“He had no idea who I was,” Christian Laettner (pictured) said. “But he’s seen The Shot.”
Two players – one from Kentucky, the other from Duke – separated by 20 years yet so intertwined in U.S. men’s basketball history. All-Americans in college, both led their respective schools to national championships and then spent the following summer at the end of the bench on Olympic teams.
Stars to subs just that quick.
Earlier this week, Davis, at the London Games because a knee injury knocked Blake Griffin off the American roster, and Laettner, the 12th man on the 1992 Dream Team, met for the first time before a U.S. team practice.
They shared a few laughs and posed for pictures.
“He was cool, but I didn’t know who he was at first,” Davis said, a bit embarrassed. “I’ve heard of him. Everybody was asking me about him.”
Since arriving in England last week, the 19-year-old Davis, taken with the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA draft by New Orleans, has been asked about Laettner. After finishing his career at Duke, Laettner spent the summer of his life in Spain as teammates with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.
Davis only knew of Laettner the same way all Kentucky fans know him – the unspeakable villain who drained the immortalized buzzer-beating jumper that beat the Wildcats in the East Regional final of the 1992 NCAA tournament.
Mention The Shot and any Kentuckian’s blue blood boils.
“Yeah, I’ve heard about it forever,” Davis said. “That’s OK. I think we made up for it this year.”
With the reach of someone 7-foot-5, Davis led Kentucky to a national title as a freshman before entering the NBA draft. He was invited to the U.S. team’s pre-Olympic camp, but the 6-foot-10 big man was slowed by a sprained ankle. After not making the squad, he would have most of his summer off before training camp.
However, while in Los Angeles attending the ESPY Awards, Davis got a call telling him Griffin was hurt and to get to Las Vegas.
“I said, ‘all right,’ hung up the phone and caught the first plane,” he said.
Unlike Laettner, who averaged just eight minutes per game – “as the 12th most unneeded person on that team” – in Barcelona, Davis may have a far more significant role with this U.S. squad before these Olympics end. With just one true experienced center in Tyson Chandler, the Americans lack both interior size and depth – something they figure to need against Spain, Argentina, and Brazil in the medal round next week.
If Chandler gets in foul trouble, if there’s an injury, or if U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski wants to play a bigger lineup, Davis may get more playing time.
He’s earning it.
“He’s adjusted well,” Krzyzewski said of Davis, who along with Laettner and Emeka Okafor (2004) are the only players to go straight from college to the U.S. team since ’92. “It’s just that you don’t just plug a guy in. He’s 19 and he’s playing against guys who are 28 and are men in a much more physical game.”
Already, Davis has been able to contribute, albeit not in a critical game situation. On Tuesday against Tunisia, he scored 12 points – 10 of them on wide-variety of dunks – in the second half when the Americans ran away for a 47-point win. It wasn’t all easy for Davis, who lost the ball on one possession and received a welcome-to-the-international-game elbow to the lip.
Davis’ teammates and the U.S. coaching staff say he’s gotten better in each practice, giving him more confidence, and in turn, his teammates more confidence in him. He’s also giving them a taste of his pro-potential.
“I’m happy for him,” Kevin Durant said after the U.S. improved to 2-0. “He works hard. Coming in to the Olympics before his rookie season, that’s what guys dream of, and to do it at 19. He’s going to be a phenomenal player, man. He’s going to be one of those guys who changes a franchise for decades.”
Davis knows his role may evolve, and he intends to let it grow naturally. He’s not about to walk up to Krzyzewski and demand to start of anything like that.
“I’m just happy to be here,” Davis said. “I’m not crying for time. I’m just happy to … have a chance to win a gold medal with these guys at 19 years old.”
Laettner felt the same way when he was added to the once-in-a-century team that included 11 Hall of Famers, and in Jordan, perhaps the greatest player ever. A 13-year NBA veteran, Laettner recalled having to win over several Dream Teamers before feeling welcomed.
“We had a dinner the first night and only (Charles) Barkley and (Chris) Mullin were really cool right away,” said Laettner, who is doing TV work during the London Games. “A few of the other guys were like, ‘we want to see how this young punk is’ before they totally accepted me.
“Once I showed that I could take a foul and not cry too much, they were good. They were all good to me.”
Davis was accepted immediately by this year’s team, partly because there isn’t as wide of an age gap as Laettner had with some of his Olympic teammates. The U.S. also has a size issue – whether they want to admit or no – without Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh, members of the 2008 team.
“He’s like our little brother,” LeBron James said. “I’m glad we got him, because we’re going to need him.”
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