Tobacco Road: Duke, North Carolina, N. C. State, Wake Forest and the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports

Overview

As the 2005 NCAA basketball season entered conference tournament play, three of the nation's top five rated teams were from the famed basketball hotbed in North Carolina known as "Tobacco Road." Between 1981 and 2005, teams from the four basketball powerhouses – Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest – reached the Final Four nineteen times and won seven national championships. Not since the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants all played in New York City have rivalries so passionate been contained ...

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Overview

As the 2005 NCAA basketball season entered conference tournament play, three of the nation's top five rated teams were from the famed basketball hotbed in North Carolina known as "Tobacco Road." Between 1981 and 2005, teams from the four basketball powerhouses – Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest – reached the Final Four nineteen times and won seven national championships. Not since the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants all played in New York City have rivalries so passionate been contained within such a small geographical region. These four college programs grew up within just thirty-four miles of each other (though Wake eventually moved across the state to Winston-Salem) and have staged classic battles throughout the decades, featuring stars like David Thompson, Michael Jordan, Johnny Dawkins, and Tim Duncan, and legendary coaches such as Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Mike Kryzewski, and Roy Williams, Tobacco Road covers the rich traditions of Tobacco Road basketball - and the backyard rivalries that become more and more intense with every year.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest don't just wait for March Madness to go at it; the quartet of "Tobacco Road" basketball powerhouses nurse their intense rivalry all year round. Journalist Alwyn Featherston has been covering these regional hoops wars for more than three decades; although he's a Duke alumnus, proud and true, he does justice to the great tradition of Carolina hoops.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592289158
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/2006
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 8.94 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author


Alwyn Featherston is a Durham native and a 1973 graduate of Duke University, and he has covered ACC basketball since 1970. He joined the Durham Sun in 1974 and he served as the UNC, Duke and N.C. State beat writer for the Herald-Sun until 2005. He now works as a freelance writer in the Durham area. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including the 2001 National Association of Sports Writers first place award for game coverage and four North Carolina Press Association Awards. Featherson is the author of Saving the Breakout: The 30th Division's Heroic Stand at Mortain, August 7-12, 1944 (Presidio Press, 1993).
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Read an Excerpt


