Former Duke great Kenny Dennard posted a link to this story on his Facebook page and it’s one of the best stories ever written about Duke basketball.
It’s the Sports Illustrated cover story from 1978 after Duke won its first ACC tournament since Vic Bubas coached Duke to the title in 1966.
We’ve never forgotten the first line because it was brilliant and infuriating: “Duke. Now there’s a proud but forgotten name.“
Well it wasn’t forgotten in the Triangle where Cameron continued to be Cameron despite the losing of the early ‘70s. The Crazies (before they were Crazies) couldn’t count on winning so they were a lot more surly than we see today and games were a combination of defiant losing and vicious needling.
When 1978 began to happen...it’s hard to explain. The team was promising. Everyone knew about Mike Gminski and Jim Spanarkel and Gene Banks came to Duke with his own legend in place.
No one had a clue about how good Kenny Dennard was about to be and John Harrell was a cross-town transfer from NCCU when they weren’t taken very seriously.
No one had any idea of what was going to happen. How could they?
Those pieces fit together like they had been tailor-made. It was a revelation. Banks was a monster talent, Gminski was a superb big man, Spanarkel was a crafty, pigeon-toed guard who was utterly fearless, Dennard was the human equivalent of a Mercedes in a Demolition Derby and Harrell was quiet and always in utter control of the ball.
That team hit warp speed in Greensboro and just took off. By the time it played Villanova in the NCAAs it was way beyond expectations.
It just became an extraordinary team. There was a bit of Hickory High in there and a bit of early Bill Russell San Francisco, where this team realized suddenly that it was really, really good. You could see the growth from game to game.
It may still be the best passing team the ACC has ever seen. Keep in mind that there was no shot clock and no three point shot so the goal was to get to the basket. Everyone passed well and was unselfish.
Banks was an unbelievably charismatic presence. He was just magnetic.
No one expected this team to get to the finals - the article said this - “a young squad that may one day become memorable.“
Well it did and remains so.
Mike Krzyzewski has set a standard for consistency excellence that has put Duke in a much higher orbit, but no Duke team, before or since, has matched the 1978 team for sheer exuberance and charisma.
The tournament run was memorable. Duke nearly lost to Rhode Island and ran all over Villanova to get to the Final Four.
Duke had to beat Notre Dame to play Kentucky. People forget, but that was seen as a team of destiny too. Here’s an article about that Irish team.