Patience has never come as easily to Christian Laettner as, say, intensity.
And so while Laettner loved a lot of things about running his own basketball academy for the past couple of years in Jacksonville, Fla., he never completely had the serenity required to nurture high school players.
As a result, Laettner contacted Chris Lauten, a former Duke manager who now works in the front office of the NBA’s Development League. Lauten eventually put Laettner in touch with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants’ ownership after the Mad Ants fired their head coach and promoted an assistant to replace him in early January.
Laettner was hired as the Mad Ants’ assistant around the middle of the month. So far, Laettner says his return to professional basketball – he retired from the NBA in 2005 – has been “great.”
“When you’re working with a 14-year-old, you’ve got to work on something for a month or two before they get it,” Laettner said. “With D-League players, you just have to tell them one time and they’re instantly doing it. So it’s a lot more gratifying.”
Now that Laettner has entered the coaching world, he hopes he’s found his long-term career.
It would be a stretch to say he was adrift after retiring – there was a two-year stretch where Laettner said he didn’t miss basketball at all – but after dabbling in real estate (Laettner and former teammate Brian Davis recently sold three of their remaining properties in West Village in Durham and owe millions to various creditors, some of whom have filed lawsuits), Laettner has come to appreciate how much basketball means to him.
“Basketball is my passion,” Laettner said. “It’s one of the things in life I love the most. If you can’t play anymore because you’re too old and your knees kill, you’ve got to do something to get on the court, so you get out there and start coaching.”
Whereas a number of Duke players before and after Laettner’s era have joined the college coaching ranks, not as many of Laettner’s former teammates are percolating throughout the college game. Laettner thinks he’s most suited for the professional ranks.
“The recruiting part of it is very demanding and a lot of work,” Laettner said. “I’d rather work on team building and player development. So I like the pro ranks a little better, I think.”
That said, Laettner “wouldn’t mind, if after I got some experience like I’m getting now, to get some offers that I could contemplate” from a college program.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called to congratulate Laettner shortly after Laettner got the Mad Ants job. Laettner said his two biggest coaching influences are Krzyzewski and his father.
“I like to stress how hard you have to play all the time,” Laettner said. “How demanding a coach should be on your intensity level – that’s what I learned from Coach K the most.”
It’s a valuable perspective with the role Laettner has been asked to serve with the Mad Ants. Head coach Steve Gansey wants Laettner to improve the team’s defensive intensity and competitiveness.
Considering Laettner’s strengths when he was a player, it shouldn’t be a problem.
“That is something that comes very naturally to me,” Laettner said. “One of the things that made me a decent player was I was pretty competitive and pretty intense out there. That part of it comes very natural to me.”