Looking back on it now, 1991 brought us one of the most unforgettable Final Fours of all time. From the immovable object that was UNLV being stopped in its tracks by Duke, to Kansas’ Roy Williams facing his former mentor Dean Smith in a game that saw UNC’s coach ejected under questionable circumstances, there was plenty of intrigue to go around. But it was the rise of the Blue Devils – and Coach K’s first title – that was the lasting memory from 25 years ago, setting in motion one of college basketball’s most successful, and most hated, teams for years to come.
Grant Hill was a freshman on that Duke squad, and was a big part of both that year’s title team and the repeat champs in 1992. Now an analyst with Turner Sports, Hill is calling this year’s Final Four and National Championship with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson on TBS.
Uproxx Sports talked to Hill (who had some media availability as part of a promotion through Buffalo Wild Wings) and had him take a look back at that 1991 team, discussing Christian Laettner, that dunk against Kansas, Duke becoming Duke, beating the UNLV giant, and more.
Martin Rickman: Every single NCAA Tournament for the past 25 years, we’ve seen that dunk against Kansas. And we’ll likely see it for the next 25 years, too. Is that your favorite dunk that you ever had?
Grant Hill: It’s up there. I don’t know if it’s my favorite. I’ve had, believe it or not, a bunch of memorable dunks. It’s not my favorite because I had that bad haircut, and I look back at it, and I’m embarrassed, but it was a great moment. One of the great things about the tournament is that you get to relive those moments, and I get to relive it every year in March.
A friend of mine on Twitter was discussing one of those “what if Twitter had existed back then” type situations, and brought up that 1991 Final Four because it was so incredible. Are you able to put into context now just how historic that Final Four was?
Those were four teams with four coaches who are all Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, Coach Tarkanian is no longer with us, but he had that undefeated team. You had experienced teams in North Carolina and Kansas. And us. This was one of the last Final Fours before that mad exodus of guys leaving early. This was really toward the end of players staying in school for four years. It was a great game when we upset [UNLV], and to go on and beat Kansas. I think it was an interesting time. There have been documentaries years later talking about those teams and those experiences. It was just a moment in time for college basketball, and I think because guys stayed that whole time, you really knew them, whether you loved them or hated them or were neutral. You still followed them and watched them play over the course of their college careers. Those memories still last, even 25 years later.
Knowing what you know now, would you have still stayed all four years?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Times are different. The game is different. If I were 18 years old right now, I’m not sure I would have played with Christian Laettner. He might not have been there. It’s tough. I’m just glad I played when I did, and there wasn’t this extreme pressure to leave early. I wasn’t thinking about that as a freshman. Now kids are thinking about that in ninth or 10th grade. In a couple years, I could be a pro. That wasn’t what we were focused on at the time. There’s pressure to leave now, and I didn’t necessarily have it back then. I grew, and learned, and prepared so that when I did go to the NBA, that foundation was there from my four years in college.
There was a little bit of revenge in that UNLV game from the year before, and stopping the undefeated season. But I wondered, just how big was it for the Duke program as a whole? Do you think Duke would be Duke if you guys had lost that game?
Coach K had made it to the Final Four, and just never was able to win a championship. People maybe questioned him and whether or not he could deliver and win the big one. He got the so-called monkey off his back, and he quickly ascended and became one of the greats in the moment. The Duke team, because of the players, and because we played so many nationally televised games, and made so many long runs, and Final Fours, the fans knew who we were. They followed the story. But yeah, that started things off. From there, he’s become this credible winning coach who has just continued on.
You said at the time, ‘To be honest, we knew we could beat them when we first came to the Final Four.’ Why did you guys think that was the case?
We weren’t a team that was favored to win anything at the start of the year, but we got better, we improved at the end of the regular season, and we laid an egg in the ACC finals to Carolina. But we were playing our best basketball in the NCAA Tournament. The week before we had Connecticut and St. John’s and they were really good teams. We just felt like we were a different team. The guys who had been there, Bobby [Hurley] and Christian, they were a year older, they were more mature. I was there. We just felt like we had a week to prepare, and had a great gameplan, and we could go in and beat these guys. With the talent they had, maybe they would be a little overconfident.
It’s funny, when you look at it now, it was one of the greatest upsets, no doubt. They were very talented as a team. We were pretty good, but we maybe didn’t know it. We had three of, not to toot my own horn, but three of the best college basketball players at the time, or even ever. I just don’t think we knew that in the moment. Once we beat them, it was like we had an understanding of that we’ve become that team. We’ve become winners. We’d become champions after we beat Kansas. We had arrived. It was a real moment for the program.
You don’t want to toot your own horn, sure, but how good a college player was Laettner? You’ve got kids now, who the only thing they know about that guy is a YouTube clip of him stomping on someone, and that 30 for 30.
He always delivered. He went against some of the greats of that era. Alonzo Mourning. Twice against Shaquille O’Neal. Against Chris Webber. Every big game, he delivered. In college basketball, in terms of what he was able to accomplish in his career, you’ve got to put him top 5, maybe top two or three. He was so confident, so good, so competitive. It really was a joy to play with him. Sometimes you can judge him off his pro career, but his college career, there are maybe only one or two people who can say they did what he did. And I was lucky to be with him when he was at his best his last two seasons.
You’ve got a unique perspective having played for him, but do you think the criticism of Coach K from last week went a little bit overboard?
No. Look, it’s Duke. I understand anytime that happens, everything is magnified, and the coaches and program are under scrutiny. He made a mistake. He apologized for it. It’s unfortunate it happened for Coach K, but also for the Oregon team and players. It should’ve been about how good they were, and the storyline became about this whole incident. But you know, he manned up and apologized. You can debate about what happened, or whether or not he should’ve fessed up after it happened, but even legendary Hall of Fame coaches, I guess, sometimes can make mistakes.
Which title was more gratifying: the first one, getting there, beating UNLV and Kansas and finally achieving that, or getting back the next year and doing it again?
I think the first one because it was the first, and there wasn’t the pressure. Internally we might have had pressure to win, but there wasn’t that whole season of being the Champion. It was great, it was more let’s celebrate, we’ve done it, let’s enjoy it. The second year, when we were defending champs, and we got everybody’s best game, we were better at the beginning of the season than the end. In part because Bobby got hurt, he broke his foot. I got hurt. We kind of just limped into the tournament, and we weren’t at our best, but we played our game and, after it was over, it was a sense of relief. We were exhausted. There wasn’t the same sense of emotion. It was great, it was fun to win it, but it was a different ball game when you’re the hunted as opposed to the hunter.