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I didn't hate Christian Laettner... I was the kid next door.

By Charley Arrigo

I didn't hate Christian Laettner... I was the kid next door.

Prologue. "Hate" is a word best put in reserve. Go to it too often, and we dilute its power. There's moral courage in abstaining from this great temptation, to throw the verb at whatever is bringing us woe. But sometimes self-control is no match for self-release. For not even world famous cocktails make the human mouth foam with more pleasure than a cathartic cry of... "I Hate [blank]." So when ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports, decided to do a documentary on the most hated college basketball player in history, fans in the millions, from every corner of America, holding onto different allegiances that went back generations, came together in ways modern Presidents wish they could unite their countries, decrying to the heavens... "I Hate Christian Laettner." Introduction. Thirty two minutes south of the great American snow town the world calls Buffalo, New York—there lies a town on the shores of Lake Erie. It's a blue collar town. With a per-capita income below the New York average, some would say it's a lower-middle class town. To which many in town would clap back. Uncle Sam in his latest looking over, said that 2,029 people were living in this town. The population goes up during the summer months in town. But although the beaches are nice, summer seasons in town are painfully fleeting when you can see Canada from the lifeguard stand. No one said you have to love the town you grew up in. No one said you couldn't hate it either. We did have that old Grandview Drive-In, one of only two left in the entire Western New York area. One of America's dying summer nostalgias where for one summer night you'd pack up some blankets, invite that girl you were losing your undeveloped mind over, and buy some overpriced popcorn as you watched Tom Cruise do his thing on the Silver Screen in the great American outdoors. As a sheltered teen living, dreaming and yearning in rural America, there was no greater escape. But then it happened. It happened after that one summer, no different than all the other summers in town, when the leaves stopped turning and falling, when Old Mother Winter made her annual visit to that town just south of Buffalo. Her love was too much maybe. For 54 years it wasn't. But here in year 55, all the movies, moments and memories weren't enough to keep Mother Winter's storm from ripping a hole that no leading man or scarlet could ever overcome, through the middle of the screen of the Grandview Drive-In. And that, was all she wrote. That town with the basketball Jesus. Privileged. White. Pretty boy. Bully. Dirty. Cocky. Asshole. Utterly unapologetic. Christian Laettner was all of this. He's also one of the greatest college basketball players ever. And when I was sucking my thumb at the tender age of one, he hit the most famous shot in college basketball history. The iconic March Madness buzzer-beater to beat Kentucky, 103-102, sending Duke to the 1992 Final Four. Laettner gave an opposing player a stomp to the chest earlier in that game. To this day, Kentucky fans still cry foul that he was able to avoid rejection. But I don't hate Laettner... I'm just the kid next door. So I'll go to the grave agreeing with Duke fans. If you watch the play on Youtube, it's really just a "love tap." After the infamous shot, it would be a few years before I got to know about Laettner. Or, what the world didn't know. He grew up in that "town", that one with the painfully fleeting summer. Living off nickels and dimes, he and his brother worked as field hands on local farms. His summers were spent running through what was left of that dilapitated Mosquito Baseball Field I'd wince at as a kid, so he and his siblings could sneak in through the back of that old Grandview Drive-In. When I grew older my parents put me in catholic school down the road. It was Laettner's catholic school. His 4th grade teacher, Sister Severine was still there. And for a year, she hated my behavior as much as Kentucky fans still hate Laettner. In the gym, where the prodigy played his first basketball under the blessings of the Almighty Father, I played mine. On the wall, there hung #32 Laettner, his jersey nailed twenty feet above the floor, inspiring in onlookers that same feeling of reverence as if it was Jesus himself on the cross. It's not far off. Laettner was a basketball Jesus. And after awhile, people even wanted to nail him to a cross. But there's something to be said about hate. About someone who's status as a villain still earns national attention—while so many heroes seem to come and go, in and out of our hearts and minds like they were never even there. Everyone needs a Christian Laettner. “There's gotta be a villain; there's gotta be a good guy," said Laettner. I tell my clients this. And I get a lot of push back. What I usually hear is "we don't want to sound negative, like we're attacking our competitors. We don't want people to think of us that way." There's truth there. Nobody wants to be thought of as a negative Nancy. But you know what's worse? When people don't think of you at all. And that's a shockingly more common reality for startups who are too nice and ignore the competition altogether. A good positioning demands polarization. After all, would you have launched a product if you thought you couldn't do it better than the other guys and gals already doing it? No. Perspective is our secret weapon whether we care to share it or not. And that perspective, in raw form, behind closed doors is rarely cute and cuddly when it comes to touting the competition. When I first start consulting with startup founders, some of the most aroused conversation comes from when they talk about what's missing in the market. Whether it's a lackluster product, or the status quo in general, there's a conflict in the air when the villain enters the chat. It's a beautiful thing. It also seems to be the first thing left behind when startups talk about their product in their marketing. As if it's taboo to take on the villain in public spaces. Everyone remembers a bully they've been terrorized by at some point in their lives. 

Depending on the damage, their mere image can bring a person to tears. But they're always there. They make us feel a certain way. Or they make us certain that we never want to feel that way again. There's power in that. And maybe it's about time we used it for own good. All I know, is that 32 years have gone by since that not-so-nice kid from that town south of Buffalo—hit that shot. And today, the world still hasn't forgot about Christian Laettner.

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