Late in the afternoon, a familiar face entered Duke’s Card Gymnasium.
It was the Duke Athletics surplus sale, an annual purge held after the end of the school year, where everything from jerseys to locker room furniture is made available to the general public.
The sweltering gym was filled with fans, looking for a piece of the Duke program, when a living, breathing part of their history came through the doors.
Christian Laettner was looking for bargains.
One wall of the gym was devoted to shoes, as every size and type of athletic footwear was available, but Laettner didn’t give the mountain of Nike boxes a second look. He also didn’t spend any time looking at shorts, t-shirts, or other workout gear.
Instead, the 1992 consensus player of the year and two-time national champion pawed through a stack of golf shirts.
The clothing choice was appropriate for Laettner's recent career change. “If you love basketball but can’t play anymore, what are you going to do?” he asked the media in Fort Wayne, Indiana in late January. “You coach.”
Laettner is fresh off his first coaching gig, an assistant coaching job with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Developmental League.
He joined the team in late January, when they were struggling with an 8-13 record. They ended up enduring a 10-game losing streak that consumed the entire month of February, and another 7-game skid in March, struggling to a 6-23 mark after he took his place on the bench. That’s only three less losses than Laettner saw in his entire four years with the Blue Devils.
Still, Laettner wouldn’t trade the experience for college coaching success. “The professional level of basketball is what you strive to reach, to play at, to coach at, to affect somehow, in some way,” he said. “That’s why I’m attracted to the pro game. I loved it, even when I was on teams that weren’t very good.”
Laettner was asked to bring intensity, energy, and competitiveness to the last-place D-League squad, all traits he learned from coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Coach K took it to another level, in terms of toughness, competitiveness, and intensity,” Laettner said soon after taking the job.
In his second game as Mad Ants assistant, Laettner addressed the team at halftime of a game they were trailing. "I told them, ‘Forget about the scouting report. Forget about whether your jumper’s going in. Just go out there and compete a little more.’” The Ants responded with a come-from-behind 97-93 win.
The inspiration for the speech came from his legendary college coach. “(Coach K) is probably behind 50% of what I deliver out there as a coach,” Laettner said. “He’s affected every mannerism, how you deliver your talk and the words you choose.”
While Laettner may have been the most well-known name on the Fort Wayne sideline, he also had to know his place—second in command, which is a very different role than that played by the head coach.
“As assistant, I tried to be friends with them more than anything,” Laettner said of the Mad Ants players. “I was just real respectful to them, had fun with them, goof around with them. Then, once they accepted me, I might mention one or two things they can do a little better.”
“Now as a head coach, it’s different,” he added. “You can’t be friends with all of them. So that’s a whole different dichotomy.”
Friendly and supportive were adjectives not often used to describe Laettner as a player, but he said he has no problem in that role. “I’m good at stuff like that,” he said.
“I was very very encouraging with teammates too,” he added, “but people never talk about that. That part may not be seen, and it’s definitely not talked about. You hold theem accountable but also at same time encourage them.”
The Mad Ants coaching staff was let go following the season, and Laettner is looking for another gig, perhaps at a higher level.
“I hired an agent, Lonnie Cooper, out of Atlanta. He’s trying to find me something. Hopefully something will happen for me in the NBA. If not, I can go back to the D League in the fall.”
Laettner has a strong preference for coaching in the pros, but what if a prime college job was available—maybe something under his former coach, at his alma mater? Laettner said he wouldn’t turn it down, but, “I’m sure there’d be a long line of people ahead of me for that position.”
“I learned a lot there,” Laettner said of his time in Fort Wayne. “I had a blast. It was very easy, very rewarding. I loved it.”
Even if it means a change in his wardrobe.