At the Wildcats' awards ceremony a week after the season ended, athletic director C.M. Newton would astonish the seniors by retiring their jerseys. They had done little statistically to warrant a place in the Rupp Arena rafters alongside names like Hagan and Issel and Ramsey. They played only once in the NCAAs and never reached a Final Four. But for restoring honor to the Cats, for turning the tables on adversity, Newton believed it was the right thing to do.
The ceremony included a video with highlights of the final game of their careers. With Laettner's shot in the air, the video mercifully stopped.
It is hard to conceive of a more luminous basketball game than the one North Carolina State and Maryland played in 1974, in the final of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. In those days only one team from any conference advanced to the NCAAs, and 18 years ago that sole bid went to the Wolfpack for their 103-100 overtime victory. In its report on that game this magazine called it "indescribably delicious." Among the future NBA first-round picks who prodded each other to greater excellence were David Thompson, Tom Burleson, John Lucas and Tom McMillen.
And Len Elmore. "The number of overtimes we played in 1974 continues to increase with the years," he says. "Now people say it was double and triple overtime. It will be the same with this game. People will soon say there were .2 seconds on the clock, and that Laettner made a 30-footer. They'll find a way to make it larger than life.
"I think ours was better for the intensity and the level of talent. But ours didn't end with the drama this one did. Each time you thought someone had put this one away with a big shot, someone came up with something bigger. Laettner's was the ultimate. In our game there wasn't one play you could question."
Here there were two. People won't soon forget the soft-shoe Laettner danced on Timberlake. In Kentucky it has been immortalized by T-shirts reading DUKE NO. 1, only footprints blot out the D and the E, so that it really reads UK NO. 1. And people still ask how Pitino could have failed to put a man on the ball.
"The actual strategy wasn't bad," says Krzyzewski. "I just don't think they could have defended it. The pass and the catch were perfect. If a guy hits a home run or sinks a hole in one, that's one play. But this was two kids making a great play, like Joe Montana and Dwight Clark. When two people make a great play, it's more worthy of disbelief."
Krzyzewski feels so strongly about this that just as he succored Fanner in the game's aftermath, he wishes Pelphrey would pull the covers up against the chill of the Galician night and sleep free of second thoughts. "After the game, people talked about luck and destiny," says Krzyzewski. "I don't know what those things are. I just know that the ball got put in play by our best athlete. Our best player caught it and shot it. I think most people would agree that we're a better basketball team. Not a lot better, but better. So I'd like John Pelphrey to think that the reason his team was in a position to win was because of how they played. Especially John Pelphrey. In other words, he's a winner. He just didn't win that play."
Young athletes are normally ingenuous in outlook and laconic in speech. They tend to prefer the security of cliché and to decline invitations to reflect. But singular circumstances can sometimes fit them with the perspective of those much older. Thirty years from now people will still be walking into the insurance agency Richie Farmer intends to open in Manchester, Ky., and asking him to tell them about that game the Unforgettables played against Duke back in '92. And Farmer will launch into the tale he already has down pat. "You know," he says today, and most surely will say tomorrow, "they say Cawood Ledford is the best recruiter Kentucky's ever had. Listening to Cawood call a loss, you can imagine a tear running down a little boy's check, and his mama going over to tell him it'll be all right, and the next day him going out and shooting baskets, because someday he's going to be a Wildcat and it's going to be different. That next time Kentucky's going to win."
Nine days after Duke's win in Philadelphia, Cawood Ledford was in Minneapolis to broadcast, as he customarily did, the Monday-night title game for NCAA Productions. Ledford was packing up his gear following Duke's victory over Michigan when a well-wisher came by to inquire how his final broadcast had gone.