Yet it says much that Kentucky's four seniors even got a chance to be the guys history happened to. Woods began his career inauspiciously, sitting out a season for academic reasons. Pelphrey, Feldhaus and Richie Farmer, all of whom come from small towns in Kentucky, were only grudgingly offered scholarships by then Wildcat coach Eddie Sutton: Feldhaus because he was a legacy whose father, Allen, played for Adolph Rupp; Pelphrey because he had been courted by Louisville, and no Kentucky coach could afford to let a Mr. Basketball from the mountains sign with a city slicker like Denny Crum; and Farmer because Sutton realized it would be a public relations disaster to lose so beloved a high school star—Farmer was Mr. Basketball the year after Pelphrey and led tiny Clay County High to a state championship in 1987. Indeed, right after Farmer graduated from Kentucky, his autobiography, entitled Richie, was published. In the book his quotes appear in blue ink, just as the words of Jesus used to be printed in red in some editions of the Bible.
While Pelphrey and Feldhaus sat out the 1987-88 season as red-shirts, Kentucky was riding high in the national polls. But by the time they became eligible a year later, and Woods had quit snorkeling academically and Farmer had arrived as a freshman, star swingman Rex Chapman had left early to go play in the NBA and the NCAA was readying its indictment Of the program. The Wildcats suffered through Kentucky's first losing season in 62 years, a 13-19 ordeal whose dismal tone was set at the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass., where Duke thrashed the Cats by 25 points.
When the NCAA issued its hide strapping shortly after the season ended, all four might have followed the lead of their illustrious teammates, players like Chris Mills, LeRon Ellis and Eddie Sutton's son Sean, who transferred out. But no school wanted them. Even the new coach, Pitino, wasn't sure he did. Pelphrey had a reputation as a locker-room lawyer. Woods and Feldhaus couldn't shoot. And Farmer was 30 pounds too heavy, having spent much of his freshman season lollygagging in the belief Sutton would never play him when he could play his son instead.
There was something unfinished about each of the four, though, and since they were stuck with one another, Pitino figured he might as well discover what it was. Soon Farmer was wondering if he had come to Kentucky on a track scholarship. Pelphrey and Feldhaus found out that notwithstanding all the judgments that they weren't "athletes," they could make up in stamina and strength what they lacked in speed or spring. Woods was a more intractable problem, for he styled himself a scoring guard, while his coach needed him as a floor leader. And he had a knack, late in games, for missing shots—each, it seemed, more creatively than the one before. As a sophomore he misfired in the final minutes of five different losses. "When he's a senior," Pitino said, "he'll make those shots."
The class of '92 made up half of Pitino's eight scholarship players that first season. They went a game 14-14 in '89-90. A year later, in Kentucky's final season of banishment from postseason competition, Mashburn signed on, and the Wildcats went 22-6. Still, no one could ever have imagined that this group, once called the Young and the Rexless, would one day be sanctified, like Rupp's Runts and the Fiddlin' Five before them, as the Unforgettables.
Say you had only one chance, and you had to explain quickly to someone in Zanzibar why Christian Laettner made four trips to the Final Four in four collegiate seasons; why he twice sent his team there himself with buzzer-beating shots; why Duke was No. 1 for 18 straight weeks during his senior year; and why last summer a horse at the Red Mile, the harness track in Lexington, ran as Laettner Be Gone.
You could do worse than rest your case on the last two minutes of overtime.
Beginning with the moment Laettner tied the game at 98, after being fouled by Mashburn and dropping in two free throws, no other Duke player would score. When Kentucky came downcourt and Woods missed a jumper, it was Laettner who claimed the rebound. And when, on the ensuing possession, Duke worked all but a few seconds off the shot clock, it was Laettner who got the ball in the post, with Mashburn tight behind him, and spun into a shot. Even as Mashburn knocked the ball momentarily loose, Laettner somehow quickly regained control, flinging a low line drive off the backboard and in. From the halftime stat sheet Pitino knew Laettner had made every shot he had taken, and at this, he turned to his assistants and muttered, "That sucker's never going to miss."
People who can spring for 31 and have a good hair day while doing it are often called to account for their fortune. "Obviously there's some luck in it, and some skill in it too," Laettner says. "But how much of each, who knows? Maybe you get more luck if you're a good person. Maybe you get more if you're nice to your mother."
Bonnie Laettner wore a neck brace as she watched the game from several rows behind the Duke bench. "Christian probably stepped on her," one Cincinnati-based radio talk-show host would say the following week. In fact she had recently undergone a vertebrae fusion in her neck. She had spent the first half holed up in a Spectrum ladies' room, working her St. Joseph's medal, praying to the saint she had developed a devotion to six years earlier, when her neck first flared up. She would never ask God himself to intervene in anything so common as a basketball game. But with St. Joseph she was bolder, and the two of them did seem to have a good thing going. Bonnie never missed the novena in his name every March at Most Precious Blood church in Angola, N.Y.; by all evidence, St. Joseph heard her pleas, for there were Duke and her son, by the end of every March, in the Final Four.