One big building block |

One big building block

Jon Mitchell
Former NBA and NCAA star Christian Laettner leads a cheer with a group of third, fourh and fifth grade basketball players Saturday during a basketball clinic at Rifle HIgh School. Laettner, who had a 13-year career in the NBA and helped win two NCAA championships at Duke in the early 1990s, brought his Christian Laettner Basketball Academy camp to Rifle.
Jon Mitchell / |

RIFLE — Christian Laettner’s reasoning for starting his nation-wide basketball camp was simple.

“My wife wanted me to get out of the house,” he said, jokingly.

He’s done more than that. His camp, the Christian Laettner Basketball Academy, has made stops around the country. It made a stop in Rifle on Friday and Saturday, giving young basketball players a chance to learn fundamentals, tips and on-court tactics from the former Olympian and 13-year NBA veteran.

Needless to say, Rifle was glad to have him.

“For all of us, we want to get better. If you’re good at basketball in this part of the state, it really means something. We hope this is a step in that direction.”
Kristy Wallner
Rifle High School girls basketball coach

“For him to come here and mirror some of the things I’m trying to get across to my team, it’s a great asset,” first-year Rifle girls coach Kristy Wallner said. “It’s a learning experience for everyone.”

All total, close to 100 basketball players ranging from third-graders to high school seniors attended the camp, with Laettner giving some more in-depth instruction to the older players. He even took the time to not only give personalized instruction to high school players from Rifle and Coal Ridge High School, but he took the time to share basketball philosophies with 32 RHS players at Coulter Lake Guest Ranch north of Rifle.

Then again, many of the kids who were at the clinic weren’t completely aware of who was teaching the camp. It’s a common occurrence — Laettner admitted that many of the kids he provides clinics to hadn’t been born yet when he won a pair of national championships at Duke in the early 1990s.

“I didn’t know he hit that game-winning shot against Kentucky until later,” Rifle freshman Mackenzie Ventrello said. “And I didn’t know he played for Miami. But he taught us all a lot yesterday.”

Laettner, 44, won a Division I national championship playing for Duke in 1991 and 1992 under coach Mike Krzyzewski, with his game-winning shot in the NCAA tournament’s 1992 East Regional final against Kentucky serving as the most memorable moment during that run. He also was the only college player to play for the U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” in 1992 — winning a gold medal — and followed that with a 13-year NBA career that included stops with the Miami Heat, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons.

He started his basketball academy in 2011 and made a stop at Vail Christian this past January. A girl from Rifle High School, freshman Tiana Davis, attended the camp, friended Laettner on Facebook a few months later and, along with her mother, convinced Laettner to hold his camp in Rifle.

“What I’m doing now is just referral work for what I did in Vail,” said Laettner, who is also an avid hunter. “When coach Wallner brings me back next year, I’m definitely going to do some hunting.”

And the coaches and camp attendees were definitely happy to have him there, as it served as more than just a pit stop in Laettner’s nationwide camp tour, which will include stops later this year in Vail, Atlanta and other places. A catered dinner to benefit the Rifle High basketball program followed the three age-group sessions that took place Saturday night, giving people a chance to hear some of Laettner’s hoops stories firsthand.

And some of the players and coaches have left with memories of their own, too.

“It was really fun to watch Laettner stuff some of our players,” Wallner said, laughing. “Some of them think they’re pretty hot stuff, but it was a learning experience for them. And for all of us, we want to get better. If you’re good at basketball over in this part of the state, it really means something. We hope this is a step in that direction.”

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