It is difficult to imagine a more intrepid bunch than the 1978-79 Blue Devils. They block, lob, steal and stuff; they crash the boards, run-and-gun, and then fall back in their zone and pound opponents to bits; they're smart, tough and imaginative. In short, they are easily the team to beat, and nothing illustrates why better than an incident that occurred in practice the other day.
Most teams, even good ones, tend to look sluggish and indecisive in scrimmages, because it is tough for a player to work magic on a teammate who knows the plays as well as he does. So here comes Guard Bob Bender downcourt on a fast break, and who does he spy astride the foul lane itching for an alley-oop pass but Gene Banks. Bender puts up a good lob, but Center Mike Gminski sees the play developing and moves to cut off Banks. No problem for the man the Blue Devils call Tinkerbell—"because I float above the court," says Banks. He does just that and spikes a pass, volleyball-style, to Forward Kenny Dennard for a layup.
Now, at most places they would stop practice right there and pass around the champagne. They might even call off school for the rest of the week. But at Duke they perform this high-wire act every day—and damn the risks. And there are dangers in such full-blast practices, as evidenced a few sessions later when Banks went up for another lob, got submarined and spent the next couple of days in the hospital with a sore back.
"It's a little crazy, but it's our style and we feel we should stick to it," says Jim Spanarkel, a senior guard who, if you add up talent, guts and inspirational leadership, may be the most valuable player in the country. Despite persistent claims by opposing coaches that he is slow afoot, Spanarkel has a startling list of credits:
•ACC Rookie of the Year in 1976
•League leader in steals (twice)
•Best rebounding guard in ACC history
•Shot and made more free throws (220 of 255) than anyone in the nation last year.
Gminski is a 6'11" 250-pounder who has never fouled out of a game in his life. Banks passed out 11 assists in one game and, at 6'8", is almost as good a rebounder as Gminski. There were five occasions last season when Banks, Gminski and Spanarkel each scored 20 or more points in the same game.
Coach Bill Foster has a lot more athletes on hand who can—and will—play, such as Dennard, the loose-ball champion of the world; John Harrell, the point guard who committed only 51 turnovers in 34 games last season; and freshman Vince Taylor,
All were on display at a scrimmage held after Duke's homecoming football game at which an SRO crowd chanted, "Salt Lake City! Salt Lake City!" That is the site of this season's NCAA finals. Someone later asked Bender, a transfer student who played on Indiana's 1976 NCAA title team, if he is going to become the first college player to receive championship rings as a member of two different basketball teams.
"You can count on it," he said. You probably can.