“The Stomp” remains one of the most controversial plays in NCAA history — when Duke’s Christian Laettner lifted his foot and stepped on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake during a critical moment of what has been called the greatest college basketball game ever played, the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final.
Mention The Stomp in a diner or bar in Kentucky and you best be prepared for a string of expletives — from the blue-haired elders to the wealthiest thoroughbred trainers — about how Laettner is the vilest human on Earth.
Then, the woulda, coulda, shouldas begin: Laettner should’ve been kicked out; he should never have been in the game to hit that miraculous shot; Kentucky should’ve advanced to the Final Four.
The Stomp returned to headlines this week after ESPN aired a “30 for 30” documentary called “I Hate Christian Laettner,” detailing the life of one of the best players to ever play college ball and why he remains a lightning rod to this day.
When it comes to The Stomp, Laettner says he decided to give a “little payback” while Timberlake lay helpless on the ground. If Kentucky fans needed more reason to hate Laettner, those words might’ve been it.
But on Twitter, Laettner issued a video apology to Timberlake, the first time he’d ever done so:
Timberlake could’ve lashed back, but he’s too classy for that. He is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He remains active in basketball, coaching an eighth-grade girls travel-team in Atlanta. (In full transparency, I coached with him last year.)
He responded to Laettner, saying he appreciates and accepts the apology. But he makes it clear where his loyalty lies. At the end of his 23-second message, Timberlake’s voice turns into a smooth baritone and he ends with: “Go Big Blue.”
Timberlake doesn’t dwell on The Stomp. The thing he prefers to remember from that game was the honor of playing in it — and the locker room speech by Coach Rick Pitino after the game.
Pitino held up an old Sports Illustrated cover that said the Kentucky program was in shambles. Pitino told his players that although they lost on the court, his players had done something much bigger: They’d put Kentucky basketball back on the map.
“It put a lot of things in perspective, especially for a young team in a program that had just returned from heavy NCAA sanctions,” Timberlake says. “All I remember is working with our heads down, attacking every practice and every game to the best of our ability. And that speech just reminded us of what was accomplished through that hard work, even in a loss.”
That is a message, he says, that still resonates in his life: “Sometimes you don’t see the full picture and don’t reap the immediate rewards of your work, but 9 times out of 10 good things do happen.”
Timberlake has had fun with The Stomp over the years, even donning a “I Still Hate Laettner” T-shirt that was given to him and posing with fans when Kentucky and Duke played a couple years ago.
He jokes that he’s not sure if he was “a true hater” of Laettner like so many others. But that game will never quite sit well with Kentucky players and fans. However, Timberlake says the documentary gave him a new perspective on Laettner that he thought he’d never have.
“I can really respect his accomplishments, his basketball career and his passion for the game,” Timberlake says.
Don’t get him wrong. Timberlake still bleeds Kentucky blue. He’d love to see Kentucky play Duke for the title this year, this time with the Wildcats walking away as the winners.