TOBACCO ROAD PROLOGUE

Sunday, March 6, 2005 was a special day on Tobacco Road.
Across the South, people were enjoying the first warm hints of spring after a long, cold winter. While it was still a bit early for the beach or the swimming pool, the golf courses were crowded and it was warm enough for tennis, biking or cranking up the backyard barbeque. In the football bastions of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, the talk was all about the start of spring practice. In the big cities of the North and West, the big sports story was baseball's spring training, which was just getting under way in Florida and Arizona.
But in that crescent of North Carolina's Piedmont, where college basketball is king, all the attention, all the interest, all the excitement that Sunday was focused on the final day of the ACC's 2005 regular season and two basketball games that were to be played four hours and 25 miles apart. The pair of nationally televised contests would match four collegiate neighbors - three of them ranked in the top six in the most recent AP poll -- in a renewal of four-way rivalry that has made Tobacco Road famous far beyond the bounds of North Carolina or the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The CBS crews were at work soon after dawn, setting up in Chapel Hill's Smith Center for the 4 p.m. matchup between No. 2 North Carolina and No. 6 Duke. The network's A-team - Jim Nantz and Billy Packer - were prepping for a renewal of college basketball's premier rivalry. However, it's likely that Packer, a star guard at Wake Forest in the early 1960s, had a few stray thoughts about his alma mater and the game the No. 4 Deacons would play at 8 p.m. that night against unranked, but dangerous N.C. State in Raleigh's RBC Center.
The two games were intertwined ... and not just by history. North Carolina, emerging from a three-year slump that was its worst stretch in more than 50 years, was on the verge of clinching its 15th outright ACC regular season championship. But the Deacons, headed for the winningest season in school history, could tie for the title with a Duke win and victory of its own over the Wolfpack. And the Blue Devils, the ACC's dominant program for almost a decade, could still tie for second in the standings with a win in Chapel Hill and a Wake Forest loss in Raleigh.
Far more important to the North Carolina faithful - by far the largest fan base in the state - was regaining parity with the hated Blue Devils. Duke made the 10-mile bus ride from Durham to Chapel Hill having won 15 of the previous 17 games from its old rival. Second-year Tar Heel coach Roy Williams was 0-3 against Mike Krzyzewski since succeeding Matt Doherty on the UNC bench, including a heart-breaking one-point loss in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium a month earlier.
Never before in the long history of the rivalry had Duke been so dominant for so long.
"It's definitely something in the back of our minds and it's been a taste that's been sitting in our mouth for a long time," UNC junior David Noel, who grew up in Durham in the shadow of the Duke campus, said. "We're definitely ready to get it out."
By tipoff, the Smith Center was packed with almost 1,000 fans more than its listed capacity of 21,572. As the Duke coach walked through the tunnel from the visiting locker room to the court, a fan above him dangled a plastic bag of cheese in his face - because of his prominent nose, Tar Heel fans have labeled their hated nemesis "Ratface." Ironically, legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith was also blessed with a big nose. So was N.C. State's brilliant coach Jim Valvano.
Could the relationship between a prominent proboscis and great coaching acumen be more than a coincidence?
Krzyzewski was certainly doing one of his greatest coaching jobs, guiding a team stripped of two prospective starters by the NBA draft and crippled by injuries into a position of national prominence as the 2005 season wound towards its conclusion. And even with injured point guard Sean Dockery beside him on the bench, Coach K kept the Blue Devils close to the powerful Tar Heels through the first half in Chapel Hill.
Late in the half, the Duke coach exploded when he thought the officials at the scorer's table were slow to buzz in a substitute. His tantrum evoked memories of Dean Smith's similar tirade 21 years earlier, when he thought the Duke scorers were slow to buzz in one of his subs. Taking matters into his own hands, Smith reached across the scorer's table and tried to push the buzzer. Instead, he hit another button and gave his team a quick 20-point boost on the scoreboard.
On this occasion, veteran official Larry Rose stopped by the scorer's table to see what was going on and was taunted by a fan in the second row. Rose ordered a UNC security guard to eject the heckler, not knowing that it was Scott Williams, the son of the Tar Heel coach and a former walk-on at UNC under Smith.
The elder Williams had problems of his own. The game UNC had to win seemed to be spinning out of control for the Tar Heels. Three straight inside baskets by Duke's Shelden Williams - a player Williams recruited hard when at Kansas and Doherty tried to recruit at UNC - pushed the Blue Devil lead to six with four minutes to play. A 3-pointer by Lee Melchionni - the son of a Duke point guard who engineered three straight homecourt victories over the Tar Heels more than 30 years earlier - put the visitors on top 73-64 with just three minutes left.
