Tournament Tales ...
with Antonio Lang
Antonio Lang Looks Back on One of the Greatest Teams and Greatest Moments in Tourney History
You probably saw it this week on Twitter: Christian Laettner somehow managing to break an entirely new generation of Kentucky fans’ hearts with his miraculous last-second turnaround jumper at the Spectrum.
With the 2020 NCAA Tournament cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, CBS is re-airing some classic Tourney battles, and it doesn’t get more classic than the 1992 East Regional between Duke and Kentucky.
Like Dwight Clark’s “Catch,” Michael Jordan’s “Shot,” and the “Tuck Rule” that saved Tom Brady’s bacon, Laettner’s shot didn’t just send the Blue Devils to that year’s Final Four, it launched a dynasty and changed the sport forever.
The only person who had a better look at the iconic floater than Laettner was Cavs assistant coach Antonio Lang – who was a sophomore forward for Mike Krzyzewski’s squad and was camped out under the hoop when it splashed home.
Lang and the Dukies already had a National Championship under their belt, beating Roy Williams’ Kansas team after avenging a humiliating loss to UNLV from the previous Tournament.
After Laettner and Co. vanquished Rick Pitino’s Wildcats in that classic contest in Philly, they got past a tough Indiana team and topped Michigan’s Fab Five to win back-to-back titles – cementing Duke as college basketball’s gold standard for the next three decades.
Now it’s time to get out of the way and let Antonio Lang take over and tell the Tournament Tale of how his journey in Durham unfolded (and a backstory of that play that most people don’t know) …
When you were looking at schools during your recruitment, how much did academics factor in?
Antonio Lang: Well, my mom and dad are both teachers, so a degree from Duke University was really big.
I just had such a great time on my visit. Quin Snyder was on my visit. Alaa Abdelnaby, Phil Henderson (rest in peace). Brian Davis. I just enjoyed the visit, and it was kind of a no-brainer.
I was really fortunate. My mother, an unbelievable woman, helped integrate high schools in South Carolina. My father actually marched with Martin Luther King. They were teachers, and education was a really, really a big part of it.
My mother told me, if you get a degree from Duke University, you can work anywhere. So I think that had a lot to do with it.
It was a perfect combination, basketball and education. I don't think you can really beat it.
What appealed to you about Coach Krzyzewski?
Lang: Relationships – right from the beginning.
He said: ‘If you come here, you're gonna learn how to be a man. We'll teach you how to play and we'll make you a better human being. Once you get here, we will teach you how to love each other, how to respect each other. We already know you work hard. We'll show you how to work harder.’
It was everything I wanted.
He's one of those guys that you have a conversation with him, he just made me feel good, made me feel like I wanted to be a part of it.
Looking at the Tournament, the year before your first title, Duke got demolished by UNLV. How did that effect the following season?
Lang: That was before me and I think they lost by 30. And the next year, I knew about it right away because I was up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at six in the morning lifting weights!
I think that game, in a way, was good because Coach K realized that we weren't strong enough at the time. And weightlifting was kind of down at the time.
I remember being in high school – I'm a little bit older – but we thought weightlifting would throw off your shot. It was more about push-ups, pull-ups, all that stuff. And then you realize Karl Malone could shoot, and Karl Malone was massive.
So I think Coach K learned from that – that our bodies had to be stronger to handle the physical play along with the athleticism.
So my freshman year was pretty good. I went from weighing 175 pounds to, like, 205 or 210. Man, I walked around my shirt off all the time!
So, fortunately, we had an opportunity to play UNLV again and they had an unbelievable team. And it was probably one of those things where if we played them 100 times we'd win once. But that was that one time.
Those teams featured some huge personalities. Laettner. Bobby Hurley. Grant Hill. What were they like back then?
Lang: Grant and I were roommates. I had that guy for three years.
He’s the best person in the world. There's very few people that I respect more than Grant Hill. And his parents are the best, best people. I don't think they come any better than that. And I was blessed and fortunate, my family was blessed, fortunate just to be touched by that group of people. And we're still all friends now.
We still talk – and when we talk, it's like we're still living with each other again, we didn’t really miss a beat.
Grant was just Grant. What you see is what you get with Grant. He should be President one day.
The only thing about Grant is that he had this song -- "Tender Love" -- I think it was by Force MD's or something like that. It was terrible. That's only song he can play on the piano. And he played it every time anyone was around to show he could play the piano.
Christian Laettner is a great, great guy. A teddy bear. Laett's a teddy bear! One of the best!
He’s unbelievably competitive. Sometimes, he was so competitive. But as far as people, they don't get any better than Laett.
Bobby (Hurley) was an intense, funny guy. He'd always run back after practice so he could watch "Cheers." I never watched "Cheers" until I got to Duke. Also really, really competitive – but at the same time a free spirit.
Bobby was a great leader, but a 'show-you'-type leader.
Brian Davis was like a politician on the team. He dressed a certain way. He was really smart and he had the answer to everything. He was right nine times out of ten – and that tenth time he'd convince you that he was right.
