Let’s take a trip in the wayback machine, back to March 5, 1982. Mike Krzyzewski’s second Duke season had just ended with an 88-53 loss to Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The loss was Duke’s 17th of the season, a school record. Duke’s best player was Vince Taylor, a senior.
The vultures were circling. Krzyzewski desperately needed a transformative recruiting class.
He wasn’t getting it. He had three commitments by this time--no early-signing date in those days. Bill Jackman and Weldon Williams were the first two commitments. They would combine for 213 points at Duke.
Jay Bilas was next. Bilas would be a solid contributor to the revitalization of Duke, playing in 127 games. But Bilas would average 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game at Duke. Lots of players average 8.4 points per game.
Bilas didn’t move the needle much. He was a superb complementary player but complementary players need better players to complement.
Enter Johnny Dawkins, a lightning quick 6-2 lefty from D.C. He was touted as the best guard from D.C. since Austin Carr, maybe since Dave Bing.
Villanova desperately wanted him. So did Georgetown. And especially Maryland. Driesell’s Terps had suffered through a mediocre 16-13 season and the old left-hander was determined to rebuild. He would bring in Len Bias in this class.
But not Dawkins. In a decision that perhaps saved Krzyzewski’s career, Dawkins picked the embattled 35-year old over the field.
Mike Krzyzewski does a lot of things well. One of those things is his ability to articulate and sell a vision. His message to Dawkins was simple. Take a chance on me, come to Duke and we will do great things together.
Dawkins believed the message and helped make it happen.
A few weeks later Mark Alarie decided to come from Arizona to Durham. Dawkins was a big reason why, David Henderson followed shortly afterwards, Tommy Amaker the next year, then Kevin Strickland and Billy King and Duke was on its way.
Could Krzyzewski have done this without Dawkins? Perhaps. But fortunately we’ll never have to find out. Krzyzewski has never wavered on the subject of Johnny Dawkins’ importance to his program.
Frank McGuire came to North Carolina after a lifetime in the greater New York City area and he strongly felt that he owned NYC as his recruiting backyard.
With the exception of Lee Shaffer, every one of McGuire’s top recruits hailed from greater NYC; Lennie Rosenbluth, Pete Brennan, York Larese, Doug Moe, Larry Brown and his parting gift to Dean Smith, one Billy Cunningham. Every starter on his undefeated 1957 NCAA championship team hailed from McGuire’s home stamping grounds.
So, it was no surprise when Art Heyman committed to the Tar Heels. Arguably the top recruit in the prep class of 1959, Heyman hailed from Rockville Centre.
In one of the great ironies of ACC basketball history, McGuire had arranged for Heyman and Larry Brown to room together. Heyman and Brown, of course, would later be principals in the most famous fight in ACC basketball history.
But first Heyman had to become a Blue Devil, not a Tar Heel.
Here’s the story he told me. McGuire was meeting with Heyman and Heyman’s stepfather. McGuire said something glib about owning NYC and Heyman’s stepfather took offense. Significant offense. The two almost came to blows.
Not only did Heyman’s commitment to North Carolina go away but his stepfather wanted Heyman to go somewhere, anywhere he could hurt McGuire and his program.
Eight miles down the road Vic Bubas had just taken over the Duke program after Harold Bradley left for Texas. It’s not clear who made the first contact but Vic Bubas was no dummy. He swooped in and wrapped up Heyman in a New York minute.
Bradley didn’t exactly leave Bubas a bare cupboard. Duke was pretty good under his tutelage, But as amazing as it sounds from today’s perspective, Bradley left Duke for Texas because Texas offered a bigger salary, more scholarships. Bradley considered it an upgrade. And Bubas’ base salary at Duke was less than his salary as an assistant coach at NC State; he made it up in summer camps.
Heyman put Bubas on the map. Jeff Mullins came to Duke a year after Heyman in part because he wanted to play with Heyman. Duke was a good-sometimes very good-program under Eddie Cameron, Gerry Gerard and Bradley. But Duke didn’t become a great program until Vic Bubas and Art Heyman teamed up.
Bill Foster took over a Duke program that had hit rock bottom in 1974, with a 10-16 record. He almost hit the recruiting jackpot in his first month. Duke and Marquette were the final two for Butch Lee. But Lee picked Marquette.
Foster didn’t come close to a Lee-level recruit for the next few recruiting cycles. Jim Spanarkel was a solid prospect but one being heavily recruited by the likes of Holy Cross and William & Mary. Mike Gminski played against weak high-school competition and graduated from high school a year early. He was a question mark. Duke went 13-13 and 13-14 during Foster’s first two seasons.
Duke shouldn’t have had a chance with Gene Banks. Nicknamed “Tinkerbell” due to his ability the fly through the air, Banks was the highest-profile recruit to come out of Philadelphia since Wilt Chamberlain. Banks and Albert King were considered the best players in the class of 1977, a silly centimeter ahead of a Michigan kid named Earvin Johnson.
Not surprisingly Banks’ final list of five largely was a who’s-who of college hoops. North Carolina was there. So were Digger Phelps and Notre Dame. John Wooden was retired but UCLA had won a national title two years prior. Pennsylvania might seem like a sop to the locals but they were a national power, good enough to go to the 1979 Final Four.
And increasingly irrelevant Duke.
But Foster and Banks got each other. Foster could see through Banks’ nonsense and Banks trusted him.
And Banks also respected Foster’s efforts on his behalf with Duke admissions. Banks was and is a very bright guy and he made good grades at West Philadelphia High School. But nothing at West Philly prepared Banks for the SAT. Getting him in was a struggle.
Gene Banks was the first high-profile, inner-city African American athlete to pick Duke.
I realize I’m tip-toeing through a minefield here. But I think it’s fair to state that Duke was widely viewed as a school not overly sympathetic to African Americans at that time. People in administration at that time have told me an over-reliance on the SAT over GPA was a real thing.
The basketball program had only sporadic success with black players. C.B. Claiborne was the first black player in the Big Four but he was a walk-on. Don Blackman was the first recruited black player. He transferred after his sophomore season. Sam May was from Washington state, the same class as Chris Redding and Ron Righter. He went home for Christmas break his freshman year and didn’t come back. Edgar Burch lasted one year before transferring, Kenny Young two.
George Moses was a juco who was academically ineligible for much of his junior year but led Duke in rebounding as a senior in 1976.
Then there was Willie Hodge, a 6-9 forward/center from San Antonio. Hodge turned into a good player, averaging 17 points and eight rebounds per game as a senior in 1976. He was the first recruited African American to play at Duke for four seasons.
In fact, Duke had four black players in 1976, Hodge, Moses, Young and freshman forward Harold Morrison. But the first two graduated and Young transferred, leaving Morrison as Duke’s only black player when Banks committed to Duke in January of 1977.
Banks took several huge leaps-of-faith.
Banks’ commitment came a few days after Tate Armstrong broke his right wrist, ending his season and dooming Duke to another mediocre season. Just like Dawkins in 1982, Banks commitment turned an environment of doom and gloom into one of promise for the future.
It’s hard for today’s fan to understand the impact of Banks’ commitment. Duke immediately went from old news to trending-on-twitter status. Duke decided that fans needed to join the Iron Dukes to have the right to purchase season tickets.
That was a direct result of Gene Banks. He made Duke relevant again, in old ways and new.
I talked to Johnny Dawkins years ago about Banks. He acknowledged that the Spanarkel, Gminski, Banks teams proved to him that Duke could win and win big. But he also demonstrated that a man from the inner city could thrive athletically and academically at Duke University.