As the lone collegiate representative on America's "Dream Team" at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Christian Laettner was an easy target for his celebrated NBA teammates who continuously needled him about his cover-boy looks and the usual entourage of teeny-boppers seeking his attention.
"He's a nice player, but he's not that good-looking," said Charles Barkley.
But Laettner, 1992's College Player of the Year who led Duke to consecutive NCAA championships, is used to people judging his basketball talents on the basis of his clean-cut features and prep school upbringing.
"I'm thin, and I don't look like a convict, so people constantly question my toughness," said the 6-foot-11, 235-pound lottery pick who leads the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves against the Washington Bullets at the Baltimore Arena tonight.
But Laettner, who hit his buzzer-beating, game-winning shot to stun Kentucky in last year's NCAA East Regional final, has repeatedly silenced the critics with his fierce will to win and grace under pressure.
It has always been thus for the kid from Angola, N.Y., a small town some 30 miles southwest of Buffalo. When he attended nursery school, a teacher sent him home with a message for his mother: "Christian has too much self-confidence."
Some Duke teammates, who felt the lash of Laettner's barbs his last two years in Durham, N.C., translated that to mean arrogance.
"Christian was tough on us," said point guard Bobby Hurley. "He would never not say something."
But Laettner, who was a starter and self-anointed leader as a freshman, insists it was just his way to push his teammates to excel.
"My problem is being brutally honest, and a lot of people don't like that trait in a person," he said. "At times, I may be too competitive, but I think my teammates appreciate that. I just don't want to play with any slouches."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw his All-American forward in a different light.
"His competitiveness burns inside him like a forest fire," said Coach K. "And he's a lot stronger, meaner and tougher than some people think."
As an instant starter for the Wolves, Laettner, who was the third player chosen in the draft after Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning, has put up creditable numbers, averaging 18.4 points and 8.2 rebounds, second only to small forward Chuck Person in both categories. And he has not backed down from the challenge of playing the NBA's premier power forwards.
Laettner is not surprised by his success.
"When I was growing up near Buffalo, I played on a YMCA team against a lot of inner-city kids and held my own," he told the New York Post. "And people said I was good because I was tall. You always have to prove yourself on different levels of competition."
Wolves officials say he is just scratching the surface of his potential.
"I think Christian is really going to blossom when he realizes the things he does well and utilizes those gifts," said general manager Jack McCloskey. "I think he'll eventually have all the credentials to back up everything he thinks of himself."
Laettner takes no offense when critics compare him to his predecessor at Duke, Danny Ferry, who was labeled a major disappointment in his first year in the NBA after playing a season in Italy.
"It blows my mind when people complain about Danny not doing well with the Cavaliers," he said.
"You've got to look at Cleveland's other big men -- Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Hot Rod Williams -- and realize how good they are, and why Danny doesn't play a lot of minutes. But this talk still trickles down to me, and I have to prove myself once more."
Laettner, who has appeared on the cover of GQ, is fast developing a cult following in Minnesota. He already has as many area endorsements as Twins superstar Kirby Puckett, and recently had a McDonald's burger christened "32," after his uniform number.
Signing Laettner to his six-year package worth $21.7 million also rTC translated into increased sales for the Wolves, who sold more than 2,000 season-ticket packages this year.
"None of this is going to change how I am," Laettner said. "It might change me in some ways, but not in important ways."
One major adjustment is learning to live with losing streaks after experiencing only a handful of losses his four years at Duke. The youthful Wolves (2-7) are caught in a five-game skid.
"We're going to have to be mentally tough," he said. "Hopefully, losing will motivate me even more than winning did."
Christian Laettner's statistics through nine games with the Minnesota Timberwolves:
Stat.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Tot./Avg.or Pct.
Minutes.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . 299/33.2
Field goals .. .. .. .. .. .. 61-115/.539
Free throws.. .. .. .. .. .. . 41-49/.837
Points .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . . .166/18.4
Rebounds .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 74/8.2
Assists .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 16/1.8