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A Tribute to Dick DeVenzio

Our our Bulletin Board, reader "Gray Devil" wrote a very nice tribute to former Duke player Dick DeVenzio, who died recently of colon cancer at the age of 51. We reprint it here. Thanks, Gray, for such a moving tribute.

I want to spend a few moments (okay well, more than a few moments) to write a tribute to Dick DeVenzio. I was in the same graduating class as him ('71). He probably had an bigger impact on me than any other student in that class (other than my close friends and roommates), even though I was never in a class with him and did not socialize with him. Let me explain why.

My memories of his basketball playing style was that it was very similar to Hurley's. (Since he predated Hurley, I should more properly say that "Hurley's playing style was similar to DeVenzio's" but since most people on this board know about Hurley I had to put it that way.) Dick was a small basketball player, about 5' 10" and 150 pounds, I think (which is probably why I related to him so much since that was approximately my size as well) and a feisty type of player, very willing to dive on the floor for any loose ball. He was a classic point guard and in my mind his style of play led the way for many Duke players to follow.

I'll never forget the game announcer introducing the Duke line up during his playing years. He would always draw out Dick's last name so that it echoed throughout the Indoor Stadium (it wasn't named Cameron until later) – "Starting at guard for Duke, Dick DeeeeViiiiinnnnnnzio!!!" And naturally, the stadium would rock with cheers as he ran out onto the court, the shortest player in the game, but definitely the most determined.

What made him so special to me was that he was such a successful basketball player despite his relatively short stature. That, and the fact that he always seemed like an ordinary person, not an unapproachable star athlete like so many others. He seemed comfortable being who he was, whether he was on the court in a close game or walking across the quad on his way to class. Further, his rep was that of a relatively serious student, also, not just a jock. In fact, it was assumed by many during his junior year that he wrote a substantive and very articulate piece for the yearbook about the pressures of being a basketball player at Duke. After his death I dug out my yearbook and read it again. Now I'm positive that he wrote it, because in it you can see the themes of his later dedication to empowering college athletes (a stand for which he undoubtedly drew a lot of criticism).

I distinctly remember having a heated discussion with my girlfriend during my senior year. In a typical senior-year late night debate I was arguing that that I felt like I could do anything I wanted to and be successful at it. (Hey, by the time you're a senior at Duke you start feeling that way!) She was saying that there were things that I just wouldn't be good at because I must have some limitations. I was arguing that if I set my mind to it, I could do anything. She then said that physical limitations alone would stop me from being, say, a successful athlete in some sports. How could I be a successful basketball or football player, for example? I pointed out that size hadn't stopped DeVenzio from being very successful at basketball and that if individuals put their minds to something like he did, then physical size wouldn't prevent one from being successful. That ended the debate. DeVenzio was generally seen as the penultimate example on campus of the successful student athlete.

He was a Duke at a time when there was a lot of change in the University. Our entering class came in the fall of 1967. The Vietnam War was not quite at it's peak, but it definitely was escalating. LBJ was sending more and more troops there and college campuses were increasingly becoming more active against the war. Duke, being a southern school was a little behind others in that regard, still imbued with a "southern gentleman" type of culture. However, by the spring of '68 the campus changed considerably. LBJ announced his intention not to run for re-election, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and then later (after school was out for the summer) Robert Kennedy was killed. In response to the MLK assassination a number of students marched to the President Douglas Knight's home and occupied it for a short period of time. Then, in support of striking workers in the Hospital and as a tribute to King, a large number of students took part in the Duke Vigil, a non-violent sit-in on the quad in front of the Chapel that lasted for weeks. To my knowledge I don't think that DeVenzio took part in any of these activities, but he had to be impacted by all that was going on around him. I certainly was. (I was also an athlete at the time, on the swim team, and even though it didn't have the visibility of the basketball team--no scholarships--I did feel that as an athlete I had a different commitment to the University than other students. Of course, my attitude on that, and many other things changed radically before too long.) During our sophomore year African-American students and sympathizers took over the Administration Building and for the first (and I think the last) time in Duke history a full scale riot occurred on campus. State police, in an attempt to remove the students from the Admin building, were called to campus and tear gas and billy clubs were used on Duke students to clear the quad. During our junior year four students were killed at Kent State and many Duke students remembered vividly what had happened on campus a year earlier, thankful that something similar hadn't occurred then. Virtually every Duke student had to have been touched in some way by the activities of those years. We all matured during that time from innocent college students to more knowledgeable adults, aware that the world wasn't as pristine as we may have naively believed before arriving at Duke. I'm sure that DeVenzio's later activism on behalf of student athletes was in some way shaped by those events.

When I read on DBR that Dick had died I felt like a part of my Duke experience died with him. I told my wife about his death and even though she didn't attend Duke (in fact we didn't even meet until I'd been away from Duke for six years) she said that she felt like she'd lost a family member -- there had been so many times during the years when I had, in my best pseudo-announcer voice cried out, "Starting for Duke at guard, Dick DeeeeViiiiinnnnnnzio!!!"

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By the way, in an earlier thread there was discussion about his game-winning shot at Carolina his freshman year. It did happen as described. I was there, too. In fact, incredible as it seems, I actually predicted the play before it happened. As noted in that thread, freshmen couldn't play on the varsity then, so the Duke freshman team was paired up against the Carolina freshmen in Carmichael for the last game of the season. I had gone to the game with some other freshman friends to lend support. Duke had an excellent freshman team that year (Randy Denton, Rick Katherman, and Brad Evans were also on it). As I recall, Carolina had a one point lead and was shooting a free throw with about five or six seconds to go in the game. Just before the free throw attempt was made I said something like "Denton will rebound the miss, dump it out to DeVenzio who will heave it the full court for the win" to a friend. Nobody thought it was possible. I don't think Denton got the rebound, but DeVenzio did throw the ball from about the Carolina free throw line to the other end of the court to win the game for Duke. That was the most dramatic basketball victory I had witnessed live up to that point in my life (and it probably sealed the deal for me to forever be a Duke basketball fan). It was an absolutely incredible experience! I know that the ball left his hands before the buzzer went off and that the buzzer stopped sounding before the ball went through the net. The entire time the ball was in the air everything seemed very silent (except for the sound of the buzzer), so that when it went through we could clearly hear it passing through the net (my recollection is that it bounced off the backboard, but I could swear I heard the sound of the net, too).

By the way I would disagree with whoever posted that DeVenzio's class was Bubas' last recruiting class. I believe he also brought in a great class the next year, including the father of one of Duke's current recruits from the HS junior class – Gary Melchionni. Along with Melchionni, were Jeff Dawson, C.G. Newsome (Duke's first black basketball player) and Richie (I think) O'Connor. That was an incredible group of players who were, I believe, the only Duke freshman team to be undefeated in conference play, which was quite an accomplishment considering some of the Duke teams that had preceded them. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well for them after that season because Bubas announced his retirement and Bucky Waters came in with a different style and a more structured philosophy of play. I know that several Duke upperclassmen (perhaps DeVenzio among them) chafed at Waters' preferred style of coaching. Rumors on campus indicated that Waters wouldn't let players wear facial hair and was very strict about their hairstyles, too. (This was the early 70s remember!) I think some rumors had DeVenzio, Katherman, Evans, and Newsome quitting the team, although to their credit none did. After I left Duke in 1971 the basketball teams, which had run high under Bubas, essentially tanked out until Bill Foster came in and got Spanarkel, Gminski, Banks, Dennard, et al to the National Championship in 1978. It was during that Final Four weekend that I got married, but that’s another story altogether!