It has been 20 years since Duke’s historic overtime win over Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament East Region final, yet Tom Clark says there is always one question that won’t go away once anyone finds out he refereed that game.
“No matter where I go ... I have been to Florida over Easter and once my brother says, ‘Guess what game he once officiated?’ that’s all anybody wants to talk about. Some will talk about the shot, but the first thing almost always is the other Christian Laettner thing,” said Clark.
The “other thing” came with about nine minutes left in regulation in that game in Philadelphia after Laettner, the national player of the year, stomped/stepped on the chest of Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake while he was laying on the court. Laettner had felt Timberlake had taken a cheap shot against him on the other end of the court — even though later he realized it might not have been Timberlake — and wanted to send a message.
Clark came to the Ohio UK Convention in Middletown, Ohio — he lives in the Cincinnati area — and told 150 UK fans immediately that they likely “were not going to accept a lot of what I am telling you” and then explained it was official Tim Higgins, not him, who made the call not to eject Laettner.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I didn’t even know it happened or what happened when I saw the highlights that night. I thought Laettner had said, ‘F--- you or something’ like that to get the T (technical foul),” Clark said.
Clark said there was little doubt it was an intentional foul. He would not quite agree it was the “stomp” that many Kentucky fans remembers. He said it became a question of did Laettner intend physical harm to Timberlake and Higgins determined he did not.
“I was not conferred with. I didn’t know if he stepped on him intentionally or what until after the game,” Clark said. “Was it physical harm? I don’t know.”
He knew what a key call it was. It was Laettner’s third foul, but the Duke star was 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 at the foul line in the game and eventually hit the game winning shot with 0.2 seconds left in overtime.
He said to be a flagrant foul and merit ejection, it had to be “malicious, combative, fighting, elbowing, kicking.” That didn’t happen.
“I have seen it a 100 times. Mr. Timberlake is on the floor and points a finger at him (Laettner) and starts laughing. He was laughing at him. He gets up and claps his hands,” Clark said. “Laettner had stepped and pulled his leg back. Not like he used him for a stepping stone
“I will tell you if Timberlake gets up, starts a fight, then they are both pitched. Laettner did not have to throw a punch. He would have been pitched for initiating the situation. If he (Timberlake) starts any type confrontation, they both are pitched. But there was no interruption in the game. The whole thing took about five seconds. Nothing was done by either team. It just happened and was not a game interruptor.”
But did he agree with the call?
“What do I think it was? I am going to protect myself. I am not going to answer it,” he laughed and said.