One pitiful Duke basketball season worth remembering

Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

By gaining a sense of what it was like to survive a Duke basketball trainwreck 25 years ago, the latest generation of fans can gain a new sense of appreciation for an aging legend and his consistent winning ways.

One summer night, an hour or so past curfew at Duke Basketball Camp in 1992, then-assistant coach Pete Gaudet spotted me goofing off in the halls of the dorm that my buddy and I were lodging in for the week. The man we had mocked for his visible grumpiness then proceeded to chase me back to my room, scold both of us, and threaten to send us home.

Should I have been doing what I was doing? Absolutely, I should have, for I was 11 years old; I’d argue that those of you who at that age didn’t regularly practice the art of testing old men’s patience — in my eyes, Gaudet was an elderly 50-year-old at the time — missed out on one of the great joys of childhood.

Now, skip ahead to the 1994-95 Duke basketball season. Needless to say, then as an insufferable, newly minted teenager who hadn’t let go of the above memory, I had no problem placing full blame on Gaudet for turning a fairly talented bunch into a 13-18 unmitigated disaster.

The then-former successor to Mike Krzyzewski at Army (Gaudet had to give up that gig in 1982 after leading the Black Knights to a combined 12 wins in two seasons and then joined Krzyzewski’s staff in Durham) assumed the role of interim Duke basketball head coach when his boss tapped out after landing in the hospital due to exhaustion.

The 1994-95 Blue Devils were 9-3 when Gaudet took the reigns. What came next, as old fogeys like me now surely recall, were more Duke basketball utter embarrassments than I had planned to experience in my entire lifetime.

Duke could afford a mass exodus. light. Hot

There was one telling instance in Cameron Indoor Stadium when Steve Wojciechowski was dribbling out the clock before trying to direct the Blue Devils’ final play of the half while Gaudet yelled from the bench for his attention. When the then-freshman point guard turned to see what his pestering instructor wanted, the defender took advantage of the inept, mid-action, player-coach chitchat by swiping the ball, thereby closing out the half with an easy fastbreak bucket on the other end.

There was one telling comeback win by Virginia when Duke somehow lacked enough leadership from the head honcho to prevent the squandering of a 40-19 halftime lead on its own home floor (remarkably, the Blue Devils did not lose to the Cavaliers in Durham again for another 23 years after that).

There was one telling humiliation when the squad fell — often literally — by a score of 100-77 on the road against eventual national champ UCLA while giving up 37 points and 13 rebounds to eventual All-American Ed O’Bannon. The Blue Devils had remained within striking distance that day until midway through the second half (as was often the case against opponents that season) when Gaudet failed to counter a Bruins zone that instantly led to their 29-5 run.

And run is what UCLA did.

No lie, I still sometimes suffer brief nightmares of O’Bannon, his younger brother Charles, Tyus Edney, and Toby Bailey turning the Blue Devils into the subjects of a comedy routine. To this day, I’ve never seen a group laugh and grin throughout a 10-minute stretch as joyfully as those Bruins did that day — mostly at the expense of a manhandled Wojo and a defeatist Gaudet — as they basically put on a dunk contest amongst themselves.

Heck, even what was pretty much the lone bright moment from the season came during an eventual L at the hands of a hated foe:

Let’s just say, as an eighth-grader on Tobacco Road back then, all the season-long wisecracks I had to endure at school from rival North Carolina fans didn’t sit well with me. In fact, I’d argue no Duke basketball enthusiast was more livid at the time.

See, though I was a Dukie by birth (thanks to my Duke grad dad), I didn’t trade in my G.I. Joe’s for Danny Ferry’s until the 1987-88 season at age six. Due to the timing of my Duke basketball beginnings, I’m eternally as spoiled as they come.

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Prior to that 1994-95 debacle, after having watched the Blue Devils reach the final weekend of the Big Dance in each of the first five seasons I paid attention — not to mention the two NCAA Tournament titles during that span and then the National Championship Game appearance in 1994 — I had basically come to the conclusion that all Duke basketball teams to come should at the very least reach the Final Four.

That’s not too much to ask, right?

Oh, how quickly the good times can fade into forgettable times. Oh, how quickly a harsh dose of reality can set in. And on that note, we’ve reached the moral of this story, aka, the reason that most forgettable Duke basketball campaign is actually forever worth remembering.

Remember, success is fragile. Remember, even the most infuriating moments this century — Mercer and Lehigh obviously come to mind — really do pale in comparison to sitting through a season with next to no March Madness hope at all running through one’s Duke-blue veins.

Remember, the primary culprit for the misery was the makeshift head coach; after all, Cherokee Parks, Jeff Capel, Trajan Langdon, Ricky Price, Chris Collins, Erik Meek, Greg Newton, Kenny Blakeney, and Wojo hardly constitute a bunch of scrubs (well, maybe one or two of those names somewhat fit that description, but not so many to explain 18 defeats).

On that note, remember, Coach K — who is now 73 years old and just completed his 40th season at Duke — won’t be around forever.

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Most of all, though, whenever any future teams are in the midst of dropping a couple of games in a row — as the 2019-20 Blue Devils did before bouncing back to finish 25-6 overall while looking like ACC and NCAA title contenders had the postseason taken place — just remember to never whine as much as I did in 1995.

I can assure you it won’t be that bad — at least that’s my hope.

So remember to put into perspective any shortcomings from this Duke basketball era of early departures. Do so by remembering what all the one-and-done Blue Devils under Coach K never do: 13-18.

Or do so by asking UNC supporters to discuss their thoughts on the 2019-20 Tar Heels (14-19).

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And if you think I was too harsh toward Gaudet in this article, just remember that at my core I’m still just that insufferable, spoiled, grudge-holding child who on that summer night in 1992 couldn’t sleep as I feared the thought of having to explain to my parents why I wasted their money by getting kicked out of Duke Basketball Camp.

As it turns out, I wisely waited a few years to come clean to my dad about that “Gaudet encounter.” I figured the right time to do so was just as soon as we heard Gaudet had vacated his job on the Duke basketball staff in the summer of 1995 and accepted the pity-filled gift of a teaching job at the university.

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By then, of course, I was confident my family’s Duke-loving, Gaudet-blaming patriarch wouldn’t punish me for telling him the story of my obnoxious behavior toward the man who wound up proving to me that Blue Devils aren’t actually invincible to below-.500 records.

While the Gaudet days served as an important lesson, experiencing those days as a greedy fan was a tough pill to swallow — one I don’t need to swallow again.

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