(Editor's note: This story appeared in the May 24, 1992 edition of the Star Tribune)
ANGOLA, N.Y. - Before he became college basketball's version of a pop star's concert -- before teenage girls shrieked, before he was listed between Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor as one of the planet's 50 Most Beautiful People, before he appeared on Arsenio and told Johnny maybe later, before agents began calling him the sport's most marketable commodity since Michael Jordan and before his most recent actions and words became the day's latest controversy – Christian Laettner was just another little boy in a big boy's shirt.
Now, if the Timberwolves so choose, he could be the third player selected in the June 24 NBA draft.
Back then, the arena was the little gym at Most Precious Blood parochial school and the world reached from his own back yard toward the school near the village of Angola, to Lake Erie on the far side of town.
Take away all that water, subtract some of the snow, add more cold and the place and the life just as easily could have been one in Alexandria or Albert Lea, Minn., instead of Angola, N.Y., a former summer-cottage town some 30 miles south of Buffalo.
Piano lessons. Religion classes. Summer days in the back yard with your older brother and the neighbor kid, a tennis ball substituted for a baseball, the picnic table tipped to serve as a backstop, the purple-martin houses at the back of the lot signifying whether a fly ball was a home run or a triple. Nights spent playing out a 162-game season in Strat-O-Matic baseball.
"You read all this stuff now, see it on television and sometimes you wonder who they're talking about," said Tommy Kwilos, now a 23-year-old disabled mason, then one of Laettner's childhood chums.
"We were just kids, all of us. He'd bust a window in my garage and he'd say, `Oh, I've got to go.' And I'd say, `Christian, you've got to talk to my dad, buddy.' "
The biggest difference, then and always, was that body. The son of a newspaper printer and a schoolteacher, Laettner towered over classmates and teachers, who used him to change the seasonal mobiles in the school hallway because only he could reach that high. He was approaching 6-3 -- about 5-10 of him legs -- by the time he left Most
Precious Blood and transferred to the Nichols School, an exclusive Buffalo prep school, to repeat the eighth grade.
"He was huge, but no one ever looked at him and said, `There's a 12-year-old kid,' " said Mike Taylor, who lived down the road from the Laettners. "They said, `He's 6-2, so he should be able to do this.' "
That disparity perhaps accounts for two opposite images: A lovable, sweet child who won over faculty and most of his classmates at MPB and Nichols, and the driven, sometimes nasty competitor who became a two-time NCAA champion at Duke and now - as some accuse him of growing petulant and arrogant - is about to become an NBA millionaire.
The kids called him a "mommy's boy" down on the country lane where Laettner's parents and younger sister still live.
"If you've ever seen a Labrador puppy, that's what he was like," his mother, Bonnie, said. "I've always said he was like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh because he was so bouncy."
Taylor remembers Laettner as a "little kid who loved people. He'd go up to you, grab your leg and ask for a hug."
His grammar-school principal, Sister Mary Theophane, said the child she remembers was "never aggressive, never nasty. It was hard for me to believe he was a boy, he was so respectful and kind."
Of course, there are few college opponents who would recognize those descriptions as the Christian Laettner they know. NBA scouts like Laettner's attitude as much as his size and talent, and Laettner explains his competitive nature by saying there's a "mean" part to his personality that always has been there.
So how did Tigger grow from bouncy to one of college basketball's fiercest players?
Go back to that body and the Laettner back yard. George Laettner, an employee at the Buffalo News for the past three decades, began the family sports tradition as a high-school sports star and for two decades was a volunteer basketball and baseball coach at MPB, where he coached both his sons, Chris and Christian.
Christian's size made him almost a physical equal to Chris, a U.S. Postal employee who is four years older and half a foot smaller, and Taylor, who is two years older. Emotionally? Now that was another matter. The three spent hours playing together. The games: baseball, football, street hockey, nearly anything but basketball.
"Everything was a competition for those three," Bonnie Laettner said. "They didn't like to play-play. They were merciless to Christian. He spent the better part of his youth crying."
The ground rules were: Play to win. Don't lose. And if you lose, don't complain. Of course, those are ground rules set by older kids.
"You look back and it was downright stupid stuff," Taylor said. "How fast can you run? How far can you jump? You think Christian is competitive? You should see Chris. He's the most competitive guy I ever knew. If we were playing baseball and he thought Christian was being whiny, he'd whip a fastball at his ear. And if Christian started running to his mom, Chris would chase him down and tackle him. Christian, you'd look at his arms and they would be yellow and blue from getting beat on. It was learn to beat or get beat."
A fellow learns to adapt. Laettner learned to compete against older children, and he learned how to win.
"He'd beat you and he wouldn't let you forget it," Taylor said. "He'd rub it in. But if he rubbed it in too much, me and Chris would rub his face in the dirt."
By the time he left Most Precious Blood as an eighth-grader, Laettner's career ambitions already were well-defined. The school holds an event called Memory Lane for all graduating students, who stand, announce their life plans and then hand a rose to their parents. Laettner's plans:
"I want to be a famous basketball player, with lots of money, lots of fame and hopefully with lots of national acclaim. I want to be No. 1, just like the Philadelphia 76ers."