And what was your role with that group?
Lang: I just stayed out of the way. (laughs)
"I think we realized it when we'd have open practice and there'd be 15,000 people there. That following year, it was kind of like we were rock stars. I don't know how rock stars do it, but it was kind of like that."
Antonio Lang, on Duke's rising popularity after their first national title
What I tried to do during all my years there was just figure out where you fit, try to be positive and try to do what's right.
I was lucky. I was blessed to have great parents and an unbelievable high school coach. He taught me how to fit into a group and try to connect people. And I've always tried to do that. I don't know how well I do with that, but I think that’s my role.
The thing that I remember most about that next year was that Bobby, Christian and all the guys that had been there the before against UNLV, they were unbelievably confident. We realized that we were playing really well at that time and only needed one game.
And I think the common denominator was Grant Hill. He was the guy who made the difference -- because you had a guy who was long, athletic.
And when we faced them, we realized we were just as tall, just as long, just as athletic.
Christian had an unbelievable game. He really drove all of us that year. We were all young guys. But his competitive nature, the fact that he remembered how he got embarrassed the year before. He was mad that they embarrassed Coach K. And Christian was going to make sure that we were in that game competitively.
In the end, we had some stuff fall our way and we ended up winning the game.
But I remember after we won the game was Coach K saying: OK, you won, but now you have to play Kansas. The goal isn't to beat UNLV. The goal is to win the National Championship.
So what was life like after having won the National Championship with that cast?
Lang: That next year, we didn't know. We were 19.
Like, back then, they didn't have social media, so we didn't know. Sometimes I'd call my parents back home, like: Was the game on TV?
But I think we realized it when we'd have open practice and there'd be 15,000 people there. That following year, it was kind of like we were rock stars. I don't know how rock stars do it, but it was kind of like that.
That year, we got Cherokee Parks and a few other players that came in and we just kept rolling. And it was unbelievable. I think we went 34-2.
We lost two games – one to North Carolina when Christian missed a little floater at the end. And we lost to Wake Forest.
At the end of the game against Wake, the same play that Coach K drew up in the Tournament against Kentucky -- the 'Christian Laettner Play' -- we tried against Wake Forest. But they put a man on the ball and Rick Pitino didn't.
How many times have you re-watched the 1992 Kentucky game and the final shot?
Lang: I've never watched it. I want to remember it how I played it.
I remember when Sean Woods hit that floater and thinking: OK, we're gonna lose.
There was chaos and when we came to the sidelines, Coach K was yelling: 'We're gonna win the game! We're gonna win the game!’ He drew up that play that we had practiced and everybody's kinda thinking, like, no way. But he keeps saying, 'We're gonna win this game.'
Grant made an unbelievable pass. Christian made an unbelievable catch.
And Christian, he's turning in slow motion and I'm like: Shoot the ball! Shoot the ball!!
And I was under the basket when it happened. When he shot it, I looked up and it looked like it was gonna go short. I kind of got set up for the rebound but it caught the inside of the rim and it went in. And I just collapsed.
People always ask me if I'm Thomas (Hill). Thomas is the one has his hands on his head, crying. I say: No, I'm the one on the ground doing 'the Curly Shuffle.'
Was there any chance of a letdown following that game and that finish?
Lang: Well, we adjusted right away because we were playing Indiana. And Indiana was a tough, tough team.
We had a week between, so Coach got us back down to earth – QUICKLY. There were some tough practices that week.
And then we played Michigan, the Fab Five. We knew he had to play well to compete with them. You look at that team. Look at Jalen (Rose), you look at Juwan (Howard), you look at Chris (Webber). Jimmy (King). Ray (Jackson).
The first half, they put it to us a little bit. The second half, we did pretty well.
But they were a great team. They changed a lot in basketball -- about how players are perceived. And I have a lot of respect for them. There was a lot written back then, but it was all fun. We were fortunate to play them and fortunate to beat them.
Everything sort of changed for Duke after that. They became the Yankees of college hoops.
Lang: It's crazy. I went overseas for 13 years. I came back, everybody hated Duke!
At the time, the big boys were North Carolina, because of the history. Coach Smith, all the players that played there. Charlie Black. Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo. North Carolina was the powerhouse and we were the ones trying to catch up with them.
But we weren't hated. I mean, not at the time.
It's just success.
Will teams or tournaments ever be like they were back in your day?
Lang: Well, the league's going younger and we've picked a lot of good players from college.
We all want the glory days. I'm talking about when the Big East was the Big East. Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova. When Louisville was Louisville. But those guys stayed there for three, four years – and we'll probably never see that again.
The Tournament is still exciting. Duke is still Duke. But overall, it's not quite the same.
That's life. Everything changes.
But I was blessed. I tell people all the time, I'm blessed, I'm fortunate. A kid born in South Carolina, raised in Mobile, Alabama, and I just get blessed every year.
Back then, I was just lucky: I was in the right place at the right time and lucky to be a part of it.