"I thought we played beautiful basketball for about 37 minutes," Melchionni said. "But the game is 40 minutes and we just couldn't close it out."
Memories of past Duke-UNC comebacks appeared to echo through the Smith Center as junior center Sean May brought the Tar Heels back. It was 31 years ago that Walter Davis banked in his buzzer-beater to cap a UNC rally that made up eight points in 17 seconds. Eleven years later, Duke erased exactly the same eight-point deficit in exactly the same 17-second span when Jeff Capel threw in a midcourt shot in Cameron.
This comeback was not nearly so dramatic. But as Duke went scoreless over the last three minutes, UNC began to chip at the nine-point lead. A three-point play by May cut the margin to two points with 90 seconds to play. The Tar Heels missed a chance to tie when Williams blocked away a shot by UNC point guard Ray Felton, but with less than 50 seconds left, Noel knocked the ball away from Duke senior Daniel Ewing and for several agonizing seconds, players from both teams scrambled on the floor to claim it.
It's amazing how many times in the last decade that a Duke-Carolina matchup would come down to a scramble for a loose ball. In 1996 in the Smith Center, a mediocre Duke team was on the verge of a monumental upset when Chris Collins - now an assistant coach to Krzyzewski - got to a loose ball first, but could not call time out before he was tied up by UNC's Dante Calabria. The possession arrow favored UNC and Calabria scored the game-winning basket on a follow shot. A year later in Durham, almost exactly the same thing happened, only this time the arrow favored Duke and Trajan Langdon hit the game-clinching 3-pointer. The two most recent games in Cameron also turned on loose balls - Duke's J.J. Redick beating McCants to the ball to protect a narrow Blue Devil lead in 2004 and Noel kicking a loose ball out of bounds in February as the Tar Heels tried to set up the game-winning shot.
This time the possession arrow favored Duke, but UNC's Felton got there first and, unlike Collins in 1996, he got the timeout called. The ensuing possession would turn into a four-point play for the Tar Heels as Felton hit the first of two free throws, missed the second and saw freshman Marvin Williams rebound the miss and convert it into a three-point play. Duke, suddenly down two, got the sharp-shooting Redick a 3-point look at the other end, but it clanked off the rim and after a desperation follow shot by Daniel Ewing also missed, the Tar Heel fans were able to rush the court to celebrate the long-awaited victory over the Blue Devils.
Williams wanted to celebrate something else. He fought to clear the court.
"Folks, I like the fact that you're out here, but please get off the floor," Williams pleaded over a courtside microphone. "We're going to have a party. We're going to cut down the nets."
The net-cutting ceremony was brought to Tobacco Road more than a half-century earlier by N.C. State coach Everett Case, but was usually reserved for celebrating tournament titles.
There was considerable outrage in the bowels of the RBC Center, where the Fox TV crews and early arriving media for the N.C. State-Wake Forest had paused in their pre-game preparations to watch the finish of the Duke-UNC classic. The TV working groups were loaded with Tar Heel fans who cheered UNC's triumph, but the tradition-bound reporters were a bit taken aback by Williams' twisting of Tobacco Road tradition. They didn't realize that Williams' action was an eerie echo of a similar celebration 52 years earlier, when first-year UNC coach Frank McGuire cut down the nets in Reynolds Coliseum to mark a monumental regular-season victory over N.C. State
Still, the net-cutting controversy was a minor issue in Raleigh. The big question was whether or not the N.C. State-Wake Forest game would seem like an anti-climax after the thriller in Chapel Hill? The game now meant little to the Deacons, locked into second place in the ACC standings no matter the outcome. For N.C. State, scrambling to bolster its credentials for the NCAA selection committee, the game could be postseason life-of-death.
The Wolfpack season, which began with such high hopes and peaked at No. 12 in the AP rankings in December, was tarnished by a parade of injuries and illnesses as the New Year opened. The Pack lost nine of 12 games during one nightmarish stretch, but had recovered to win four of its last five heading into the finale against the Deacs.
The nearly 20,000 fans who packed the six-year-old RBC Center - a plush public facility that N.C. State shares with the NHL Carolina Hurricanes - all knew that an upset of Wake Forest would go a long way towards securing a fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid. That was important at a school acutely conscious of its basketball heritage. Banners hanging from the RBC ceiling honored N.C. State's two national championship teams ... its 10 ACC title teams ... and such great players as David Thompson, Ronnie Shavlik and Tommy Burleson.
