PAINTSVILLE — Growing up in Paintsville there was one person that I wanted to be like on the basketball court. That person was Tiger legend John Pelphrey. I can remember the first time I saw Paintsville play a basketball game. It was January 1987 and John Pelphrey and the Tigers were hosting Richie Farmer and Clay County. I don’t remember much of the game. I do remember being impressed by the large crowd as my Dad and I sat close to the top of the Paintsville gym. I then remember John Pelphrey, Joey Couch, Mike Minix, Keith Adkins and the rest of the team making a trip to Paintsville Elementary School to sign autographs for us youngsters after they had won their third straight 15th Region title that March. It was a thrill to meet those guys, who we all looked up to, especially my idol John Pelphrey.
As John traveled to play at the University of Kentucky I became a UK fan and as the years passed basketball became much more important in my life. By the time I was playing fifth- and sixth-grade basketball at Paintsville, I was wearing number 34, John’s number at Kentucky. By March 1992, I had another season of elementary school basketball under my belt and John was helping lead Kentucky on a run to the Final Four. I remember how I felt at the end of the Kentucky/Duke game that was played on that day. Watching Christian Laettner hit that improbable shot to knock the Wildcats and Paintsville’s hometown hero, John Pelphrey, out of a trip to the Final Four was devastating. “The Shot” became a moment replayed each March as the NCAA Tournament was played and a constant reminder of what Duke had taken away from the Kentucky fans.
As I grew older and got into high school I got to know John Pelphrey. He began recruiting me as a college coach and I always attended his annual John Pelphrey Camp at Paintsville. John even made a trip to Rupp Arena in March 1996 to watch me and the rest of the Paintsville Tigers win a state championship in the “Sweet 16.” One thing that was never talked about at any of the times we were around each other was the Duke game. It was never spoken about. After the recruiting process I became less of a Kentucky fan and as my own basketball odyssey began I thought less and less about “The Shot.”
As fate would have it, I found myself taking part in the American Basketball Association (ABA) All-Star Weekend in Jacksonville, FL in February 2011. As the Eastern Conference team held our first all-star practice I noticed a tall stranger walking into the gym, with ball clothes on. As I looked closer the man looked familiar. No, it couldn’t be, could it? It was Christian Laettner coming in to practice with us. He ended up on my team during the inter-squad scrimmage and he could still play, six years after retiring from the NBA. After the scrimmage he talked to us a little and when I introduced myself to him I told him my name and where I was from. I also added, “John Pelphrey is from my hometown” which brought a quick grin to his face. Over the course of the weekend I got to talk with him a few more times and once I got to know him, he didn’t seem like the hated enemy that I remembered from my youth.
I stayed in touch with Christian after that all-star experience and he even offered to come to Kentucky and put on a camp for the kids at the school where I taught. I wasn’t sure how that would be received by the people around the state but I appreciated his love for the game of basketball and that he wanted to teach and help as many kids as he could.
Since I had gotten to know Christian and I already knew John pretty well, I always had a thought like I would like to talk to both of them about “The Shot” and what they remembered of that time. The perfect opportunity presented itself recently when I was able to interview John for the upcoming book I am working on about Paintsville’s 1996 team. After the interview with John I decided to send Christian a text and see if he would talk a little about that Kentucky/Duke game and he readily agreed. Talking with those two, I have gotten to know more about that moment from two men who were main participants. Here is the story of that shot.
The game, which would later be ranked as one of the greatest sports moments of all-time, took place at the Philadelphia Spectrum on March 28, 1992. Christian Laettner hadn’t seen Kentucky play, but he felt that he already knew a lot about them. As he remembered, “There were a few things I knew [about Kentucky]. We [Duke] knew they were a hungry team, with a lot to play for. They were the underdog, had things to prove, they were kinda like folk-heroes and we were concerned about them.” What concerned Laettner was the man who was leading the Kentucky squad, Coach Rick Pitino. “In the back of my mind I knew Pitino was coaching them. He was a great coach. He coached at the 5-Star Camp where I went every summer.” In the other locker room, Paintsville native and UK senior John Pelphrey knew that the Cats had a mountain to climb if they were going to upset Duke, who were a 7½-point favorite over Kentucky. “[Duke] were Goliaths. They were a machine. They were faster and bigger. They had Grant Hill, who is still playing [in the NBA], Bobby Hurley was the best point guard in the country, Christian Laettner was the best player in the country, they were just great! The defending national champions.”
