Thirty years ago, Chris Farley and college basketball collided in an unforgettable way

Thirty years later, Christian Laettner isn’t sure he knew this would happen. In 1994 he was in the NBA, in his second season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Maybe someone had informed the agent about him but he doesn’t think so.

The former Duke star remembers seeing the commercial on ESPN just one day. Chris Farley, then at the height of his “Saturday Night Live” glory, wore Laettner’s No. 32, recreating his buzzer-beating shot against Kentucky, a signature moment in NCAA Tournament history.

“All I know is that all of a sudden it came out and it was fun and it was great,” Laettner said Atletico.

Farley had three commercials that aired on ESPN, all aimed at promoting college basketball, all remembered for the physical comedy and shenanigans that made Farley so beloved and famous.

At one point, Farley was Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson, standing at the foul line, needing to sink two free throws to win the 1989 national championship. “And he makes it look…” Farley says, before shooting and missing, not once, not twice but six times, screaming in Farley’s famous frustration. (“ENTER!”) after each brick.

In another, it’s North Carolina’s Michael Jordan in the 1982 title game, but instead of sinking the game-winning shot from the wing, Farley decides to step back 3 (he was ahead of his time on this one), correctly underscoring in concluding that college basketball did not have a 3-point line at the time.

But it’s Laettner’s commercial that’s so great, so funny, so Farley.

“OK, my name is Christian Laettner,” the comedian begins, wearing a tight-fitting Duke uniform. “1992. Duke-Kentucky. Kentucky leads by one, Christian has the ball. Two seconds left.”

Farley turns and faces five Kentucky defenders, life-size cutouts made of plywood. Dribble and take a rebound shot, just like Laettner did that memorable afternoon in Philadelphia in the East Regional final.


“Out of the glass!”

“He gets his rebound!”

To miss.

“Loose ball!”

Farley dives and drops a Kentucky cutout. Finally, he makes a layup and raises his arms in celebration.

“The Duke wins! Game of the century,” Farley shouts. “AND that is how did it happen! …Well almost.”

Actually, that’s how it happened.

In 1993, Glenn Cole worked at Wieden+Kennedy, an ambitious advertising firm based in Portland, Oregon. Although it is now a global agency, Wieden+Kennedy then devoted much of its resources to one client, Nike. He was known for “Bo Knows” and Mars Blackmon telling Jordan, “The money, it must be the shoes.”

A lyricist, Cole, 24, was the youngest in the company. A former University of Oregon sprinter, he loved the creativity and storytelling of the advertising provided, especially by Wieden + Kennedy. In that environment he described himself as an “idiot who was an intern half a minute ago”. But his superiors thought enough of him to assign him an ESPN campaign that featured a simple task.

Promote college basketball.

“I have the keys to this nice car. Nobody watches it,” Cole said, referring to all the attention the company has paid to Nike. “I have an ESPN basketball campaign. I watch ‘Saturday Night Live’ a lot. ‘And I was obsessed with Chris Farley.’

Cole had an idea. A common basketball moment: playing alone on a playground. Tie game. The clock runs out. 3…2…1.

Yet the shot rarely falls. The countdown resets. No winning heroism, just a resurfacing of the asphalt.

“And so I thought it would be fun to mess with this trope,” Cole said. “And then I thought, ‘Oh my God, Chris would be the perfect person to do this.’”

Approaching 30, Farley was a rising star. The New York Daily News called him the standout performer of SNL’s final season, someone who brought with him the same kind of “volcanic, magnetic energy” as Eddie Murphy and John Belushi before him. His talent and comedy had begun to translate to the big screen. “Tommy Boy,” starring Farley and David Spade, would be released in 1995.

Even better in this case: Farley was a sports fan. Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, he played hockey and football. In Marquette he had played club rugby. At SNL, he played dunk baskets at the 76th Street basketball court in Riverside Park.

“Chris was a physically gifted comedian,” said Doug Robinson, Farley’s agent. “And a lot of people don’t know that Chris was truly an amazing athlete. I moved really well. I loved sports. So if Chris wanted to do physical comedy, he would commit to whatever he did.