Those reminders of the Pack's heritage seemed a silent rebuke of Fox commentator Mike Gminski, who had denigrated N.C. State's basketball history during a broadcast a year earlier. It was typical for Tobacco Road that Wake Forest-grad Packer would be broadcasting the Duke-UNC game, while Gminski, a star center at Duke in the late 1970s, would be the analyst at the N.C. State-Wake Forest game.
Very early in the game, Gminski would have something shocking to analyze. Wake Forest was leading 16-12 after eight minutes, when Wolfpack star Julius Hodge dropped to the floor, withering in agony. It wasn't clear what had happened until Fox re-ran the sequence in slow motion. The cameras revealed Deacon star Chris Paul delivering a vicious and unprovoked punch to Hodge's groin.
None of the three officials saw the blow and even though NCAA rules allow the refs to use replays to determine if a punch was thrown, no check was made and no action was taken against Paul as Hodge was helped from the floor. Not many fans at the RBC Center saw what happened, but one who did was Hodge's older brother Steve, who rushed the court and physically confronted Paul. Two police officers grabbed the irate Wolfpack fan and were escorting him out of the arena when N.C. State athletics director Lee Fowler intervened and had Hodge's brother and the rest of his family taken to his own private box. Fowler, who had seen a replay of the blow, wasn't ready to let the matter rest. The tall, normally placid Wolfpack athletic boss stormed into Deacon locker room at halftime and screamed at Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser.
In the media room at the break, reporters watched the punch replayed over and over, wondering where it fit in the long pantheon of Tobacco Road pugilism. As a cheap shot, it may have been worse than the sucker punch future NBA exec Donnie Walsh threw in the middle of the historic Art Heyman-Larry Brown fight in 1961. It was definitely more significant than the confrontation between UNC's Tony Radovich and N.C. State's Davey Gotkin in the first ACC Tournament, but not quite as bloody as the showdown between Wake Forest's Dave Budd and N.C. State's Anton Muehlbauer in the 1960 ACC Tournament.
Paul's blow would take on tremendous significance in the next few days, but as the second half started in Raleigh, the sophomore point guard was still on the court and very much in control as the Deacons and the fired-up Pack dueled with every bit the intensity of the Duke-UNC game earlier in the day. In fact, some Wolfpack fans let their intensity carry them too far - a handful of students behind the Wake Forest bench, angered by Paul's low blow, began to taunt the Wake Forest star with cracks about his grandfather, who was tragically murdered when Paul was in high school.
The majority of the Wolfpack faithful were content to boo their latest villain every time he touched the ball. And with the clock winding down, it appeared that their passion would be rewarded. N.C. State built a three-point lead with 22 seconds left before Justin Gray, one of the best clutch shooters in modern ACC history, tied the game with a remarkable 3-pointer from just in front of the Deacon bench.
N.C. State attempted to play for the last shot. With five seconds left, Turkish guard Engin Atsur launched a 3-point try from the top of the key. Replays clearly showed that he was hit on the wrist as he launched the shot - an eerie echo of a controversial foul that helped Connecticut edge N.C. State in the 2002 NCAA Tournament. This time no foul was called and the air-ball went out of bounds to the Deacons with 4.2 seconds left.
Eight years earlier, N.C. State's C.C. Harrison hit a controversial buzzer beater to upset Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and cost the Deacons an ACC regular season championship. There wasn't as much at stake on this occasion, but it's impossible to measure the pain Paul caused the Wolfpack nation as he took an inbounds pass from Lithuanian forward Vytas Danelius and streaked the length of the court. He threw in an off-balance 10-footer at the buzzer and raced off the court to the cescendo of boos from 20,000 angry fans.
"I can't explain it," a tearful Hodge told reporters after the game. "I got punched in the groin by Chris Paul. I would never do anything dirty like that."
Paul arrogantly denied the accusation.
"The little mishap between me and Julius Hodge?" Paul laughed. "I don't believe I popped him. It was just a part of the game."
Indeed, such moments are very much a part of the game of basketball on Tobacco Road. In the next week after that remarkable Sunday, N.C. State and Wake Forest would meet again with dramatically different results. Seven days after watching UNC cut down the nets in Chapel Hill, Duke would cut down a different set of twine at the ACC Tournament in Washington, D.C.
That's the beauty of basketball on Tobacco Road. Past ... present ... future - all are connected by what Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory." From Everett Case to Bones McKinney to Dean Smith to Mike Krzyzewski, all four schools on Tobacco Road intertwined their hopes and dreams to build a tradition that's unmatched in college basketball.
Sunday, March 6, 2005 was indeed a remarkable day - but just one of many, many remarkable days on Tobacco Road.