Prior to the game, Kentucky had a plan for the game. They would not be pressing Duke. It was assumed that if Duke played against the press early and were successful against it, that it would give the Blue Devils confidence. John Pelphrey recalled, “the last thing we wanted to do on a one-day prep was to go toe-to-toe with those guys. We spent the whole day trying to figure out their zone and slowing the game down, trying to be who were weren’t. Our shoot around wasn’t good, we were out of our comfort zone in terms of playing our style of play.” To add to the pressure of the bad shoot around was a motivational ploy by Coach Pitino. Normally, Kentucky held close practices, and one would think with such a major game ahead that no one would be permitted in the gym. Pitino had invited jewelers in to size his players for Final Four rings!
The slowdown tactics of the Wildcats seemed to work early on in the game. After six minutes, Kentucky held a 20-12 lead. However it was short lived. John Pelphrey stayed in foul trouble and played only 9 minutes in the first half, scoring 9 points. “I just had some really ticky-tack calls. I don’t think at the start of the game the refs really thought we had a chance to play with these guys. When you have that mentality you just think ‘ok, I’m gonna call this foul’ and then that wasn’t a foul the rest of the game.” Laettner was having a perfect game for Duke. He had 10 points and the half, going 5-for-5 from the field. The Blue Devils were torching UK’s 2-3 zone, shooting 72% from the field and dominating the small Cats on the boards 17-9. The result was a 50-45 Duke lead at half time.
Despite the half time deficit, Kentucky had stayed close. That is all Coach Pitino had wanted to do. He wanted to stay close and keep his press hidden for the right moment. He had told his team in a fiery halftime speech, “We’ve just got to keep playing this pace, stay with our game plan, and we’re going to get more confident and we’ll have a chance to win this game.”
However, the plan seemed to backfire early in the second half. In the first nine minutes, Duke took a large 12-point lead, 67-55. By then, Pelphrey had picked up his fourth foul, and Christian Laettner had scored two more baskets and was still a perfect 7-for-7 from the field. Pitino took a time out to try and compose his UK team. During the time out he told his boys, “Now it’s our time to win the game. They’re ready to get beat. You’ve taken all their best shots, and they can’t put you away.” It was time for Kentucky to play their trump card, they were going to press.
After the switch to the press, Kentucky came back and had cut the Duke lead to just four, 67-63, in sixty-three seconds. The game went back and forth and then Christian Laettner was fouled, by Kentucky freshman Aminu Timberlake. As Timberlake lay on the ground, his chest was stepped on by Laettner. He was just assessed a technical, he wasn’t thrown out of the game. “Yes, I meant to step on him. Someone had pushed me into the hoop a play or two before. I thought that it was Timberlake but in actually looking at the tape it was [Deron] Feldhaus or [Richie] Farmer.” His actions inspired hatred for many Kentucky fans and the intense nature of the game became much higher. John Pelphrey recalled, “You’d not get away with that in today’s game.” The momentum unfortunately turned back in favor of Duke and they had ballooned their lead back to 10 within forty seconds of Laettner’s infamous stomp. Kentucky battled back again and was able to send the game into overtime tied at 93. John Pelphrey reminisced about that last run, “The game was played at such a high level. Duke made this huge run against us. We get a couple of steals, we play man-to-man, hit a couple three’s and it was on from that point.”
The overtime period was much like the latter part of the second half. Big shots, intense play. Neither team could get an advantage. With less than twenty seconds remaining, UK’s Jamal Mashburn made a free throw to give the Cats a 101-100 lead. On the very next possession Laettner was fouled. He was fouled by Mashburn and the foul was his fifth. Kentucky’s best player, he had 28 points and 10 rebounds, was out of the game. Laettner calmly went to the line and sank both free throws to give Duke a one-point lead, 102-101 with just 14 seconds left and Kentucky called a timeout.
