When Duke’s Grant Hill took the ball before making what is probably the most famous pass in NCAA Tournament history, he had a thought: “OK, this is easy.”
That’s not, he said this weekend, because Kentucky coach Rick Pitino chose to leave him unguarded on the inbounds play with 2.1 seconds left in overtime of the legendary 1992 East Regional Final in Philadelphia. It was because Kentucky had two players behind his intended target, Christian Laettner.
“There was a confidence, not an overconfidence,” said Hill. “I was surprised I had such a good view of Christian. I got a clean shot at him.
“I kept thinking to myself, make sure he gets the ball. He had been so good in that game. Really so good in that season.”
He was, in fact, perfect in that game, 10 for 10 from the floor, including that jumper just past the foul line at the buzzer that gave the Blue Devils a stunning 104-103 victory and sent them to Minneapolis for their fifth consecutive Final Four appearance, where they won their second title in a row.
Hill was not supposed to be at home this weekend reminiscing about a game 28 years ago. He was supposed to be in Atlanta with Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery broadcasting the Final Four, including what would have been the national championship game Monday night. As COVID-19 has shut down sports, athletes, broadcasters and journalists are adjusting. Hill is learning more songs to play on the piano and spending time with his family.
The media are showing and writing about games and moments in the past because there is no present.
“I feel like I just want to check out a game and want to read about it, and there’s nothing there,” said Hill, a part owner of the Atlanta Hawks and basketball Hall of Famer. “It just speaks to how important that role of sports is in our society.”
Hill agreed to talk with USA TODAY Sports about his memories of arguably the greatest college game ever played. For one thing, Hill did not start that game.
It was just one of nine games he didn’t start that season.
“It’s funny — I’ve seen people say, ‘I didn’t know Grant didn’t start.’”
An injury to guard Bobby Hurley during the season ignited a chain of events that included Hill switching positions and his replacement, roommate Antonio Lang, playing very well, then Hill himself suffering an ankle injury late in the season. He said coach Mike Krzyzewski told him, “‘Let me ease you back in and bring you off the bench.’ We won’t get into how I felt about that.”
Hill, a sophomore and UPI second-team All-American that season, came off the bench in the ACC Tournament and in the NCAA Tournament until the Final Four, when Brian Davis was hurt. Hill was in the starting lineup for the national final victory over Michigan’s Fab Five Freshmen. He said the day of the game he remembers reading a newspaper that gave the position matchup edge to Michigan. “They said Ray Jackson was a starter and Grant Hill was a bench player. I was a little ticked off.”
He scored 18 points and had a team-high 10 rebounds in the final, which Duke won 71-51. Jackson did not score.
Coming off the bench against Kentucky that regional final, he played 37 minutes, scoring 11 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists. None was more important than his last.
Hill said he was confident he could make that pass because he basically practiced it every day — not precisely to where Laettner was, but as part of a drill the Blue Devils did at the start of every practice, even in the open workout at the Final Four. It’s a partner passing and shooting drill with a progression that ends with one player making a long baseball pass trying to hit the other on stride for a layup.
Hill said he was so good at throwing a long pass he used to “trash talk even in drills about what a great arm I had. … I think Coach K noticed that. He put me in position to throw that pass.”
So while Hill said Duke never practiced the particular play to Laettner that beat Kentucky, “I practiced that throw every day.”
Making the pass was only part of the play. Then came the shot (which has its own Wikipedia page, by the way). After catching the ball, Laettner faked, took a dribble, turned and made history. Hill, out of habit, started moving down the court after the pass as he watched Laettner, even panicking when Laettner took that dribble with so little time remaining.
“He dribbled, and that threw me off,” Hill said. “I’m thinking, ‘Get the ball off.’
“I had a great angle to view the shot. When it left his hand, I remember thinking, that’s good.”
Asked if he and Laettner tried to replicate the play when they got back to campus, Hill said no. But nearly 10 years later, they did try it again during an alumni game in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The former players got on the court. Hill threw the pass, “and Christian made the shot. Those were the only two times we did that.”
The second was even easier.
“There was,” Hill said laughing, “no defense.”
Some might say, kind of like that first time.