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Duke Legend Vic Bubas Dies

A great coach years ahead of his time. Duke owes him a lot.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Kansas vs Michigan State
Mar 19, 2017; Tulsa, OK, USA; View of the logo on a ball rack before the game between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Michigan State Spartans in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at BOK Center. 
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

We were deeply sorry to learn that former Duke basketball coach Vic Bubas died Monday morning.

Bubas originally came to what we now call the Triangle thanks to NC State legend Everett Case.

Both men were from Indiana and Case did an enormous amount to transfer the passion Hoosiers feel for basketball to the Triangle.

Bubas played for Illinois for two seasons before coming to NC State and then becoming a Case assistant.

It’s very tempting to wonder how things would have changed if he had not taken the Duke job.

Case was diagnosed with cancer a few years later and if Bubas had stayed in Raleigh ACC history might have been quite different.

But of course he didn’t.

He made the short trip to Durham where he led Duke to a surprise ACC tournament win in his first season.

Bubas quickly put the third claim in for Triangle basketball greatness. Case had long since made NC State a legendary program. In Chapel Hill, Frank McGuire had recently surpassed him. And almost no one knew that a future legend was on McGuire’s bench in Dean Smith.

In Durham, Bubas installed a style Indiana fans would have recognized with his teams running and scoring in bushels and using multiple defenses. The competition between the local schools, then as now, was ferocious, and never much more so than during the recruitment of one “King” Arthur Heyman.

Heyman, like his high school buddy Larry Brown, was from New York and was fully expected to go to UNC as part of McGuire’s legendary Underground Railroad.

However, Heyman’s stepfather and McGuire had a falling out and Bubas swooped in. Heyman later said that when he got to RDU he could still have gone either way but he ended up in Durham and McGuire, with a legendary temper, seethed for years which led to a legendary fight in Cameron and the foundation for the Duke-UNC rivalry we know today (great story: Heyman said that during the infamous brawl he punched McGuire in his tailored trousers and years later McGuire told him “it still hurts Arty!”)

Bubas added Jeff Mullins the following year and the two formed a stunning 1-2 punch for the Blue Devils.

What’s less known is what nearly happened.

Bubas, a lights-out recruiter who redefined recruiting in his era, had convinced future legend Bill Bradley to come to Duke.

Unfortunately Bradley’s father kept pushing for Princeton and Bradley ultimately obeyed. We were told that Bubas got the news while golfing and broke a club.

Heyman, Mullins and Bradley on one team? The mind boggles.

Duke did well without the Princeton wonder and made two Final Fours.

Aside from his brilliant recruiting and his flashy offense, Bubas did a lot of other things that were unusual or ahead of his time. He saw how teams out west - we think specifically UCLA - used cheerleaders and pep bands and arranged for that to become an integral part of the Duke tradition.

In a small but telling innovation, Duke was one of the first college programs to put names on the backs of basketball jerseys.

He also hired brilliant assistants, including future Hall of Famers Hubie Brown and Chuck Daley.

All of this, combined with Duke’s tradition of sitting students around the court, led to an incredible atmosphere and as State and UNC stumbled in the early ‘60s, Duke surged.

Keep in mind that Bubas came to the state while Hank Williams still lived and before Elvis Presley became a bigger King than Heyman.

More importantly, he took the court for State just months after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson sparked a cultural revolution that moved from sports into the broader society, reaching North Carolina about the same time Bubas took the Duke job.

The Woolworth sit-ins in Greensboro began a few months into Bubas’s reign. About the same time, Dean Smith began to quietly integrate Chapel Hill restaurants.

There was no way that white fans in North Carolina were ready for integration though and even Smith, who was a famously liberal UNC, having taken over in 1961 when McGuire was pushed out over a scandal, was not prepared to recruit African-American players in the early ‘60s.

So Bubas continued, as did most of the ACC and the rest of the south, to field all-white teams.

Things were changing rapidly though and while we can’t know this, we believe that many coaches understood that not only was integration coming but that integrated teams now had a much larger talent pool to draw on and therefore a major competitive advantage. Not many coaches could match Dean Smith’s honor when it came to integration but not many were willing to be left behind either.

In 1966 in an iconic game, Texas Western with five black starters beat all-white Kentucky for the title (Duke would probably have played for the championship if star Bob Verga had not been sick). Later that year, just two years after the first African-American students arrived at Duke, Bubas brought in CB Claiborne.

If Texas Western hadn’t made the point, Lew Alcindor did the following year.

Duke and UCLA played back-to-back games in North Carolina in 1965-66, when Alcindor was a freshman and not eligible. Duke won both.

The teams did it again the next year in California and Duke was just hammered both times. We asked Mike Lewis once what it was like playing against Alcindor and he said, basically, it was otherworldly. There was nothing he could do.

At Duke, the ‘60s were in full swing and in 1969, the Allen Building was occupied by radical students - including Claiborne.

But by 1969, Bubas had had enough of coaching and stepped down.

The man who came in with Hank Williams and Jackie Robinson left with the Vietnam War, the Weather Underground and players who were pushing for more freedoms than he was probably prepared to accept.

This came up for John Wooden at UCLA too. When Bill Walton said he wanted to grow his hair long out of principle, Wooden said he respected his commitment and that “we’ll miss you Bill.”

Walton kept his hair cut.

We wonder what that decade was like for Bubas. He came to Duke when an era of profound change was just beginning and which would soon sweep over his profession and American life in general. People of his generation went to war as young men and faced immense changes in middle age and for the rest of their lives. How could anyone after them fully understand their experiences?

After basketball, he became first a Duke administrator and vice president, and then the first commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference which, for a time did extremely well.

He mostly lived a quiet life in later years but he had an interesting and we think probably profound effect on a future Duke coach.

When a young Mike Krzyzewski sought advice about the Duke job, Bubas told him essentially to not worry about Dean Smith, who had by then become a legend and enormously powerful in the ACC and beyond, and to focus instead on himself and his own program.

Less remembered, he also told Coach K words to this effect. We won't get this exactly right but the gist is correct: “And all the coaches, Mike, including your friend Dean, are deeply unhappy.”

Both pieces of advice were profound but what did Coach K make of the latter part? That’s always intrigued us.

And we’re sure that Bubas would have included himself in that group if he had still been coaching.

In fact, our guess is that the intensity of his profession, the rivalry with UNC (and the rest of the ACC), the skullduggery that always went on (and still does) and the vast social and cultural changes that would soon completely transform his profession were, in the end, too much and so he walked away.

From what little we know, he lived a long and happy life after coaching. He was, from all accounts an honorable and decent man who had a positive affect on his players and many others. We’ve never heard even one negative word against Bubas, not even from UNC fans.

Duke owes him a debt for playing the key role in making Duke what it became in the ‘ 60s and what it became again under Mike Krzyzewski.

And on some level, we would think the two pieces of advice he gave to Coach K eventually merged and let him not just focus on his own program (his predecessor Bill Foster never really came to grips with UNC’s dominance) but also may have helped him to deal with the other side of that coin. When the Duke hating and the backbiting and the pettiness hit, Krzyzewski learned to simply turn away or at least not to respond emotionally.

We’d like to think Bubas had some influence on that as he has had a profound influence on the entire Duke program.

Krzyzewski has surpassed Bubas’s acomplishments but he’s building on what Bubas inherited and himself enhanced.

None of what we know as Duke basketball would be what it is without Victor Bubas, who was first a victor in competition and then in transcending it.

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