Coming out of the timeout, Kentucky senior Sean Woods received the inbounds pass and immediately drove down the lane off a nice screen by John Pelphrey. He turned into the paint and saw Christian Laettner sliding over to cut him off. Woods then pulled up for a running, one-handed shot that banked high off the glass and in! Kentucky had the lead, 103-102, with just 2.1 seconds remaining. After the shot Duke called a time out. Christian Laettner remembered, “When he [Woods] hit that shot we went into crisis mode. Which was call an immediate timeout, go over to Coach K, get the play from him and see if we could pull it off.” Kentucky players were ecstatic in the time out. John Pelphrey said, “When Sean hit that shot, we were so happy for him and for us. The day before they measure you for rings and that was flashing through our minds.” In the Duke huddle the players were described as neutral in their emotions. Christian Laettner spoke of the moment, “We were trained to be neutral. You don’t want to be too down because that means you won’t do what you need to do. I wasn’t thinking our season was over or that we’d lost. I’d hit a shot to win a game like this before [UCONN in 1990] so I didn’t have any negative thoughts.”
In the Duke time out, Coach K was drawing up a play called “Homerun” that required Grant Hill to throw a long inbounds pass toward the free throw line where Christian Laettner would try and catch the ball and score. The play had been used a few weeks before against Wake Forrest but it hadn’t worked. Laettner recalled, “It didn’t work against Wake Forrest. Coach K made us practice it from the Wake Forrest loss all the way through the tournament. He said we might need it, he said this was our play we’re going to go to when we gotta go full-court. So in practice Grant [Hill] worked on his passing and I always worked on my last-second shot. That was a little bit of brilliance coming from Coach K, he knew we may need that play again.” In the Kentucky huddle, instructions were being made to guard against a long pass. “We’d worked on that type of pass in practice and it never had gotten completed,” John Pelphrey remembered, “We’re gonna play 5-on-4 on the other side of half court. We were going to try to not let anyone from Duke catch it. If they did they were gonna have to shoot from halfcourt.” Coach Pitino added further instructions to Feldhaus and Pelphrey before they left the huddle. He reminded them to not foul the shooter, whoever it was.
Coming out of the timeout, both teams got set for the play. All five of Kentucky’s players were guarding their end of the floor. Grant Hill was left alone to throw the ball in bounds, while the other Duke players got situated in the middle of the UK defense. There were 2.1 seconds left in the game. The move by Coach Pitino to not put anyone guarding Grant Hill did not surprise the Duke players. “I was not surprised. I don’t even know if it registered. I was thinking they gotta put two guys on me,” Laettner said, “I knew I was already having a good game and I’d hit a shot like that my sophomore year. I know Grant was happy they didn’t put anyone on him. It might have been a little inconsequential because I knew Grant could make that pass if an eight-footer was on him. I also assumed that they [UK] wouldn’t foul because you don’t want to lose a game like that on the foul line.”
As soon as the referee handed the ball to Grant Hill he threw the pass. Christian Laettner made his cut toward the free throw line to catch the ball. It was a perfect pass. Laettner at 6’11”, was able to easily out jump UK’s Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey who both stood at 6’7”. Pelphrey remembered that moment, “Normally we had Jamal [Mashburn] or Gimel [Martinez] out there, they were the only guys taller than 6’7”. It turned into a jump ball and we just couldn’t get to it.” As Laettner jumped in the air, he was bumped by Pelphrey, who immediately backed away from the Duke player, remembering Coach Pitino’s instructions not to foul the shooter. As Laettner came down he made his move. He took one dribble while faking to his right, then spun back left and released the shot with 0.2 seconds remaining on the clock. “It was the longest 2.1 seconds of all-time,” Pelphrey recalled, “Once he shot it, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind whether he was going to hit the shot or not. I just couldn’t believe the horn didn’t sound. The first thing the ball hit was the floor, it never hit the rim, never hit the net. It was perfect.” Christian Laettner had a slightly different take on the shot. “As a player, sometimes you shoot the ball and you’re 100 percent guaranteed that it’s going in. Then sometimes you shoot and you think it might go in. Then other times you shoot you know it’s off. I knew the ball had a really good chance, I wasn’t 100 percent sure, but it felt good, it looked good so I thought it might go in.”
As the play unfolded, CBS announcer Verne Lundquist could only manage to describe it in nine words. “There’s the pass to Laettner. Puts it up…. YESSSSSS!!!!!!” As the ball went in the Kentucky players had the look of disbelief on their face. Richie Farmer and John Pelphrey both looked in the direction of the officials to see if they were going to count the basket. Christian Laettner started running back toward Grant Hill after he had made the basket and was swarmed by Duke players, who ran out to celebrate with him. They ended up in a pile in front of the Kentucky bench. Of course the reactions were mixed. For Christian Laettner, it was happiness, “The moment, there was no greater feeling than hitting a shot like that in a game for the team you’re representing. It was literally a spiritual feeling. It was mass chaos, everyone was yelling and screaming. It was really the greatest feeling in the world.” For John Pelphrey, it was great sadness. According to the New York Times, when he was asked about the game by the media, he couldn’t compose himself to talk to them.