The path to those dreams first went through the Nichols School, Buffalo's equivalent to Hopkins' Blake School and a 40-minute commute from Angola. His parents sent him on scholarship because it would prepare him for a possible college scholarship and because Nichols allowed Laettner to repeat eighth grade for academic and social reasons. Of course, the extra year didn't hurt athletically, either.
If Laettner's back-yard adventures had prepared him physically, then Nichols brought him up to speed emotionally. He carried some academic liabilities to the 100-year-old campus, which has produced a New York Stock Exchange chairman, congressmen, members of the Rich family after which Buffalo's football stadium is named and several NHL draft picks. But he quickly learned to compete against kids who had attended the private school since Grade 5.
"As a big kid, he was picked on as most big kids are," said Tim McCarthy, Nichols' dean of the ninth grade. "You couldn't call him klutzy because he was athletic, but he stood out.
"Think about eighth-grade kids. There's one whose 6-5 and the rest are mostly 4-8, and it was clear he had some things to overcome (academically). He took his share of cheap shots from kids who were more verbally talented and you could see the competitiveness come out in him. He learned to fight back. You see it on the basketball court now; he's well-known for his mouth. We never really saw that here, but he could defend himself with the best of people."
While he was convincing his creative writing teacher that favorite author Stephen King was "not some hack writer," Laettner also showed he could play basketball. Nichols won consecutive state
Class C titles in Laettner's freshman and sophomore seasons and, while the likes of Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski swept through campus, Laettner became the first person ever to twice be named the Buffalo News' Western New York Player of the Year as a junior and senior.
Before his senior year, he announced he would attend Duke, although practically nobody yet believed he would become an NBA player. Still, the Nichols senior class selected him as "First to Make a Million" in the 1988 school yearbook. That yearbook is becoming a collector's item at Nichols; copies already have been swiped from the library and admissions office.
That yearbook offers a glimpse of Laettner before Duke, before the national titles, before The Image. There he is, Christian the Dog Lover, clutching one of the family's two dogs in his arms with baby sister, Katie, at his side. And there are quotes - "The will to win is more crucial than the skill to win" - taken from such great modern philosophers as Prince, the Rolling Stones and L.L. Cool J. The Image wasn't yet formed, but even then Laettner considered himself on the cutting edge.
"There are two things about Christian," said Sara Forrestal, a Nichols math teacher who has remained close to Laettner. "He thinks he's black and he thinks he's a comedian. He's neither. And he's always liked things that are different. He can't like anything normal."
Mention Laettner's planned appearance on the cover of Gentleman Quarterly's October issue and the folks in Buffalo and Angola will laugh in your face. Kwilos said a kid in Angola would wear anything.
"Heck, we used to wear plaid when we were little," he said.
Asked about Laettner's sartorial splendor, Forrestal said, "He was no way stylish. He wore Harry's Big and Tall Clothing. Now he shops at Harry Rosen in the Galleria mall. Ever been there? That's really expensive stuff. Back then, he was a dork."
Now, of course, there's The Image. Those looks, the screaming, that teen-idol stuff.
"I hear, `Oh, those deep blue eyes, that golden hair,' " Taylor said, "and it sounds like he's some porn star. Who are they talking about, Robert Redford?"
No, just a celebrity who likely will make as much from endorsements as he will from his NBA contract.
Laettner has appeared on Arsenio Hall's show and MTV. He received inquiries from the Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman shows. He was photographed recently at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion while discussing a possible role in a sequel to "White Men Can't Jump."
And, according to his mother, the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" called.
"He said he told them `Maybe later,' " Bonnie Laettner said. "I said, `Christian? Maybe later? This is Johnny's last week.' He said, `Mom, Coach K told me to cool it after the Arsenio show.' "
Laettner was criticized after he took a backhanded swipe at those "little Durham papers" on Arsenio. He was criticized when, one\ class short, he failed to graduate from Duke last week and the planet wondered if Krzyzewski will keep the team's latest championship banner hanging.
He also has been criticized for being snooty and arrogant, although future Olympics teammate Charles Barkley promises Laettner will be humbler after a summer of carrying his new teammates' bags.
"A year ago, I never heard that word," Bonnie Laettner said. "Now it's arrogant, arrogant, arrogant, until I can't stand it anymore."
Perhaps that's part of the territory crossing over from basketball star to cultural icon. Or maybe it's just easy to forget
"He's been in people's minds for so long that he seems older than us," McCarthy said. "You forget he's 22 and you forget what it's like to be 22. He's not dealing with the same realities as other 22-year-olds.
"The job market is terrible, kids are going to graduate school because the employment is not there, and here we expect him to go out and act like somebody full of wisdom."
Instead, Laettner -- who used to pick beans on the Kwilos family farm for $1 a bushel -- will walk straight into a salary of at least $3 million a season. For those who know him down at the South Shore Inn and Mickey Rats on the Erie coast, that's the most unbelievable bit of all.
"The little kid down the street has got a checkbook with no balance," said Taylor, who spent three years in the U.S. Army and now is a part-time college student. "I'm going to buy 1,500 of his rookie cards and I'm going to have him sign 'em. And if he doesn't sign 'em, I'm going to give him the old meat grinder.”