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Artie's Gone

Art Heyman, who died Monday, is in many ways the defining figure in the long and joyous tradition of Duke basketball.

As Bucky Waters rightly says, Vic Bubas came first, but his key recruit was Heyman, and it set up an immediate conflict with UNC, as he had originally committed to the Tar Heels and Frank McGuire. Heyman's stepfather, though, developed a strong distaste for McGuire. Al Featherston relays the story: 

"[Bubas'] persistence paid off when Bill Heyman and McGuire got into a shouting match one night at the Carolina Inn – an argument that nearly came to fisticuffs.

"'I had to step in between them,” Heyman said. “My stepfather called Carolina a basketball factory and McGuire didn’t like that. They were about to start swinging at each other.'

"Under the rules then in place, Heyman’s letter-of-intent did not become binding until July 1 and as that date approached, Bubas continued to recruit the Long Island star ... or more precisely, he recruited his parents.

"'He charmed my mother and stepfather,' Heyman said. 'They made me go to Duke. All my friends from New York were at Carolina. If Duke hadn’t picked me up at the airport, I would have gone down the road and started school there.'

"Not surprisingly, Heyman’s late change of heart infuriated McGuire and the Tar Heel faithful.

"'Frank hated Duke and he hated the Duke kids,' Heyman said. 'He hated the way the kids over there used to mimic him. They’d wear suits and slick back their hair and pull on their ties and their cuffs like he always did ... it drove him nuts.'"

The core of the Cameron Crazies was there, then, as far back as the McGuire era in Chapel Hill, but Heyman brought a brashness, a sense of giddy pleasure in combat and competition that lodged in the heart of what was then Duke Indoor Stadium and is there still. It is a New Yorker's pleasure in jostling, in making some elbow room and announcing in no uncertain terms that you were someone to be dealt with.

He is, arguably, as much behind the work hard/play hard philosophy that Duke folk lived by for decades as anyone could be. He was capable of immense feats on the court - he averaged a double-double for his career and was a remarkable rebounder despite being just 6-5 - but definitely lived hard.

Perhaps the best off-court Heyman story is the time he and a young woman drove to the beach where they checked into a hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Robertson. He got in some trouble for that, and he got in some trouble in general, but part of Heyman's charm as a young man was his ability to get in trouble and get out of it too. People adored him.

The best on-court story, without a doubt, involved the legendary brawl in Cameron in 1961, when Heyman and UNC's Larry Brown got into a fight after Heyman delivered a hard foul on a break. Complete mayhem broke out and both Heyman and Brown, along with Donnie Walsh, were suspended for the rest of the regular season. The game was on February 4th, so that was a significant penalty.

Years later, Heyman gleefully recounted that he had hit McGuire in the testicles and that McGuire, running into him years later, said, "it still hurts Artie."

Heyman's ability to balance a, shall we say, colorful personal life with his immense passion and skill for the game ran dry after he left Duke. He was a first-round pick of the Knicks, and was talented enough to stick in the NBA - he made first team all-rookie - but admitted later that he had had too much fun off the court to do well on it. He told Sports Illustrated that "[c]oaches would tell me to do something, and I'd say, 'Go f—-yourself. I didn't respect authority or structure."

The ABA gave him a second chance and he helped the Pittsburgh Pipers to a 15-game winning streak  and was part of Pittsburgh's championship team in 1968.

He finished his career with the Miami Floridians in 1970.

When basketball ended, it became apparent to many people that Heyman had a loneliness to his nature that he never really filled. He lived in Hillsborough for a time, had a falling out with Duke for several years, feeling under appreciated, and moved back to New York where he opened a successful bar named Tracy J's.

He was surrounded there, as he always was, by people who loved and admired him. You got the sense though that although he loved and wanted the attention, that maybe he never felt fully worthy of it or didn't completely trust it. He told SI that "[e]verybody knows me, but I'm really a loner."

We all have to live with our knowledge of ourselves, and Heyman was no exception, and no one can know what that knowledge was. We can only know what he gave us: an immense bon vivant, a guy who took huge bites out of life, who played recklessly and who as a young man certainly squeezed as much as he could out of every day.

His essence is infused in the DNA of Cameron and Duke basketball. When Robbie West had his great game to beat UNC, Heyman's spirit was there. When Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard joined with Mike Gminski and Jim Spanarkel to revive Duke basketball in 1978, the joy and the astonishment and the ecstacy were of the template Heyman had helped to create in the early '60s.

Under Mike Krzyzewski, Duke fans have grown to expect success, and of course Duke was successful before he arrived. But not in the same way. There was a lovely glee in Cameron when Terry Chili led Duke past a Maryland team which was vastly superior, a game where people climbed on the backboards in sheer exultation after the remarkable upset.

Dennard told us that when he and Banks were seniors and K a new coach, that the final play vs. UNC was designed for someone else - either Chip Engelland or Tom Emma. Dennard and Banks looked at each other after leaving the huddle and silently disregarded the play, with Dennard giving Banks a pass which allowed him to put the game in overtime despite the long arm of Sam Perkins trying desperately to block it.

That was such a Heyman thing to do.

Dennard, Banks, Mark Crow, Alaa Abdelnaby, Dan Meaghar, Bob Verga, Steve Vacendak - all of these guys inhabited the world Heyman gave Duke. He was a remarkable and unforgettable figure who had an immense influence on Duke. We only wish that the joy he gave to so many could have visited his own life more often.


In Featherston's article about the 1961 fight, Bucky Waters talked about how Heyman was frequently taunted for being Jewish and called some disgraceful names.

It's largely forgotten now, but Heyman and Larry Brown were two of the last significant figures in an interesting mid-century phenomenon, that of the great Jewish basketball player.

Mostly in New York and many of them either children of immigrants or young immigrants themselves, for several decades, Jewish players excelled. Many, like Brown, Red Holzman and Red Auerbach, went on to become college or professional coaches and NBA executives.

It's the classic story of immigrants finding an American niche in sports. There is a great and largely forgotten Jewish history to the game which deserves a more serious historical accommodation. For a filmmaker or a historian, there's a great field to be sown.