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Duke Basketball: The ‘70s Were A Long, Strange Trip, Part II

Duke basketball hit rock bottom in the early and mid 1970s but they kept the spirit of Duke basketball alive.

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North Carolina v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Neil McGeachy took over for Bucky Waters on short notice, with a very small window. I had several conversations with McGeachy over the years and he thought it important to note that he was never an “interim” coach. But he had one year to prove he was the answer.

He wasn’t. But it wasn’t as one-sided as 1974’s 10-16 mark suggests.

Duke had lost Melchionni and Shaw from the 1973 team. O’Connell had developed serious knee problems. Several players had not developed into ACC-caliber players, the most curious being Suk. His coaches and teammates agreed that Suk could dominate in practices, looking for all the world like an All-ACC player. But he could never carry that over to games. He would average a modest 2.8 points-per-game for his Duke career.

Freshmen guards Tate Armstrong and Edgar Burch showed promise. But neither was quite ready for prime time.

And that schedule. Duke went 0-9 against eventual NCAA-champion NC State, Maryland and North Carolina. Add a loss to Notre Dame and Duke went 0-10 against teams ranked in the top six at the time when they played Duke.

The two regular-season losses to the Tar Heels were especially agonizing; a third loss occurred in the Big Four Tournament. Duke and North Carolina were tied at 71 in Cameron when Bobby Jones stole an inbounds pass and converted it into a layup at the buzzer.

Then there was that infamous loss at Carmichael, the one where Duke led by eight points with 17 seconds left, only to lose in overtime. What’s lost in that oft-told story is how well a 10-14 Duke team had to play to have a chance to pull off the upset on the road against a North Carolina team that included Bobby Jones, Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak.

Kevin Billerman’s 14 assists against UNC’s fearsome press are also forgotten. Only Bobby Hurley (four times) and Greg Paulus have had more assists in a single game at Duke.

Duke was still above .500 as late as 8-7 but for the second year in a row fell apart down the stretch, losing nine of their final 11 games to finish 10-16. Duke won only twice in conference play.

The loss at Chapel Hill drained Duke of any remaining energy. Maryland put Duke out of its misery in the ACC Tournament, 85-66.

The final indignity came when Duke was shut out for the All-ACC team, still the only time Duke has come up empty in that voting. Fleischer’s 15.7 points and 12.4 rebounds per game (second in the ACC) were good enough for serious consideration. But the ACC was trying a short-lived experiment to allocate all-conference designation strictly by position instead of just the best players. Fleischer was considered a center in a league that included Maryland’s Len Elmore and NC State’s Tommy Burleson, both All-Americans.

The Duke players liked McGeachy and lobbied for his retainment. Fleischer even wrote a letter of support to the Chronicle.

To no avail.

I talked to Fleischer about this a few years ago.

“He did a good job with what we had. It was tough. He was a good man, a good coach.”

Utah’s Bill Foster was one of the coaches James had talked to when Waters left. Foster had revived the Utah program but he was an east coast guy and he had personal and professional reasons for coming back east, family and recruiting ties among them.

Foster’s arrival meant his seniors were the first Duke players since the 1920s to play for three head coaches in three seasons.

“I was playing basketball at Duke,” Fleischer told me. “Nobody was going to take that away. The opportunities that attracted me to Duke still existed. We just wanted a coach and a commitment. By this point I just wanted to play. We needed to start moving in the right direction.”

Fleischer, Billerman and Kramer were senior starters for Foster’s first Duke team and his three leading scorers.

Foster’s first priority was to re-invigorate the program with a fast-paced offense, one that would appeal to players, fans and recruits.

The early returns were promising. Duke defeated Cornell 100-62 in their opener. Kramer shot eight-for-eight from the field and led Duke with 18 points.

Foster remains the only person to coach a 100-point game in his Duke opener.

Duke defeated North Carolina 99-96 in overtime in the Big Four Tournament. Fleischer had 26 points, Billerman 24. The win ended an eight-game Tar Heels winning streak in the rivalry.

Duke was 6-1 at that point and added non-conference wins over Princeton, Pittsburgh, Davidson and Georgia Tech, among others.

But Duke couldn’t get over the ACC-hump, couldn’t avoid the late-season slump. The Blue Devils ended 2-10 in conference play, the wins over Clemson and Wake Forest. Duke lost five of its last six to finish 13-13, not a winning season but an improvement.

The season ended in the ACC Tournament opener. Down 78-76 to Clemson, Kramer had the potential game-tying shot rim out at the buzzer.

It was Clemson’s first ACC-Tournament win in 11 years.

Fleischer led Duke with 17.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He was selected second-team All-ACC. He ended his Duke career with averages of 14.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, shooting 55.9 percent from the field. He has the fifth-highest rebound-per-game average in Duke history.

Kramer added 15.1 points per game in 1975, Billerman 11.7 points and a team-best 3.8 assists per game. Both averaged just over 10 ppg for their Duke careers.

Fleischer was the only member of that class who came close to playing high-level pro ball. The ABA’s Denver Nuggets told him that he had made their 1975-’76 squad. But David Thompson was the prize of their rookie class and Thompson suggested that he would be more comfortable in Denver if the Denver roster included his college teammate Monte Towe.

So, Fleischer was out. He played in Israel, went to medical school at Duke and became a urologist in upstate New York.

Fleischer was a two-time academic All-American. But he majored in philosophy at Duke, not a standard path to medical school. He to make up the gaps with lots of post-graduate summer school in med-school friendly courses.

Kramer also played in Europe before going to law school (Dickinson) and becoming a lawyer in Pennsylvania. Billerman became a coach, including a stint as head coach at Florida Atlantic.

Kramer and Billerman have additional Duke athletics contacts. Kramer’s sister-in-law Melissa married former Duke star Tate Armstrong and his daughter Sheila played on the Duke women’s soccer team. Billerman coached Ryan Kelly at Raleigh’s Ravenscroft High School.

It was a long, strange trip but Kramer told me it was worth it.

“We stuck around and helped build the foundation. We gave the program some continuity. I always thought that Duke had the best package for a player, especially for someone who wasn’t going to play in the NBA. I was challenged every night on the court and every day in the classroom and at the end I had a Duke degree. I try to teach my kids that sometimes you have to endure some adversity, dig deep, and get off the mat.”

The class of 1975 got off the mat.

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