- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Next to the spicy Hunan shrimp, Christian Laettner is becoming one of the leading causes of acid indigestion in Tony Cheng's neighborhood as he tries to find his place with the Wizards.
He moves at two speeds, slow and slower, and he measures only a good inch on the jumping scale, and he lacks the muscle to ward off the advances of all too many of the power forwards around the NBA. Worse, after the first four games of the season, his outside shot comes with a warning to the innocent rims in his vicinity. He is shooting 27.8 percent from the field, which goes with his 7.5 points and 5.0 rebounds a game.
Predictably, Laettner has become an early target of the disenchanted on Fun Street, if not a convenient one because of who he was at Duke and what he has been in the NBA. He was somebody special at Duke, the Naismith Player of the Year who was a member of two national championship teams and the original Dream Team in 1992. He was the third pick overall in the 1992 draft, selected by the Timberwolves, and it was assumed at the time that he possessed the size, skill and savvy to become a formidable player, a possessed the size, skill and savvy to become a formidable player, a four- or five-time All-Star.
Instead, he gained a certain reputation over the years, and the objection to his personality fit his objection to the basketball after Duke. It marked each of his NBA stops: Minneapolis, Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas and now the nation's capital. Wherever he was, of course, it could not be the storybook existence of his four seasons at Duke. In some seasons, it was the opposite of that. He was with a 19-63 team in his first pro season and the same last season. The utter incompetence could tug on a person.
Laettner did not mind expressing this sentiment, if sufficiently prodded on the right day, and he did not mind if it ruffled those in his midst. He still found a way to put up respectable numbers in many of the seasons, even if there was no real joy in them, no passion, no meaning.
Somewhere along the way, Laettner became a glorified journeyman, lumped with a number of the disappointing NBA players from Duke. He somehow became less than his numbers, part of the Duke cliche, further evidence to be wary of those from Mike Krzyzewski's system.
And yet he has averaged more than 18 points a game in two of his 10 seasons in the NBA, and in 1997, his best season, when he averaged 18.1 points and 8.8 rebounds with the Hawks, he made his only appearance in the NBA All-Star Game.
It wasn't that long ago. It only seems that way as Laettner struggles to answer the desperate pleas of coach Doug Collins.
They exchanged angry words in the first half of the game against the 76ers last weekend after Collins pulled Laettner following a low-IQ turnover. Collins gave Laettner a job-well-done notice late in the second half after the Wizards buried the 76ers and Laettner committed himself to the dirty work underneath the basket.
Collins and the Wizards need Laettner to succeed if this season is to materialize into anything other than a chronicling of Michael Jordan's comeback. They don't need 18 points a game from him. But they need him to become familiar with the double-double. They need him to be as tough as his body allows and not fret over his rim-clanging outside shot. It is a long season. Those shots eventually will start to find the bottom of the net.
He is a good passer. He sees the floor. His aptitude for the game always has been his principal asset, the reason he has been able to forge a compromise in the NBA.
Laettner does not have a genuine position, if he ever did. He lacks the requisite bulk or athleticism, one quality or the other, to be a high-level power forward in the NBA.
So now he is what he is, a 32-year-old player on the downside of an uneven career, possibly in the throes of his last go-around as a starting player. He remains the team's best hope in the middle, if only by default, if only because the others are either young or hurt or marginal.
The frustration around Laettner, the one-time toast of college basketball, complements a journey littered with frustration.
He can't be what he might have been. It is too late for that. It is not too late, not yet anyway, for him to be an essential element of the team.


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