CHAPTER ONE: THE FOUNDING FATHERS

You won't find Tobacco Road on any map.
It's not even quite clear where it starts and where it ends. Would you include Wilmington, where Michael Jordan played his high school ball and grew up dreaming of playing for N.C. State? If so, then you need to stretch the road across the state to tiny Newland in the Appalachian Mountains, where a young Tommy Burleson was more interested in 4-H than the Big Four. Curve the road back around to Shelby in the southwestern corner of the state to pick up the home of the incomparable David Thompson at the end of a long dirt road, run east through Gastonia, where James Worthy learned the game, and be sure to keep going past Laurinburg near the South Carolina border, where Charlie, pardon me, "Charles" Scott first attracted Dean Smith's interest. Only then can you turn north and head past Fayetteville, home of Rusty Clark and Van Williford and Robert Brickey, for the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill "Triangle" - the heart and soul of Tobacco Road.
It was there - in a remarkably compact region of North Carolina's populous Piedmont - where college basketball was born in the South and grew to mythic proportions. Four schools, originally all located within a 30-mile radius, nurtured the sport in the early days of the 20th Century. Their rivalries were a regional phenomenon at first, but in trying to outdo each other, the four neighboring schools drove each other to greater and greater heights and turned the term Tobacco Road into a shorthand for the nation's college basketball heartland.
It didn't start out that way. Originally, Tobacco Road was the title of an Erskine Caldwell novel about poor, rural degenerates in Georgia. But North Carolina, not Georgia, is the center of the tobacco industry and over the years, Caldwell's pejorative term came to be accepted as a description of the four basketball programs that blossomed like the bright leaf in the Carolina soil.
Tobacco was very much at the heart of the modern Tobacco Road.
Durham, the home of Duke University, was founded on the tobacco industry. Washington Duke, who built his empire on Bull Durham chewing tobacco, lured tiny Normal College from Randolph County to his new factory town in the late 19th Century. His son and heir, James Buchanan Duke, endowed what had become Trinity College with a huge gift in 1924 and the school changed its name to Duke University to honor the tobacco magnate.
The new West Campus built with Duke's money was barely eight miles as the crow flies northeast of Chapel Hill, where the University of North Carolina had been educating planter's sons since the 18th Century. When UNC welcomed its first student in 1796, it became the nation's first state-supported institution of higher learning. It was the largest university in the South before the Civil War and even though the school suffered a brief decline in the reconstruction era, North Carolina bounced back before the end of the 19th Century to reclaim its place as one of the nation's premier public institutions.
One of its rivals grew barely 20 miles to the East, where in 1887 North Carolina A&M was founded in the state capital of Raleigh. A land-grant institution, the school quickly became a recognized leader in agricultural science and engineering. Even though the school's student population soon topped its rival in Chapel Hill, N.C. State College only became a university during a bitter reorganization of the state's university system in the mid 1960s. Even then it was a close call - State College almost became the University of North Carolina at Raleigh, but emerged instead as N.C. State University.
Wake Forest, a small, private school established by the Baptist State Convention in 1834, was also designated a "college" for most of its history. The smallest of the four schools on Tobacco Road, Wake Forest grew up in the sleepy farming hamlet of the same name, located just north of Raleigh's city limits and equally close to the eastern edge of Durham. The small school remained in the shadow of its neighbors until 1956, when another tobacco giant intervened. The Smith Reynolds Foundation - based on another tobacco fortune - made a large endowment to the school with the stipulation that Wake Forest move 75 miles west to Winston-Salem, a blue collar Tobacco city very much like Durham. An entire new campus was built and Wake Forest College in Wake Forest was reborn as Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.
Coincidentally, the move occurred just as basketball was overtaking football as the most important sport on Tobacco Road.

