the NBA Draft ?

    Joakim Noah may well have been the ninth pick overall in the 2007 NBA Draft but in terms of making a fashion statement he was definitely a seventh round pick and draft bust at least . LOL,LOL,LOL !!!

    French men are not masculine men ……..they’re simply ……. affix your own thoughts here _____

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkGRse8Z3fE

    My thoughts on the BoSox’s woes and the fact that they appear to be on the move . So much so , they’re now second in the AL East . Meanwhile the Yankees lose both Pettite and Sabathia in the space of five days .

    On the other hand Maddon and the boys at present continue to mystify with their inconsistency

    It’s Not Baseball If You’re Not Kicking An Opponents’ A#s

  4. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Al.

    There were plenty of players that left college early back in the day. That was part of what built the ABA, players leaving early.

    The NBA had to adjust to compete. I’m not saying it’s all the ABA’s fault but in many cases these days, the lure of the NBA dollar is too much for these kids to pass up.

  5. Al…

    After Anthony Davis goes at one to New Orleans, this draft actually might have a fair amount of drama to it.

    The rest of the Kentucky kids should all go pretty high. I’d like to see how high Bradley Beal goes. I also wanna see what Jordan does in Charlotte and if the Magic make any moves indicating their closer or farther away from keeping Howard.

    From everything I’m hearing, we’ll be seeing a fair amount of trades on draft night. It’s the established names in the game attached to those trades that will make things more interesting.

    Pau Gasol anyone?

  6. Like I said, BS, ask anyone what they think the greatest college basketball game ever played is and I think you’ll find the answer pretty near unanimous.

  7. Al…

    I remember the sear-sucker suit Noah wore than night. Remember, I was glued to every game the Gators played those two years.

    With the Bosox still mediocre and Pettitte now out for two months with that leg injury, maybe the struggling Rays will still be able to tread water.

  8. It’s going to be more of a fashion show tonight . Anthony Davis , Michael Kidd Gilchrist and Thomas Robinson would be my top three picks in this Draft .

    There is a tremendous drop off in the talent that is definitely a fact .

    The Rockets are stock piling picks ………. rumored target Dwight Howard . And the Magic seem to have a GM in place but no coach . I guess that’ll work somehow …….. or not . LOL,LOL,LOL !!! That organization has been a “bust” and Howard has now become a joke of unimaginable magnitude .

    If you think Noah’s suit was bad check out Samakii Walker’s “pimp outfit “ from back in the day or Jalen Rose’s red suit .

    The struggling Rays picking up the slack and now posing a threat to either the Yankees or BoSox might border on Stevie Wonder being allowed to drive two laps at Daytona Beach in one of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup vehicles . It’s not happening anytime soon ……… way too much inconsistency with the Rays .

    Have you watched any of the Rays’ games as of late
    ?

    Fashion Statement Be Damned I’m Now In The NBA

    It’s Not Baseball If You’re Not Kicking An Opponents’ A#s

  9. Chris

    The ABA in its infancy was great but long term business vision was mess , hence the reason the growth of the NBA .

    It was the same thing with great regard to the failure of the USFL and the burgeoning growth of the NFL .

    tophatal ……………….

  10. What sems to be the NFL’s fixation in wanting a franchise across the Atlantic ? First it was Goodell , not long after succeeding Tagliabue , he made the statement the he would like to see a team in London .

    Now Robert Kraft in a recent interview say it’s now time to time to expand abroad have a franchise in Europe within a decade . I understand that the NFL has reached it maturation and saturation point in N America but what the league hierarchy should now be vested in , must be the long-term viability .

    Look he’s already got a franchise with the “name and word” England well represented . Why the hell does he want to see franchise in the land of my birth ? The NFL as popular as it is can’t enjoy any real success going up against soccer in Europe . NFL Europe was a clear indication of that as it became a boondoggle for the league and an immense loss leading to them having to “write off countless millions “</b after an ill advised experiment that produced nothing tangible in the end .

    In reality they (NFL) could teach the morons who run the NHL something especially in light of that ludicrous contract given to Sid “The Kid” Crosby . 12 years $104 million (guaranteed) to a player coming off three sever concussions inside 18 months (two of which were Grade II) . Hockey is a sport where its hierarchy has no idea as to what’s meant by the words fiscal responsibility .

    The Coyotes are a financial mess and are on the verge of declaring bankruptcy (debts of almost $100 million and no real interest in terms of a buyer) . And Gary Bettman (NHL Commissioner) is bereft of any common sense . Instead of trying rein in costs the teams are back to capricious spending in terms of team salaries and that of the players’ salaries . There are now 10 players in the sport earning double digit salaries in terms of their contracts . What sense does that make when their tv contracts as a main revenue stream is said to be so anemic ? Bettman also now has to deal with an angry union (NHLPA) who in essence are now sick of the NHL hierarchy , as their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is now up for renegotiation .

  11. I don’t know, Al. I think Beal will be a solid pro.

    Don’t get me wrong. Another year of college would definitely have done him good but the league is so lacking quality shooting guards that he was guaranteed to be drafted early, more than enough reason for him to test the waters.

    Re: Houston, Al, I guess they must seriously think they have a shot at Dwight but that’s not something I’ve ever heard. Why would Deron Williams wanna leave Brooklyn and Dwight wanna leave Orlando just to go play in Texas? Doesn’t make sense.

    Rays are still struggling, Al, dropping two of their first three to Detroit. They need some bats, man. That lineup simply cannot hit on a consistent basis.

  12. Al…

    True about the ABA, Al, but there was a while where that league was giving the NBA a run for its money, by landing more big name athletes and providing a more exciting brand of basketball.

    Remember, the NBA sucked up some of those teams and ultimately incorporated some of their rules.

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