Cole flew to Los Angeles to present the concept to Farley. ESPN asked him if he had a backup plan if Farley refused. “Of course,” Cole said.

In fact he didn’t.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is a long shot,’” said Beth Barrett, one of the campaign’s producers. “There was a time when it wasn’t as common as it is today for famous celebrities, athletes, comedians and musicians to sell themselves short in advertising. “It was almost a bad thing to be in a commercial.”

Cole meets Farley in Farley’s hotel suite. Farley wore a tweed suit, disheveled by design. Cole presented her vision and Farley took to it immediately. The comedian got up from the couch and started reciting Laettner’s commercial. He knocked over a vase, which immediately made Cole realize, “Oh, I need to get you something to knock over.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun,” Cole remembers Farley saying. “Let’s do it.”

The commercials were shot days later in a Los Angeles studio. Today, a celebrity would probably show up with some sort of entourage. But then, Larry Frey, the campaign’s creative director, recalls that Farley’s manager arrived early and Farley later stopped by himself. Spade came to see me around lunchtime.

“He was literally like a 10-year-old, and they just called recess,” Frey said. “Full of energy. Like, ‘Hey guys! I’ll probably mess up today.‘ Super self-deprecating. Super enthusiastic. And just letting it fly.

They shot the Michigan and North Carolina spots first, largely because Cole knew what Farley had planned for Laettner and didn’t want to risk his star getting hurt.

(In addition to commercials, Farley also filmed a series of promos that never aired. In the one below, Farley holds two stuffed animals and mimes a conversation about an upcoming rivalry game. Naturally, the mascots soon they attack each other, and then Farley, and the promo ends with a signature Farley outburst.)

For Laettner’s commercial, Cole provided simple instructions.

“Look, I’m going to put you at the 3-point line,” Farley remembers telling him. “We will start this show the way everyone remembers it in our collective memory. And then look, man, try to make the shot, but if you don’t, hurry up and try to finish the show and surprise me.

Farley, unleashed.

Farley at his best.

He launched himself through the cutouts of former Kentucky standouts Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Travis Ford, knocking them to the ground.

“A whirlwind,” Barrett said.

Good ideas don’t always translate. Cole immediately knew this was true.

“In each one, right after the first take of each commercial — all three — I thought, ‘Ah, man, this is going to be amazing,’” he said.

In “The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts,” authors Tom Farley Jr. and Tanner Colby describe this period as the pinnacle of Farley’s life.

The comedian had battled drug and alcohol addiction, but after a trip to an Alabama rehab facility, he was trying to stay clean. Farley was confident and self-assured, the authors wrote, but ultimately it was a losing battle. In 1997, Farley died of an overdose at the age of 33.

When Cole and Barrett think back to that day in Los Angeles, the experience stands out as much as the finished product. Farley was performing as usual in front of the camera. (After each take, he’d ask, “Was that fun?”) But he was also personable and engaging throughout the eight hours we spent there.

“We would go into the green room between preps and he would ask questions and be interested in other people,” Barrett said. “And (be) kind of a fool. It was one of those pretty rare experiences in advertising where you actually got to know someone at the end of the day. “It was really cool.”

Farley and Cole had hit it off so well, chatting back and forth, exchanging ideas, that Farley asked him if he’d be interested in writing for him at SNL. Cole panicked, thinking, “What if I can’t produce great things every week?” It was an incredible offer, but Cole loved what he was doing. I refused.

“As I recall, that was my third advertising project, but it was the first where I felt like I was collaborating with someone to make something better than either he or I could make independently,” said Cole, who today he is co-founder and president of 72andSunny, a global advertising agency.

A year or two after the commercial aired, Laettner walked onto a jetway, about to board a plane. He doesn’t remember which airport or where he was headed, but as soon as he boarded he noticed a familiar face sitting in first class. It was Farley.

Like most celebrities, Farley looked down, trying not to be noticed, but managed to make eye contact with Laettner. Farley stood up and the basketball star and comedian hugged and shared a laugh.

“Great show,” Laettner told him.

Chris Farley and Glenn Cole, backstage filming the college basketball commercial. (Courtesy of Glenn Cole)

(Top illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / Atletico; photo and video courtesy of Glenn Cole)