The first national title

It all started innocently enough.
In 1905 - 14 years after Dr. James Naismith came up with his original 13 rules for the sport in Springfield, Mass. - Wake Forest's Richard "Red" Crozier, a student in charge of the school's gymnasium, formed a team to play "basket ball" (as it was usually referred to in those days) against various YMCA and club teams.
His team attracted the interest of a young instructor at Trinity College. Wilber Wade Card - known as "Cap" after captaining the Trinity baseball team as an undergraduate - had done graduate work at Harvard, where he met Naismith and saw the new game played. Card brought basket ball back to Durham, planting the seed that would blossom under Cameron, Bubas and Krzyzewski.
Card and Crozier arranged for Trinity to play Wake Forest in what was long believed to be the first intercollegiate basketball game played south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Some historians believe that Wake Forest may actually have faced a team from Guilford College about a month before the first Trinity-Wake Forest meeting on Mar. 2, 1905, but the evidence is contradictory.
The Wake-Trinity game - played almost exactly 100 years before the dramatic conclusion of the 2005 regular season -- clearly was the first clash of the future Tobacco Road juggernauts. It was played on the undersized court in the Angier Duke Gym on the Trinity Campus, built in 1898 and still standing today on Duke's East Campus. Crozier's more experienced "Battling Baptists" won that first matchup 24-10 as forward Vanderbilt Couch scored 14 points to single-handedly outscore the entire Trinity team. Wake Forest would win their first six games in the series before Card's "Methodists" finally beat their first rivals in 1909.
The other two future Tobacco Road powers were slow to pick up the sport. Neither North Carolina nor N.C. A&M fielded a team until 1911. Basket ball had been a part of physical education classes in Chapel Hill for several years before a student named Marvin Ritch convinced track and field coach Nat Cartmell to put together a team to represent the university. That same year, a faculty committee in Raleigh suggested that the agricultural school form a team in the new sport and "The Farmers" took the court.
The Tobacco Road rivalries that would become so prominent in the second half of the 20th Century were remarkably slow to form. Wake Forest appeared to be a catalyst - the other three schools may not have played each other, but they all played the Baptists from the beginning. The A&M Farmers played Trinity for the first time in 1912 and a year later took on North Carolina for the first time. But that future rivalry was allowed to lapse and the two state schools wouldn't meet again until after World War I.
North Carolina and Trinity/Duke were even slower to ignite what would become the greatest rivalry in college sports. It's not quite clear why the two neighboring schools refused to meet in basketball until 1920 - 15 years after the game spouted in the state. It's possible that the university in Chapel Hill was upset by Trinity's refusal to field a football team. The Methodist school, alarmed by what it saw as growing professionalism at UNC, had dropped the popular sport in 1895.
Duke and North Carolina finally began to play each other in basketball in the early 1920s, just as North Carolina was beginning to emerge as one of the South's first basketball powers. It really began late in the 1922 season, when the team from Chapel Hill traveled to Atlanta for the inaugural Southern Conference Tournament. The new league, formed earlier that year, included 22 teams, many of which would later break off to form the SEC and the ACC. The league's new tournament - the inspiration for the ACC's famous postseason event - originally was a matter of necessity. There were just too many teams in the league to play a round-robin schedule. UNC -- led by the Carmichael brothers, Billy and Cartwright -- had to win five tournament games to claim the title, beating such diverse schools as Samford, Newberry, Georgia, Alabama and Mercer on successive days.
That 1922 triumph would be just the forerunner for UNC's first era of basketball glory. The 1923 team finished 15-1, losing only to Ole Miss in the Southern Conference championship game. And in 1924, as senior Cartwright Carmichael was joined by the talented Jack Cobb and Carolina moved into its new home, an all-metal structure dubbed the Tin Can, the White Phantoms didn't lose at all - winning 26 straight games and a second Southern Conference championship.
That 26-0 season also set the stage for the first great Tobacco Road controversy. It stems from a 1942 decision by a committee of basketball historians appointed by the Helms Foundation to retroactively award North Carolina the 1924 national championship. That's an award that the UNC faithful cherish and their Tobacco Road rivals reject out of hand.
While the exact merits of UNC's 1924 "national championship" are open to debate, there's no doubt that basketball remained a secondary sport on Tobacco Road. Football was still king on Tobacco Road, especially at Duke, which resumed the sport with a vengeance in 1920, building a massive stadium on the new West Campus and hiring celebrated coach Wallace Wade away from Alabama.
Basketball remained on the fringes of the action. All four Tobacco Road programs enjoyed moments of regional success in the late 1920s and through the Depression years, but nothing that attracted the attention of the North Carolina sporting public - much less the national press. It wasn't until the dying days of the 1930s that a very special character would propel the winter sport into the limelight.

