Eddie Cameron is one of the most famous non-famous people in college-basketball history.
Anyone even remotely conversant with college basketball has heard of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But the man for whom it was named? Did he play at Duke? Coach at Duke? Who was he?
Unlike Adolph Rupp, Phog Allen, or Dean Smith, Cameron didn’t have any post-season successes.
He didn’t have any post-season failures, either. In fact, he didn’t have any post-season at all, not post-Southern Conference Tournament.
Part of that is timing. Cameron took over at Duke for the 1928-’29 season. The NIT didn’t begin until the 1938, the NCAA Tournament the following season. Thus, seasons like 18-2 in 1930, 17-5 in 1933 and 20-6 in 1936 had no possibility of post-season play.
The NCAA Tournament was only eight teams in those days, selected by region, with no automatic qualifiers. Duke captured the 1941 Southern Conference Tournament but North Carolina received the southeast bid.
Most of that 1941 team graduated but there were some quality returnees. Senior Ray “Hap” Spuhler went on to become a successful basketball and baseball coach at George Mason, while classmate Bill McCahan would play for Syracuse in the NBL and pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies.
But the core of the 1942 team was an exceptional class of sophomores. Bob Gantt was a 6-4, 220-pounder, a product of Durham High School and their legendary coach Paul Sykes. Gantt also starred in football and track and was once on the cover of Look Magazine as “Dixie’s Finest Athlete.” Gantt would go on to play 23 games for the Washington Capitals in 1946-’47. McCahan and Gantt were Duke’s first NBA players.
Gantt was joined by two Durham High classmates, twin brothers Cedric and Garland Loftis.
Then there was John Seward, a native of Newport News, who had one of the more extraordinary career arcs in Duke history.
Like so many college athletes Seward served during World War II. A member of the 103rd Infantry Division, Seward was captured in France by the SS and spent almost a year as a German POW. He came back to Duke, was elected Student Government president and captained the 1946 and 1947 teams.
Cameron used his bench effectively, bringing in the four sophomores a few minutes into the game as his fast-break team. Contemporaries were stunned at Duke’s ability to wear down opponents.
Individual statistics aren’t available but it’s unlikely that anyone on the team averaged more than 10-12 points per game. Cameron used 10-11 players and Duke averaged 52.6 points per game, which seems miniscule these days but was actually a lot for the era.
Duke opened the season on December 8th, the day after Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into the war. This was also the time frame in which the 1942 Rose Bowl was moved from Pasadena to Duke.
But the college basketball season was allowed to continue.
Duke only played two games in December, beating Georgetown (Ky.) and Rider.
Duke opened January by participating in a Palestra twin-bill in Philadelphia. St. Joseph’s defeated North Carolina in the opener, Temple defeated Duke in the nightcap.
This would be Duke’s only trip outside the Southern Conference’s geographic footprint.
It also would be their last loss until they fell to conference rival George Washington 55-53, on the road on February 21, breaking a 14-game winning streak.
Not that all the wins were easy. But Cameron had a tough, deep, resilient team. Cedric Loftis hit the game-winner with 15 seconds left in a 37-35 win over 6-0 Tennessee. Center Chuck Allen scored late to push Duke over George Washington 38-37. Duke overcame a nine-point second-half deficit to win at North Carolina State 53-48.
Duke ended the regular season with a 41-40 overtime win at home against North Carolina.
Duke finished that regular season 19-2. This was the second full year of the Indoor Stadium but Duke’s undefeated home season set a standard for generations to come.
The Blue Devils were getting some national attention. The NIT was interested. It’s not clear if Duke actually turned down an official offer from the NIT but they made clear their preference for the NCAA.
The Southern Conference had 16 teams in 1942 but only the top eight made the tournament.
The Blue Devils had a few bumps before winning it all, defeating Washington & Lee 59-41, Wake Forest 54-45 and NC State 45-34. The tournament was held in Raleigh at what is now known as Memorial Coliseum.
Famed Raleigh News and Observer sportswriter Dick Herbert, a Duke alumnus, was impressed by Duke’s relentless attacking style.
“Duke was breaking fast following pass interceptions-and there were a lot of those because of the close guarding and because the weary Terrors [State was nicknamed the Red Terrors in 1942] were making more than their usual share of bad passes.”
But that NC State win would be the last college-basketball game Eddie Cameron would ever coach.
The NCAA invite never came. Instead an 18-5 Kentucky team got the nod. The Wildcats beat Illinois but lost to Dartmouth.
By that time Duke and the rest of the country were deep into the war and Cameron later commented that Duke was too busy to extend its season. Its not clear if this was sour grapes or not.
Football coach Wallace Wade rejoined the United States Army—he also fought in World War I—and Cameron took over as football coach. Yes, basketball was very much subordinate to football in Duke’s 1942 universe.
Cameron ended his career with a 226-99 mark. Only Mike Krzyzewski has more wins at Duke.
And that 22-2 record still ranks as the fourth-highest winning percentage (91.6) in Duke’s long and illustrious career, trailing only 1999, 1992 and 1986.
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