Read an Excerpt
Sunday morning, December 12, 1982, was a cold, clear morning in Washington, D.C., the kind that pumps energy into you when you step outside the door. I wanted an early start that day because I was working on a long story about the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.
I arrived in the newsroom of The Washington Post just before 10 A.M.—early is a relative term—and started to walk downstairs to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. To do so, I had to walk through the sports department. I had left sports the previous January to pursue my fascination with politics but still wrote occasional pieces for the section.
Len Shapiro, the deputy sports editor, who runs sports on Sundays, stopped me by calling my name. There was an urgency in his voice, especially for a Sunday morning. I walked over to where he was sitting. Pointing to a story on his computer, he said, “Have you heard about this yet?”
I looked at the story. The first sentence was all I had to read: “South Carolina basketball coach Bill Foster was listed in critical but stable condition early this morning after suffering an apparent heart attack last night following the Gamecocks’ upset victory over 15th-ranked Purdue.”
By the time I finished the sentence my legs felt a little bit wobbly. It had been eight months since my father suffered a heart attack and I was familiar with the trauma that accompanied one. My dad had done everything right: He had started feeling sick at work and had gone straight to George Washington University Hospital, only a few blocks away. He actually had the attack in the hospital, which is one of the top heart treatment centers in the country. It had been a mild attack and he had been home within ten days.
Even so, the experience was frightening for everyone in my family. Now, looking over Shapiro’s shoulder, I searched the story for details. How serious was the attack? How much danger was Foster in? I knew from experience that the first twenty-four hours would be critical. I also wondered if he would ever coach again.
The story I was supposed to write that day was quickly forgotten. So was the coffee. Bill Foster had been the basketball coach at Duke when I was a student there. I had been sports editor of the student paper and had watched from close up as he went through the agonizing process of trying to rebuild a fallen program. Duke’s record in Atlantic Coast Conference play during my four years as an undergraduate was 11–49. I saw every loss, many of them torturous. But I also saw improvement as Foster brought players like Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gminski into the program. During my senior year came the epic recruitment of Gene Banks.
And then came 1978. From last place in the ACC in 1977, Duke wrote one of the more remarkable Cinderella stories in college basketball history. With Banks and Kenny Dennard, both freshmen, starting at the forward spots, Duke won the ACC Tournament, won the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, and then shocked Notre Dame in the national semifinals in St. Louis. The dream ended in the final, a 94–88 loss to Kentucky, but that didn’t diminish the achievement.
Duke was America’s Team before the term had become popular. The players were brash, funny, and articulate. Unlike Kentucky’s players, who had to win or be labeled failures, they were kids having fun. They were playing a game. There was none of that “basketball is religion” garbage that has created so much sickness around the Kentucky program. They lost the game but won the country.
To me, less than a year out of Duke, the experience was extraordinary. I had known the players not as a reporter but as fellow students. Foster’s three assistant coaches were all young enough to be friends and Foster himself was the kind of person who was impossible not to like. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor though he was driven and intense about rebuilding. He also had time to talk to a student reporter, win or lose, day or night—often late at night. That alone made him unusual.
My most vivid memory of St. Louis came after the Kentucky game, when the Duke players and coaches came back onto the court to receive their awards. Their arms were linked, their message apparent: you can beat us but you can’t break us. As they walked onto the court, the Duke fans spotted them and immediately began chanting, “We’ll be back, we’ll be back.” It was so loud that it drowned out the celebration of the Kentucky fans. I stood there, tingling, thinking, “Damn right they’ll be back.”
And why not? The only senior was Bruce Bell, who had come to Duke as a walk-on. Bell was a great guy but a limited player. The fact was, the first ten players would be back. This was clearly only the beginning.
Only it didn’t turn out that way. The pressure of expectations, inability to deal with sudden success, changes in the coaching staff, injuries and immaturity kept them from coming back. Duke had excellent teams the next two years: 22–8 in ’79 and 24–9 with another ACC title and a trip to the final eight in ’80. But the magic was gone. It was replaced by frustrations that eventually drove Foster to flee in pursuit of happiness at South Carolina.