John Pelphrey played just 26 minutes in the Duke game. He was five-of-seven from the field including three-of-four from the three-point line and three-of-three from the free throw line. In his final game at Kentucky he finished with 16 points and 5 assists. For the 1987 Kentucky Mr. Basketball, his career at UK was outstanding. He finished as a member of the 1,000 point club with 1,257 points and played in 114 games. He was named a member of the SEC All-Academic team in 1990, made 1st Team All-SEC in 1991 and was a member of the SEC All-Tournament team in 1992. The seniors on that UK squad became known as the “Unforgettables” and they had their jersey’s retired at Rupp Arena when they returned home from the Duke game.
Christian Laettner had one of the greatest games in the history of the NCAA Tournament. He was perfect from the field, ten-for-ten and perfect from the free throw line, ten-for-ten. He finished the game with 31 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. Duke went on to win the 1992 National Championship and Laettner finished his college career as one of the greatest college basketball players in history. He scored 2,460 points and grabbed 1,149 rebounds. He was the national player of the year in 1992 and was an All-American. He is the only player to have started in four consecutive Final Fours a record that may never be matched. He hold NCAA Tournament records for most points scored (407); most free throws made (142); most free throws attempted (162); and most games played (23).
The Duke/Kentucky game of 1992 became the “greatest college basketball game ever played.” The game won two ESPY’s in 1993 - “Outstanding Performance Under Pressure” and the “College Basketball Play of the Year.” The game is shown every March during the NCAA Tournament and its legacy lives on.
The men at this moment, this great sports moment, kept basketball a part of their lives. John Pelphrey played two years of professional basketball in France and Spain. After his playing career he got into coaching. He joined former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State as an assistant in 1993. After one year with the Cowboys, he joined Billy Donovan as his assistant at Marshall University in Huntington, WV. In 1996 he followed Donovan to the University of Florida and became an assistant there. After six seasons he left Florida and became the head coach at South Alabama. He led the Jags to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2006 and was named the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year. The following year he took his team to the NIT. At the end of the 2007 season he was hired as the head coach at the University of Arkansas. His Arkansas teams only made one NCAA Tournament appearance under him, in 2008. After only four seasons, he was fired, but quickly found another home. He returned to the University of Florida as an assistant where he remains today.
After his magical 1992 college season, Christian Laettner joined the “Dream Team” for the summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He was the only college player on the team that included such basketball greats as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley. The “Dream Team” won gold that summer and has been called the “greatest sports team ever assembled.” He was the third overall pick of the 1992 NBA Draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves and played four seasons with them. He played for five other teams in his 13-year NBA career including the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards and the Miami Heat. In 2012 he played in the ABA for the Jacksonville Giants. His time in the ABA was cut short when he became an assistant coach for the Ft. Wayne (IN) Mad Ants of the NBA Developmental League.
Many years later, both players reflected on that moment and “The Shot.” As a member of the “Unforgettables” John Pelphrey will always be remembered in Kentucky basketball history. When asked to put that game into perspective Pelphrey spoke from the heart, “It’s hard to keep seeing that shot. Will it ever go away? The answer is no. That’s what athletics do to us. At Kentucky it’s a lifeblood. It’s like going to church. People in the state get up in the morning, brush their teeth, have their coffee and talk about the Wildcats. I’ll never forget Coach Pitino when he told us after the game to not let 2.1 seconds dictate your basketball life.” Surprisingly, Christian Laettner had almost the same sentiments for the Kentucky fans. “When I lay down, I don’t think all Kentucky fans hate me for who I am, they hate me because I hit that shot. I ended the dream season they were having. You gotta remember how important basketball is in the state of Kentucky. There are no classes, no divisions in high school basketball there. Basketball at the University of Kentucky is always important. I think that’s a good thing. It shows how much they love it. I like that about the state of Kentucky. I like that basketball is one of the most important things in the state. Basketball is very important to me. That game is beyond history, beyond sports history, it’s beyond folklore because of how important basketball is in the state of Kentucky.”