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Duke’s First Basketball Title

It was longer ago than some of you think

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North Carolina Tar Heels v Duke Blue Devils Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke has won five NCAA titles, 16 regional finals, 21 ACC Tournament titles and four Southern Conference Tournament titles.

That’s a lot of hardware.

But the first one may have been the most unexpected of them all.

It took Eddie Cameron a decade to win his first title at Duke. Duke was in the Southern Conference in those days. There was no payoff for a conference title, no automatic qualifier to anything bigger. This was as big as it got, at least until the NIT started in 1938 and the NCAA Tournament in 1939.

The Southern Conference was an ungainly behemoth. Duke’s first year in the conference was 1928-’29, when the conference boasted 23 teams, including Washington & Lee, Tulane, VMI and Sewanee.

But also North Carolina, Kentucky, NC State, Virginia, Florida and Maryland, all of whom would eventually join Duke as NCAA champions.

No attempt was made to have a rational schedule. Duke played nine conference games that year, Georgia played 17, Vanderbilt played seven.

Sixteen teams made the 1929 tournament, held in Atlanta. Duke won its first tournament game, over Alabama and defeated North Carolina in the semifinals. But they lost to NC State in the title game.

The Southern Conference berthed the SEC for the 1932-’33 season but the Southern Conference reloaded, although it never got back to 21 teams. The league settled on a format in which only the top eight teams advanced to the tournament.

Cameron built a regional power at Duke. But that first tournament title proved elusive.

Duke lost to Alabama in the 1930 finals, 31-24. This was a Duke team that was led by future major-league baseball star Bill Werber. Duke finished that season 18-2, Alabama 20-0.

Duke lost to South Carolina in the 1933 title game, to Washington & Lee (30-29) in the 1934 title game, Duke’s fourth empty trip to the conference finals in a six-year span.

The 1938 team certainly didn’t look like the one to end that streak.

Duke’s 1937 team wasn’t anything special. Duke started 8-0 but lost five of its final six to finish 15-8. Three of those loses were to North Carolina, the last in the tournament.

Duke lost guards Herb Cheek and John Podger from that team. They were the leading scorers.

But that was the kind of adjustment expected every year. There was a bigger change, one that impacted everyone.

Prior to 1937-’38, every made basket was followed by a jump ball at center court. The center jump was eliminated, a change every bit as profound as the shot clock, the three-point shot or freshmen eligibility would be down the road.

The new rule opened up the game, allowing for more fast-break opportunities. It also eliminated numerous mini-breaks during the game, placing a premium on conditioning.

Duke’s best 1938 players were John Hoffman, a 6-1 forward from Fort Wayne who was in law school; Ed Swindell, a 6-2 forward from Durham and Fred “Mouse” Edwards, a 6-2 forward from Pennsylvania.

Edwards was a fascinating figure. A natural showman, Edwards delighted fans with his antics. He constantly talked to fans, opponents and referees. In one game he lost his dribble to an opponent but continued miming a dribble to the basket and laying a non-existent basketball into the basket, while the game continued behind him.

One writer called Edwards the “ringmaster of Duke’s five-ring circus.”

The team had one fatal flaw. Cameron complained the leading scorer Swindell was the only player on the team who could shoot. Edwards and starting forward Bob O’Hara were members of Wallace Wade’s football team and thus missed the beginning of practice.

Duke was a textbook definition of a .500 team. They never won more than two consecutive games in the regular season, never lost more than two straight. Duke was 1-1, 3-3, 4-4, 8-7, 10-9.

They also were spectacularly unpredictable, so much that Duke’s pioneering SID Ted Mann dubbed them the “Never a Dull Moment” team. Duke lost to Davidson 40-22 and a month later beat them 52-28. Duke defeated NC State 40-28 in Raleigh and then lost to State at Card Gym 49-45.

Duke defeated Wake Forest and North Carolina in its final two regular-season games to clinch a spot in the tournament.

Still Duke was 9-5, 12-9 overall and seemingly no threat to 13-2 North Carolina, 10-3 NC State, even 9-4 Clemson.

But Duke finally put together a winning streak. They upset State 44-33 in the opener, with Edwards, O’Mara and Swindell combining for 29 of those points. This State team was led by Connie Mack Berry. Yes, he was named after the baseball manager. He would go on to play eight years in the NFL, seven seasons in the National Basketball League and two seasons in the Cubs’ minor-league system.

Washington & Lee upset North Carolina in the opening round.

The tournament was held in Raleigh’s Memorial Coliseum. An overflow crowd of 5,000 saw Duke overcome a seven-point second-half deficit to defeat Maryland 35-32 in the semifinals, led by Edwards’ 12 points.

Clemson defeated Washington & Lee 38-33 in the other semifinal.

The Tigers were led by sophomore Banks McFadden, arguably the greatest figure in Clemson athletic history, a basketball star, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, a coach and administrator who would go on to spend 43 years at Clemson.

Duke had been this far before but come up short. This time Duke left little doubt.

The Blue Devils jumped to a 10-1 lead, which was huge in an era in which 40 points was an explosion.

Duke never let the Tigers back in the game. It was 20-11 at the half. Duke scored the first eight points of the second half and cruised to a 40-30 win.

Swindell led everyone with 14 points. Edwards added a dozen. Duke double-teamed McFadden, who still scored 13 points. His teammates could muster only 17.

Duke ended the season 15-9. The inaugural NIT was held in 1938 with six teams, none from the south. I’ve never seen anything to suggest that the NIT remotely considered the Southern Conference champs.

Cameron called this team “one of the finest group of boys I’ve ever seen. They don’t form the best team I’ve coached but they give plenty.”

They gave plenty enough to become Duke’s first championship basketball team.

Never a dull moment.

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