Basketball star Christian Laettner has fished muskies at every opportunity since retiring from the NBA 10 years ago, but he still laments four “wasted” years early in his pro career when he golfed instead of fished on days the Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t require his presence.
He jokingly blames that misspent time on Sol Brandys, the T-Wolves’ longtime strength and conditioning coach. During Laettner’s first four years in the Twin Cities, 1992 to 1996, he regularly lifted weights with Brandys and then joined him for a round of golf.
That changed in 1996 when Brandys invited Laettner to fish muskies on Lake of the Woods along Minnesota’s border with northwestern Ontario, Canada. The trip made Laettner a muskie-fishing addict.
“I asked Sol why we wasted our time golfing when we could have been muskie fishing,” Laettner recalled in a telephone interview. “I’m eternally mad at him for wasting those prime years when I was 23 to 27.”
Now 45, Laettner hasn’t lost that muskie-fishing passion, and speaks regularly about that love. Laettner, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, spent 13 seasons in the NBA with six teams, and is perhaps best known for being the face of Duke University’s National Basketball Championship teams in 1991 and 1992.
He sank an iconic turnaround jump shot as time expired to defeat Kentucky, 104-103, in overtime in the “Elite Eight” East regional final of the 1992 NCAA Tournament. The win sent Duke to the Final Four and eventual championship, and was acclaimed by many as the greatest college basketball game ever played.
That shot personifies March Madness, and still sparks debates about a technical foul Laettner drew early in that game for stepping on the chest of Wildcat forward Aminu Timberlake, who had fallen down. Laettner also shot 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 from the free-throw line that night, a stunning performance that helped him secure the eternal scorn of Kentucky fans and other Duke haters.
In fact, ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 recently produced an “I Hate Christian Laettner” documentary to explore that antipathy and how Laettner responds. He said he handles the animosity better than his family does, which includes his wife, Lisa; and their daughters, Sophie, 17, and Sommer, 16; and son, Tor, nine.
“You can’t pout about it, and there’s only so much you can do besides try to use it to your advantage,” Laettner said. “I just try to have fun with it. The 30 for 30 movie gives people a different side to the story.”
Laettner regularly visits the Great Lakes region to chases muskies in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and northwestern Ontario. He said the anticipation of each muskie outing makes his stomach churn the same way it did before big games in college, the NBA, and Olympics.
He describes himself as a “muskie snob,” explaining that although he enjoys battling six- to seven-foot sharks in autumn behind his home, they just aren’t as fun as muskies. “Muskies are an adrenaline rush,” he said. “Catching them might be as addictive to athletes as the feeling you get from winning. It’s so much fun and so much anxiety. When you hook a big fish, you’re begging to get it in the net.”
That fervor inspired Laettner to launch a company called The Muskie Life. Its website encourages fellow muskie fanatics to post and view photos and videos, read blogs, seek advice, share stories, and shop for products and fishing gear. He also promotes The Muskie Life through Facebook and Twitter.
Although Laettner didn’t get hooked on muskie fishing until his late 20s, he traces the love to perch-fishing trips with his father on Lake Erie, near their home in Angola, New York. “My dad had a 16-foot aluminum boat, and he’d tell stories about catching big muskies that ate the perch he hooked,” Laettner said. “I was probably seven to 12 years old, and I liked his stories about big, fish-eating muskies.”
When Brandys first took him muskie fishing in 1996, Laettner didn’t enjoy quick success. Not until a year later did he catch his first muskie, a 48-incher on Lake of the Woods. “It’s so difficult and challenging,” he said. “It’s not like bass fishing where you expect to catch something every time. You have to work at it, study the weather, know your lures, and cast all day long.”
When asked if he has a muskie-fishing superstition, he didn’t hesitate. “Yes. My superstition is to keep the lure wet,” he said. “You do that, your chances go way up.”
And when asked about his biggest muskie, he prefaced his reply by saying every muskie over 35 inches provides his “most glorious time” on the water. For the record, though, Laettner’s largest muskie is a 54-incher from Minnesota’s Lake Bemidji. And the most fun he’s had muskie fishing was catching a 52-incher with guides Pete Maina and Steve Herbeck at Andy Myers Lodge on Eagle Lake in Ontario in October 2014.
When Laettner isn’t talking about muskies or casting for them, he’s likely pursuing his basketball passions. He travels more than two-thirds of each year bringing the Christian Laettner Basketball Academy to schools across the country for boys and girls age six and up. He runs these three-day weekend camps with a certified staff of coaches in local gyms.
Meanwhile, Laettner shares his muskie-fishing love with his children by taking them to Lake of the Woods each summer, where he still fishes with Brandys—despite those four “wasted” years of golfing.
“We’ve been muskie fishing together a long time now,” Laettner said. “We stay at his cabin every time. The kids love it up there as much as I do.”