Foster’s departure devastated me. I thought it was a mistake for him and for Duke. I was half right. Mike Krzyzewski succeeded Foster and has done a superb job. Back then, though, to the old student reporter, Foster was Duke basketball.
I kept in touch with him after he went to South Carolina and with the assistants—now scattered—as well as a lot of the players. I had talked to Foster a couple of weeks earlier, just before the ’82–’83 season began, and he had been optimistic about his third team at South Carolina.
“We’re actually not bad,” he had said, which from him was rampant praise. “You ought to come down when we play Clemson. Stay at the house if you want, we’ve got loads of room.”
And now, on the night of a major victory, a heart attack. I walked to my desk and dialed Foster’s home number. No answer. I called Lou Goetz next. If anyone was likely to have news about Foster it was Goetz, who had spent fourteen years with him as a player and assistant coach.
“I’m about to drive down there,” said Goetz, who had quit coaching the previous year and moved back to Durham. “I spoke to the hospital and they said he isn’t in any danger. But I want to see him.”
That made sense. In a lot of ways Goetz was the son Foster (who has four daughters) had never had. Goetz said he would call me if he had any news.
I then called Tom Mickle, who had been the sports information director when I was at Duke. He was now promotions director and had been as close to Foster as almost anyone. I needed to talk to people who had been there through the bad times and the good. Catharsis in crisis, I suppose.
Mickle and I talked at length about the inevitability of it all; Foster was so driven, so unable to take things easy, so torn up after every defeat. “My God, Fein,” Mickle said, “it still seems like St. Louis was last week. How can it be almost five years?”
I thought about that for a minute. It was remarkable how vivid my memories of that season were. In my mind’s eye I could still see John Harrell, the quiet point guard, making the two free throws to beat Notre Dame, and Bob Bender’s length-of-the-floor pass to Banks in that same game. I saw Dennard’s backwards dunk against Villanova and Gminski blocking all those shots against Pennsylvania. I saw Lefty Driesell burying his head as Spanarkel went over, under, and through his team for 33 points. I couldn’t see Rhode Island’s three missed shots at the buzzer in the first round of the NCAA Tournament because I had had my head down during that sequence, listening for the crowd’s reaction. I hadn’t been able to look.
Just thinking back gave me chills. “That was a great time,” I said to Mickle. “I wonder if any team ever had as much fun as those guys did that year.”
Mickle, who had been with them every step of the way, laughed. “I doubt it,” he said. “How many teams have ever had Dennard and Banks and Spanarkel and Harold Morrison and Ray Jones …” He stopped but his point was well taken. During that phone call, the idea for this book was born.
Bill Foster recovered. Nine weeks later he was back on the bench, even though Goetz and many of his friends—myself included—tried to convince him to give up coaching. I went down to South Carolina for his return game and talked to him at length about life, about basketball, about coaching, and about 1978.
“When I was in the hospital, almost all the guys called,” Foster said. “Except for Lou and Wenz [Assistant Coach Bob Wenzel]. They both came to see me. When Tink [Banks] called and didn’t reverse the charges I almost had another heart attack I was so shocked.”
Foster’s heart attack, as it turned out, started a shocking run of bad luck for people connected with that team: Wenzel needed radical brain surgery; Dennard and Ray Jones both had testicular cancer; Banks snapped an Achilles tendon in a summer league basketball game. A year before Foster got sick, Mike Gminski had almost been killed by a staph infection and Steve Gray had been in a serious automobile accident. In 1986, Foster got fired from South Carolina and was tainted by an NCAA investigation into the program there.
For a group so young, the bad luck and bad health was remarkable. Sixteen men—twelve players, four coaches—only one of them (Foster) older than thirty-one in 1978 and only one of the twelve players (Bell) even twenty-one. And all this had happened.