Bones

Horace Albert "Bones" McKinney was larger than life - a curious amalgam of basketball ability and comic presence. Take future Tobacco Road products Meadowlark Lemon and Andy Griffith and put them together and you'd have something like McKinney.
Bones was a 6-6 forward whose weight varied from between 174 and 210 pounds, "depending on how much I was a'sweatin'," he said. His slender frame had nothing to do with his nickname, which was derived from a character he played in a school play.
"I don't remember exactly when people started calling me Bones," he recalled. "But with a name like Horace Albert, the sooner the better, right?"
The gangly big man was the centerpiece of the revolutionary style of basketball that Durham High coach Paul Sykes unleashed upon the unsuspecting fans on Tobacco Road. Taking advantage of a 1937 rule change that eliminated the center jump after every made basket, Sykes installed a running game that showcased the talents of his young stars. McKinney was the key to the new strategy, starting fast breaks with his outlet passes after rebounds or even after made baskets, when he would rip the ball out of the net and push it up the court. In an era when winning scores were usually in the 30- and 40-point range, Durham High routinely topped 50, 60 and even 70 points a game.
Sykes' Durham High greyhounds soon became a sensation. After losing the opening game of the 1938-39 season to the Wake Forest freshmen team, McKinney and company would win 72 straight games over the next three seasons, beating all manner of competition from across the Eastern Seaboard.
"They are a team of basketball professionals masquerading under the name of Durham High," a sports writer from Daytona, Fla., wrote after Durham routed the Florida state championship team 54-14. Later that season, Sykes' team traveled to Glen Falls, N.Y. (just outside Buffalo), where Durham defeated three of the top teams in the East and was proclaimed the nation's best high school team.
Naturally, the four Tobacco Road coaches cast covetous eyes at the Durham High stars. Duke's Eddie Cameron had the advantage of a new arena and a family connection through burly 6-2 forward Bob Gantt, the son of former Duke baseball star Bob "No-hit" Gantt. The Blue Devils figured to get the bulk of Sykes' players.
But an incident one night at Duke Indoor Stadium cost Cameron a chance to land Durham High's biggest star.
As Bones used to tell it, his rejection of hometown Duke was due to a campus policeman. You see, when he was young and unknown, he used to sneak into Duke's games. When the Durham High team became famous, Cameron used to leave tickets for all of the team's players to get in for free.
"But I was a stubborn cuss and I didn't like taking the easy way out," Bones explained. "So I kept sneaking into Duke games."
At least he did until one night when a Duke campus cop caught him trying to squeeze his lanky frame through a narrow window into the men's rest room on the first floor of the Indoor Stadium (the one just beside the door where the students now enter). Instead of merely ejecting or perhaps arresting the young trespasser, the policeman sat down, pulled the teenager onto his lap and delivered a spanking in front of a crowd of jeering college students.
"I was so embarrassed ... that's when I decided I'd never play at Duke," he said.
Instead, Bones traveled 20 miles southeast to Raleigh and helped turn a Pack team that had been 8-11 and 6-9 in the two previous seasons into a 15-7 contender that earned a spot in the Southern Conference championship game. Unfortunately for McKinney, that game was against Duke, which featured his former teammates Gantt and two of the three Loftis brothers. The Blue Devils won their second straight Southern Conference title that night, wrapping up a brilliant 22-2 season with a 45-34 victory.
Bones would have to wait four years for his revenge. He left N.C. State after the 1942 season and entered the service. After World War II, he returned -- not to Raleigh, but to join Ben Carnevale's burgeoning program at North Carolina. There he teamed with John "Hook" Dillon and Jim Jordan on a team that swept 13 of 14 Southern Conference games. Although the White Phantoms (the nickname still being used at that time) were upset by Wake Forest in the Southern Conference Tournament, UNC was selected to represent the league in the eight-year-old NCAA Tournament. McKinney helped Carolina beat NYU and Ohio State to reach the NCAA championship game in New York's Madison Square Garden.
The championship contest turned into a showcase for Oklahoma A&M's Bob Kurland, college basketball's first dominant seven-footer. Kurland started slowly against McKinney's aggressive defense. The White Phantoms were within three points when Ol' Bones fouled out and Kurland was able to take over. The Oklahoma giant scored seven straight points and the Aggies held on for a 43-40 victory over the first Tobacco Road team to reach what would become known as "The Final Four."
After the season, Carnevale left UNC to take a better job offer from the Naval Academy - a pretty good indication of the low status that basketball still had on Tobacco Road.
The UNC coach was not the only one to go. McKinney would pass up his final year of collegiate eligibility to join Red Auerbach's Washington Capitals in the fledgling NBA. He would later return to Tobacco Road for a second career as a coach and later still for a third career as a TV commentator. But when McKinney left Chapel Hill in the spring of 1946 it seemed as if a little of the spark had gone out of the game.
Who could have imagined that Bones was only laying the groundwork for the Messiah of Tobacco Road basketball?

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