Basketball recruiting is a spectator sport these days. It was not always so. Back when I was a spry young lad we waited until we had seen a player play on the freshmen team before forming judgments.
We didn’t have much else to go on. Where did Bob Verga rank in the high-school class of 1963? How many stars did he have? Darned if I know. No one else knew either.
A few top prepsters gained national attention; Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry Lucas, Lew Alcindor, Tom McMillen. But not many.
Then came freshmen eligibility, the McDonald’s All-America team and game, AAU travel squads, recruiting experts, paid recruiting sites and all the rest.
That means we know about the misses. Bryant Stith and Patrick Patterson and Jared Jeffries and Harrison Barnes and all the rest.
Of course, Duke has had lots of hits and all those hits were somebody’s misses. If there’s an alternative universe in which Chris Mullin played at Duke, there’s one where Johnny Dawkins plays at Maryland or Kyrie Irving stubs a toe at Indiana.
But just because we didn’t follow recruiting in the 1960s it doesn’t mean the hits and misses weren’t just as significant.
Vic Bubas was Duke’s coach during that decade and he was a great recruiter, some say the first modern recruiter. He was way ahead of the curve in identifying, communicating with and prioritizing recruits earlier than the competition.
But he had a couple of huge misses, misses that may well have kept Duke from being the dominant program of the 1960s.
Bill Bradley was a big deal in Crystal City, Missouri, perhaps the best player in the high-school class of 1961. And he was an exceptional student. And he was going to go to Duke. Bradley committed to Duke that spring. There was no national letter-of-intent in those days but there were institutional agreements and there was no doubt that Bradley was going to Duke, the final piece of a class that included future two-year starters Hack Tison and Denny Ferguson and Brent Kitching, a forward who was expected to be great but never was.
In those days Duke brought in its freshman for orientation a week before classes began. Bucky Waters told me what happened next. Bradley was scheduled to fly into RDU and call the basketball office for a ride to school. The phone rang but it wasn’t Bradley but rather his father, telling Duke that his son was going to Princeton.
That’s right. Duke found out it had lost Bradley at the beginning of the semester.
The only time I asked Bubas about Bradley’s late change of heart, Bubas told me that his only regret was that Bradley hadn’t talked to him personally.
That’s not all. Bradley took Duke’s last scholarship. Fred Hetzel, a big man from D.C. wanted to come to Duke but Duke had to tell him that they were out of scholarships. Hetzel went to Davidson, where he was AP first-team All-America in 1965 and averaged 11.2 ppg in six NBA seasons.
Now, it could be argued that Duke would have had a scholarship for both Bradley and Hetzel had Bubas not brought in Ferguson and Ron Herbster-essentially the same player--in the same class.
But one of Bradley or Hetzel should have worn Duke blue.
What happened? Bradley later wrote that his interest in international studies led him to Princeton and their Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs. Bradley broke a foot playing baseball that summer, got bored, read a brochure about Princeton and the Wilson school and began rethinking his options.
It’s not clear when he changed his mind but it is clear that he waited until the last minute to let Duke know of that change.
Bradley would have overlapped at Duke with Art Heyman for one season, Jeff Mullins for two, Jack Marin for two, Verga for one.
Duke was very successful without Bradley of course, going 73-13 and making two Final Fours.
But imagine Heyman, Mullins and Bradley teaming up in 1963. The mind boggles. Nominally they were all forwards. But they were all excellent passers and Mullins would play 12 seasons in the NBA as a guard. Bubas would have made it work.
NCAA title? How about two? Three? A dynasty? Bubas sticking around as head coach for 20 years?
We’ll never know.
Duke still dominated the ACC. However, eight miles down the road a beast was stirring. Dean Smith took over from a disgraced Frank McGuire and had to endure some down seasons before he could compete with Bubas. He did sign Bob Lewis from the class of 1963 but Duke was not involved with Lewis.
But Duke certainly was involved with Smith’s second great recruit.
Larry Miller was a highly-touted 6-4 forward from Catasauqua, Pennsylvania. He scored 46 points in his state title game. Miller was Bubas’ top priority in the high school class of 1964. Duke was coming off back-to-back Final Fours and Bubas almost always got what he wanted on the east coast, especially in Pennsylvania, a state he had already mined for Kitching, Marin, Steve Vacendak, Fred Schmidt, Bob Riedy, Ferguson and Herbster. Duke assistant Chuck Daly was assigned to Miller and Chuck Daly was a very persuasive man.
What could go wrong?
But Miller stunned the recruiting world, opting for Smith and the Tar Heels over Bubas and the Blue Devils. Smith’s message to Miller was similar to Mike Krzyzewski’s later message to Johnny Dawkins; join me and we can build something special.
Losing Miller was nothing like losing Bradley. Miller played it close to the vest and never committed to anyone. He decided in June, keeping Smith in the dark but hardly waiting until the last minute.
But their impact on the court was similar. Miller was a sophomore at Carolina in 1966 and averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds per game. Duke made the Final Four that year and might have won it all had Verga not gotten sick. Put Miller on that team and Duke would have been a behemoth.
Miller and Lewis got some help the next season and the two programs passed each other headed in the opposite direction. Miller’s Tar Heels made the 1967 and 1968 Final Fours, while Duke went to the NIT. Duke wouldn’t regain parity with North Carolina until 1978.
The 1960s was Duke’s best basketball decade until the 1980s, perhaps the 1990s.
But imagine what it could have been with Bradley or Miller or both.