Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: THE LAST GREAT GAME: DUKE VS. KENTUCKY AND THE 2.1 SECONDS THAT CHANGED BASKETBALL by Gene Wojciechowski (Blue Rider Press, 2012)

What makes a great game? I think that we would all agree that the three essential components of a classic contest are:

1. Something important must be at stake.
2. The game must feature compelling characters.
3. The game must feature one or more "iconic moments."

On all three counts, the 1992 East Regional final between Duke and Kentucky easily qualifies, which is why a book commemorating the 20th anniversary of the contest is a worthwhile endeavor. Some fairly knowledgeable hoop-heads have even gone so far as to nominate the game as the greatest college basketball game ever played. But a "game that changed basketball"? "The LAST great game"? Gene Wojciechowski's editors didn't do him any favors by engaging in such overinflated ballyhoo, nor did Wojciechowski make any particular effort to justify the buildup during the course of his narrative. The overkill is a shame, because, on balance, this is an excellent, well-detailed description of The Events Leading Up to Christian Laettner's Game-Ending "J" (coming soon to an NCAA Tournament commercial bumper near you!).

THE LAST GREAT GAME spends the vast majority of its time telling the parallel tales of Mike Krzyzewski's building of a basketball dynasty at Duke -- with particular attention being paid to the assembling of the pieces of Coach K's first national championship team in 1991 -- and Rick Pitino's reconstruction of a Kentucky program shattered by scandal in the late 80s and left with a rag-tag bunch of marginal players. Both of these stories are well-known to college basketball fans with a sense of history, and Wojciechowski does a very good job of retelling the tales for a general audience. The parallelism, however, ultimately makes for some structural difficulties as the March 28, 1992 date of the Regional showdown at Philadelphia's Spectrum arrives. No sooner has Wojciechowski started to tell the story of the game from UK's perspective than he has to shift into "reverse" and start setting up the pins all over again from the Blue Devils' point of view. I found this approach unnecessarily maladroit. It doesn't help that Wojciechowski's description of the game itself, given the game's supposed earth-shaking nature, is surprisingly sketchy. Granted, I've read other books about famous games that err on the side of providing TOO MUCH detail, even unto recounting the fate of every single dribble, fast break, and shot, but the Duke-UK contest was intriguing enough on strategic, tactical, and emotional levels to warrant a somewhat more comprehensive treatment -- and not one divided in twain for no reason. Thankfully, the entire game is readily available for viewing through the NCAA Vault portal, so you can easily parse it for yourself.

Wojciechowski's treatment of Duke and UK is pretty even-handed, but I say that speaking as a neutral. As can be seen in the fanbases' wildly disparate interpretations of such notorious in-game moments as Christian Laettner's "stomp" on UK's Aminu Timberlake, it wouldn't have been easy to have come up with a description that completely satisfied all parties. Perhaps Duke gets a little more of the oxygen, but that's only because (1) Krzyzewski had spent more time at Duke than Pitino had at UK, (2) Wojciechowski simply had more to write about Duke's Final Four runs of the late 80s, its 1991 championship, and the 1992 Final Four in which Duke defended its title against Michigan's "Fab Five." It's hard to spot any true unfairness towards either side in the narrative.

You'll be seeing highlights from this game out the wazoo for the rest of your life, so, to get the most out of the references, I'd recommend that you give this book a look while waiting for the NEXT "great game." And you can bet that there will be one.

1 comment:

Sports Chump said...

I thought it was a pretty entertaining read.