By LARRY VAUGHT
ATLANTA — Former Kentucky star Jeff Sheppard and Duke standout Christian Laettner combined forces at a fundraiser here Tuesday before the UK-Duke game in the Georgia Dome to help raise $10,000 in honor of Dick Vitale for the V Foundation to use for pediatric cancer research.
Laettner even agreed to let the five high bidders take a picture with him laying on the floor and each person stomping on him similar to what he did UK’s Aminu Timberlake in that historic 1992 NCAA Tournament overtime game won by Duke. “It’s for charity, so why not have fun,” said Laettner.
Here are some other insights on Kentucky coach John Calipari, Vitale and UK fans that Laettner shared.
Question: What is your opinion of John Calipari?
Laettner: “He used to work the Five-Star Basketball Camp back in the mid-1980’s when I was in high school. It was at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh. He was one of the big coaches there. He was assistant at Pitt at that time, so we all loved him. We all thought he was very charismatic, very good coach. I had Pitt on my list of 11 schools to go to solely because of him. That’s how much I liked him. I ended up going to Duke and he went his way. I am not surprised at all with the level of successs he has anywhere he goes. He gets very good players. He is a very good recruiter. He gets high level players and he is able to get them to play a certain way in a short period of time because a lot of his kids leave early (for the NBA). He regroups and has another good team the next year, so I just think he is a great coach.”
Question: So even nearly 30 years ago he could connect with recruits in ways a lot of coaches couldn’t?
Laettner: “He definitely was able to do it back then. I know he can do it now. It looks from a distance it looks like he does it now with a little more yelling. I think he maybe has to do that with the freshmen maybe. He yells a lot more than I remember, but you can tell by the way his team plays that he does it the right way.”
Question: Has the charity work Calipari has done since coming to Kentucky surprised you?
Laettner: “No, not at all. Think of Dick Vitale and how much of his own personal time he gives to charities and events. A lot of things that you wouldn’t consider him working, he does even though it is his free time. He chooses to dedicate his time and it does not surprise me that Calipari does. He is just a wonderful person. That’s the way he was at Five-Star a long time ago and why he is doing great right now.”
Question: Do you ever talk to Calipari and does he still remember recruiting you?
Laettner: “He definitely remembers recruiting me. He knows that I considered Pitt just because of him. We wave when we see each other, but he’s a very busy person. I leave him to himself or whatever he has going. I think I shook hands with him at the last Dicky V. event in Sarasota (Fla.). He is a great coach.”
Question: How do you like Vitale and has he changed over the years?
Laettner: “When I first knew him and was a fan of his, I just thought he was this ultra energy guy who commentated the basketball games. After I saw him speak a few times, I realized he is a deeper person and concerned about other things than sports. That’s when I really started admiring him. I went to Duke and he was there every step of the way because every Duke game is on ESPN practically. Once I graduated we started doing charity events like the Jimmy V. fundraiser together and the first few were right there in Raleigh (N.C.). I did that with him for five or six years and then I started doing his event in Sarasota because that is where he lives and I live in Jacksonville, Fla., now.”
Question: Do you worry you are going to suddenly endear yourself to UK fans with things you are doing in conjunction with Sheppard?
Laettner: “It is fun. It all started last year when he had that Villians versus the Heroes all-star game and that was just a blast. We thought we could do something again revolving around this game and the fact Dick was here and we wanted to honor him. It all came together like the perfect storm. It is good to let fans see this side of me, but it is also good that you are relevant once in a while when they look back on it. You may not be as relevant now, but if they think about 20 years ago or it gets brought up with social media and they can see the internet video, it is easy for them to go back and reminisce. So that side is good, too.”
Question: Were the “I Still Hate Laettner” t-shirts every UK fan got your idea or Sheppard’s idea?
Laettner: “All that stuff is always Jeff’s idea. He has his printing press ready to go with that Hate Laettner.”