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The Last Great Game

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To be sure, the climactic Hill-Laettner clip of what many believe is the greatest game ever played is familiar even to those fans who were too young or weren’t even alive at the time, but, by today’s standards, the reaction was tame. ESPN didn’t dub it an “Instant Classic” and replay the game multiple times during the following week, though it did, of course, show the highlights on “SportsCenter” in constant rotation. No Twitter tag was created labeling it “#grtstgmevr” and clips of Laettner’s shot weren’t swapped instantly on iPhones in the minutes and hours after the game ended.

Those things didn’t happen because the technology didn’t exist, but the prevalence of such accoutrements today makes it all the harder to discern what is memorable because of accomplishment and what is memorable because of mere ubiquity. Such are the concerns of the modern sports fan and opinion makers, often left to ponder how each generation’s subsequent media age shapes the eternal debates: the best plays, the best players, the best games, the best moments, and so on.

In the case of Duke-Kentucky, there is no need for second-guessing. Take, for instance, the opinion of Len Elmore, the CBS analyst who called the game that day. Elmore told Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan Duke-Kentucky was the greatest game the sport had ever seen and he should know. Elmore played for Maryland in the 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference championship against North Carolina State, the previous consensus standard-bearer.

Wojciechowski makes the book richer by taking time to establish what is much less obvious today than it was in 1992: Kentucky basketball was on the edge of oblivion. A series of recruiting scandals and other misdeeds left the program in tatters, forced out coach Eddie Sutton, and convinced many players to transfer to other schools to avoid NCAA penalties sure to be imposed on the team.

Sports Illustrated all but declared the program dead three years before the overtime regional final against Duke nearly put Kentucky in the Final Four. Before and after that shameful period, the Wildcats have been – along with UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina, and a few others – among the most dominant teams in college basketball. (The Wildcats reached the Final Four last season and currently rank among the top 10 teams in the country.)

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