For Danny Ferry, the trick is in the tricks, as it were. Ferry, Duke's 6'10" junior forward, has all of a sudden, or so it seems, become one of the most versatile and valuable college basketball players in the land. But any kid who grew up around the NBA, the offspring of an alltime, hang-loose prankster like his father, Bob, who played 10 years in the pros and taught his son well, is bound to know a lot about the art of illusion.
Seldom does young Ferry make a move without thinking several more moves ahead. Hardly ever has he broken free for a shot without having given his defender an ever-so-subtle push beforehand. "I love to set a solid ball pick and pop a guy in the open court," says Ferry with nary a blush.
Opposing coaches gripe about Ferry's physical play, while at the same time licking their chops at the thought of having him on their side. "The pro stuff—the hips and holds, the picks and nudges—he knows it all," says North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. "Especially jumping into you. The principle of verticality? Hah! Danny's verticality is the prone position. When he gets through with us, my guys look like Sealy Posturepedics, and the refs are acting like Verticality is my Uncle Gino's last name. Ferry may not be the most talented player in our league, but for my money he's the best."
The fact that Ferry looks so preposterously innocent—even in his uniform you can visualize him as just another buttoned-down Dookie good guy (which is exactly what he is) walking around the Blue Devils' gothic campus—makes his game even more, uh..."devious," says Mike Brey, a new assistant coach at Duke. "But the devious grin gives him away." Brey was a teacher and assistant coach at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., when Ferry played and studied there. One day Ferry walked into Brey's history class, flashing that grin, and said, "What's on for today, Big Time?"
Most people need a lifetime to learn what Ferry has known instinctively since he was in swaddling clothes—namely, just how much you can get away with. Moreover, as Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski says, "He knows who he is. He's always known that."
Probably such knowledge was most important in 1985-86 when, fresh from being named national high school player of the year in his last season at DeMatha, he went off to Tobacco Road and got swallowed up in Duke's motion offense and senior-dominated NCAA finalist team. "I was a chemistry player then," he says, meaning that he had to blend in with everybody else. He started the first 21 games for the Blue Devils in his freshman season, during which Duke set an NCAA record with 37 victories. And he also made a couple of enormous plays at the end of Duke's 71-67 win over Kansas in the national tournament semifinals, which propelled the Blue Devils into the championship game, a 72-69 loss against Louisville.
Last season Ferry led injury-bedraggled Duke in scoring, rebounding and assists as it fought through to the NCAA round of 16, where it was eliminated by eventual champion Indiana. But it wasn't until this season that he finally found his proper place in the Blue Devils' way of doing things. The place happens to be all over the deck, as well as everywhere within it: Not only is Ferry a joker and a jack-of-all-trades, but he's also a king (as in King Footer, about which, more later) and, according to Coach K, "the queen on the chess board."
"There could not be a better player for the Duke system than Danny," says Krzyzewski. "It's exciting for a coach to have a guy who can be used with so many different kinds of lineups." The Blue Devils' dazzling 10-deep array of personnel came in handy last week when Duke had to play four games in seven days, albeit all of them were at home in front of their beloved Cameron Indoor Stadium crazies. The Blue Devils defeated Clemson 101-63 and Georgia Tech 78-65, and on Saturday they led Valvano's Wolfpack by 14 points in the second half before coming up empty. Duke went without a field goal for almost eight minutes, and N.C. State bagged a 77-74 upset.
Ferry had a game-high 21 points, but it was an error on his specialty—the 94-foot desperation, game-clinching pass—that meant the difference in Duke's third defeat of the season. After the Wolfpack's Vinny Del Negro missed a free throw with seven seconds left and the Pack ahead 75-74. Ferry got the rebound and spotted teammate Phil Henderson open in the far corner at Duke's end. Unfortunately for all those Dookies chanting, "If you can't go to college, go to State; if you can't go to State, go to jail," Ferry lost his grip and fluttered the ball to midcourt where the Pack intercepted it. On Sunday Ferry had a team-high 16 points as the Blue Devils beat Notre Dame 70-61 to run their season record to 16-3.
As for the nonfriendly confines of the Atlantic Coast Conference, after last week Duke was 5-2 and tied for first place with North Carolina and N.C. State. Ferry ranks third in the league in scoring (18.7 points a game), sixth in rebounding (7.4), ninth in assists (4.3) and fourth in free throw percentage (.822). He has come a long way since his freshman season, when he was sometimes benched and was thought, by some, to have underachieved.