Bookmark: Reads to make your March mad

The cat was never the same.

Her name was Zelda, and all I can say is: Sorry, Zelda. But the real apology ought to come from Christian Laettner.

One minute Zelda was resting comfortably on my lap, dozing in that languid, loose-limbed, trusting manner that cats exhibit, and the next minute she was flying straight up in the air as if shot out of a cannon, uttering a strangled cry of shock and terror.

It was March 28, 1992, and I was watching the East Regional final in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the same tournament that got under way once again last week. Then as now, Duke and Kentucky had big-time players and big-name coaches. Only one team, however, had Laettner — Duke's handsome, arrogant center — and it was Laettner who, with Duke trailing by a point and with 2.1 seconds left in overtime, caught a long inbounds pass, dribbled once and hit the jump shot that won the game.

Forgetting about the cat in my lap — I'm not a cat person, a fact that never seemed to faze Zelda, who would cheerfully climb right back up again after my repeated attempts to dislodge her — I jumped out of my chair, sacrificing at least eight of Zelda's nine lives with that heedless leap.

Gene Wojciechowski has doubtless heard stories such as mine over and over again, because in the intervening years, that 1992 game has become iconic. And Laettner's last-second heroics routinely prompt anecdotes of the I-remember-exactly-where-I-was-when-I-saw-it variety.

Wojciechowski's new book, "The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball" (Blue Rider), is an enthralling account of a magnificent contest and the circumstances leading up to it. The author digs up great details about these elite programs and the people who made them that way, and he brings a zestful wit and winning style to the telling.

Here's how Wojciechowski describes Laettner's inauspicious arrival at Duke: "Christian Laettner stood alone in his empty dorm room, his bags still packed, his college life only minutes old. A day earlier his dad had pulled the Plymouth Voyager loaded with Laettners and luggage out of the driveway of their rural home in Angola, New York, and begun the 12-hour drive to Durham, North Carolina."

And here is Wojciechowski's take on Bobby Hurley, Laettner's scrappy teammate: "A 6 foot (maybe), 150-pound, handkerchief-white newcomer with sleepy eyes and a 'Fuhgeddaboutit' Jersey accent."

The book is hugely entertaining but also thorough and enlightening; the author, a former Tribune sportswriter who now writes a column for, explicates the motivational psychology behind coaches and players who sacrifice so much for so long to excel.

And it all leads up to that extraordinary moment in the 1992 matchup — a game that Wojciechowski describes with perfect pacing and crisp dramatic flair.

Another new — and very different — basketball book that adds a literary backdrop to tourney time is "West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life" (Little, Brown), the autobiography by Jerry West. Written with the assistance of Jonathan Coleman, West's account is harrowingly honest — that subtitle is no exaggeration — and it peels the skin off an already notoriously thin-skinned individual.

West could handle a basketball like nobody's business, but as "West By West" makes clear, handling his own emotions and insecurities was a far more daunting challenge. Early in the book, he offers this self-analysis: "A tormented, defiant figure who carries an angry emotional chip on his shoulder and has a hole in his heart that nothing can ultimately fill."

Not that he didn't have reasons. As the book reveals, West's dismal, impoverished childhood in a small town in West Virginia was straight out of Dickens: a violently abusive father, the early death of a beloved brother, an endless series of crises, calamities and setbacks. "I know full well how cruel and awful life can be," West writes, "and sometimes the bad news never stops coming."

Despite all of that, West became a towering figure in the sports world. In 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was a playmaking guard of wizardly skills and an almost eerie ability to deliver in the clutch. Later he worked in the Lakers front office and helped assemble the personnel who became the "Showtime" Lakers of the late 1980s. But these successes brought no solace and little joy.

West is frank about his ongoing feuds with his first wife and mother of three of his sons, and with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, and with so many others. He seems to hold a grudge as securely as he once protected the ball on a fast break.

People may be drawn to the book by the anecdotes about Laker legends such as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, but the core of "West By West" is the author's brave, unvarnished recollection of his childhood. "Come with me, come to the flinty, hardscrabble world of West Virginia where I grew up: a world of Methodist church bingo, Red Ryder BB guns, and coal tipples," he writes.

Not Showtime, but slow time.

Let me end with a feline footnote. Zelda managed to survive her sudden upending in the wake of Duke's victory and went on to enjoy many more years of dozing in the sunshine, before finally succumbing at age 23.

For a cat, that's a remarkable life span. Instead of harming her, then, perhaps the exhilarating moment that sent her airborne actually enhanced her longevity. She was a savvier cat after that. Like Kentucky, she'd learned her lesson: When March rolls around, you'd better stay alert — because anything can happen.

JULIA KELLER is the Chicago Tribune's cultural editor. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

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