“For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been.’ “
I’m pretty sure John Greenleaf Whittier wasn’t talking about Duke basketball, or even sports in general when he wrote those words.
But he could have been. That’s one of the reasons we watch sports. Baseball has famously been called a game of inches but they all are. A silly centimeter here or there, a slip or a tweak and a game, a season, even a career can change. What happens if Jared Jeffries is called for fouling Carlos Boozer in 2002? What happens if Tony Lang has one more inch of vertical leap in 1994 or Jeff Hall’s 1986 air-ball hits the rim and bounces away from Pervis Ellison? What if Kyrie Irving zigs instead of zags against Butler?
Ah, injuries. Mention Irving, Zion Williamson, Ryan Kelly or Amile Jefferson to a knowledgeable Duke fan and it doesn’t take long to fill in the blanks.
And that’s just this decade.
Which brings us to 1977, January 17 to be exact, when one of those pesky injuries changed the entire arc of what could have been a transformative season for Duke basketball.
Duke came into that season having posted records of 14-12, 12-14, 10-16, 13-13 and 13-14 over the previous five seasons, the program’s worst five-year span since Duke went 37-44 from 1925 through 1929.
Bill Foster was in his fourth season at Duke and he was starting to put together ACC talent. Senior guard Tate Armstrong had averaged 24.2 ppg the previous year and made the 1976 US Olympic team. Classmate Mark Crow was a scoring forward. Sophomore guard Jim Spanarkel was the 1976 ACC Rookie of the Year.
And there was an intriguing big guy, 6-11 Mike Gminski. He had graduated from his Connecticut high school a year early but was supposed to have some promise.
That was about it. Sophomores Harold Morrison and Cameron Hall split the other forward spot. Both were serviceable, at best.
Foster had signed Italian forward Marco Bonamico to go along with Gminski. But Bonamico decided to stay at home. He ended up winning a silver medal for Italy in 1980, so he was a loss of some consequence.
Then there was Kenny Young, who should have been a junior guard. The 5-10 Young was quick, a good defender, a decent ball-handler and couldn’t shoot a lick.
But he had experience and some talent.
Just not as much as he thought. Prior to the season Young told Foster that he expected to start. When Foster noted that Young was playing behind Armstrong and Spanarkel, Young was on the way to Bucknell, leaving Duke with no experienced backups at guard.
Foster tried to compensate with four walk-ons.
Armstrong and Spanarkel both averaged over 37 minutes per game that season.
The season started at the Big Four Tournament in Greensboro. Duke lost its opener 81-80 to Wake Forest. But Duke recovered to edge NC State 84-82 in the consolation game.
That ended a nine-game Duke losing streak to the Wolfpack, the longest in school history.
Armstrong did his thing, with 50 points. Gminski only scored 17 points in the two games but pulled down 22 rebounds.
Foster wanted to bolster the freshman’s confidence, so he told his team to feed the big man against Johns Hopkins. Gminski hit 10-for-10 from the field and was off and running.
A magical December followed. Washington and their 7-1 senior star James Edwards came to town and fell 83-81. Gminski battled Edwards to a draw and Armstrong scored 35 points, the final two a baseline jumper at the buzzer that decided the game.
Armstrong hit another buzzer-beater against Richmond, 65-63.
But the highlight came in Knoxville, Tennessee against the 15th-ranked Vols. This was the Bernie (Bernard King) and Ernie (Grunfeld) show.
Grunfeld and King combined for 40 points. But Armstrong was the All-American that night, 13-for-21 from the field on the way to a game-high 29 points.
Duke won 81-78, Foster’s first win over a nationally-ranked non-conference team while at Duke.
The Blue Devils entered ACC play at 10-1, the 10-game winning streak the longest since 1966.
But conference play began with a bump in the road. Gminski outplayed Clemson senior Wayne “Tree” Rollins in the ACC opener, in Cameron. But this time Armstrong missed the game winner and Duke fell in overtime.
Duke then took the short trip over to Chapel Hill. This was a UNC team that ended its season losing in the NCAA title game to Marquette, so Duke’s 77-68 loss was neither unexpected nor problematic.