Posted: 2:49 a.m. Friday, Sept. 27, 2013
I would have liked to have been courtside at the old Philadelphia Spectrum for the classic Duke-Kentucky basketball game in 1992. But I was in the next best place that Saturday in March.
I was with a half a dozen other North Carolina writers in a private room of Bravo Pitino – the Lexington, Ky., restaurant owned by Kentucky coach Rick Pitino. We were in town to cover UNC’s quest for the Midwest Regional (the Tar Heels lost in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State) at Rupp Arena. We finished our off-day interviews early and adjourned to Pitino’s bistro to watch Duke take on the hometown team. We had a big-screen TV in our dining room to watch the game and a large glass window overlooking the bar area to watch the hundreds of Wildcat fans who gathered there.
We enjoyed a nice Italian dinner during the game. We also enjoyed watching the fan reaction to the thrilling contest (especially the ending – I swear the packed bar cleared out like a bomb threat had been called in after Laettner’s shot). But next to the game itself, what I remember best is the debate with Caulton Tudor about the greatest ACC player of all time. As we watched Duke and Kentucky duel, Toots tried to make the case that maybe Christian Laettner – and not David Thompson — was the greatest player in ACC history.
As much as I admired Laettner, I could not agree. Neither did Dan Collins. We argued Thompson’s case during the meal. I’m not sure that Tudor actually believed his argument, but he liked to be provocative in his debates. In the end, I thought the case for Thompson was unassailable … but the way the game we were watching ended, I had to salute Tudor for his timing.
Over the years, I’ve engaged of hundreds of similar debates. ACC history is a favorite topic of ACC sports writers. We’re always debating something.
I can also remember one memorable night in 1981 – it must have been the Friday night after the ACC Tournament semifinals – when Dan Collins and I stayed up to dawn with Ron Morris and a couple of other writers in the ACC Media Hospitality Room at the Lathan, Md., Marriott, debating every subject under the sun. The media room in those days was actually Skeeter Francis’ suite – his bathtub filled with cans and bottles of beer on ice.
“Those were some of the best times of my life – sitting around a table with a bunch of writers, tanked and talking, arguing and agreeing,” Collins said. “We might not end up agreeing, but we’d walk away friends.”
Dan – better known as “Country” Collins – has been covering ACC basketball for more than 40 years. He’s been the Wake Forest beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal for the last 20 years and is the author of a popular and sometimes controversial blog (My Take on Wake). Dan is also an accomplished musician, a writer and guitarist of a style of music described to me as “Americana”.
Like the rest of us, Dan has wrestled with the question of ACC basketball greatness. He finally decided to address the issue by devising an objective formula to select and honor the greatest players in conference history. He based his formula on contemporary opinions – awarding points for such accomplishments as ACC player of the year, All-American honors, All-ACC and the like. He’s not concerned with stats and he refuses to inject his own opinions into the mix.
The result is revealed in his recent book: The ACC Basketball Hall of Fame, by Blair Publishing that is now on the market for $26.95.
Collins ends up with 79 players who qualify for greatness under his formula. He provides the point totals for his candidates, but doesn’t attempt to rank them. The best parts of the book – by far – are the mini-biographies of the 79 players who make the cut. Collins offers amusing and fresh looks at the ACC’s greatest players
He includes many stories I had heard before – but deserve retelling – Tom McMillen’s recruitment … Billy Cunningham attacking the effigy of Dean Smith … why Art Heyman switched from UNC to Duke … how Dean Smith passed up Bobby Hurley … how Bob Verga used to party at the Stallion Club.
But Collins also includes plenty of stories I had not heard before.
I loved reading how Bryant Stith was inspired by a dismissive writer for the Virginia student paper … about Bobby Cremins’ quest to find Tom Owens out in Oregon … about Mike Brey talking about his sick feeling when he saw Joe Smith and Joey Beard on the same all-star team and realized that Duke had recruited the wrong forward … about the role Roy Williams played in Al Wood’s great night against Virginia in the 1981 NCAA semifinals.
Dan’s book offers a wonderfully entertaining overview of ACC basketball history – from Dickie Hemric to Tyler Zeller.
But does it really identify the greatest players in ACC history … and does it offer a clue as to how the top players should rank?
APPLYING THE BILL JAMES METHOD
Dan writes that he was inspired by Bill James, the father of baseball’s sabermetrics, and his Politics of Glory – a scathing indictment of how baseball has screwed up its Hall of Fame – basically by a failure to define the criteria for induction.
James does value contemporary opinion over hindsight. Over time, we do tend to inflate some athletes and forget about others. But James also believes that such evaluations should include statistical analysis and some consideration for the impact an athlete has on his team’s success.
Now, James would argue that none of those factors is overriding – contemporary opinion, while important, can be wrong – we all know how Ted Williams twice lost the MVP in Triple Crown seasons (if you think those votes are bad, check out Mickey Cochrane over Lou Gehrig in 1934); statistics can be misleading (unless subjected to very sophisticated analysis); and team success (or failure) can be warped by the strength or weakness of a player’s teammates.
Just a note – I would argue that the latter factor is even more important in basketball than baseball (or football). Even the greatest player can’t do it alone, but he can have more individual impact on the hardwood than the diamond or gridiron.
What Collins’ list offers is a fine summary of contemporary opinion. As a result, he gets the following top 10 ACC players (based on his point system):
Mike Gminski, John Roche, Larry Miller and Sam Perkins just miss the top 10 on Dan’s list. Charlie Scott and Michael Jordan are tied for 15th place, just ahead of Shane Battier, Antawn Jamison and Bob Verga.
Dan’s numbers obviously favor four-year players over three-year players … and naturally over two-year players or one-year players. For instance, Hansbrough gets 750 of his 3,025 points from his freshman campaign. Well, David Thompson didn’t have a freshman campaign – he had to play freshman basketball in that era. Fred Schaus, who coached Jerry West at West Virginia and with the Lakers, saw Thompson as a freshman and said the State star was a greater player as a freshman than West was as a senior. Schaus said that Thompson was one of the 10 best players in the country – pro or college.
How many points in Dan’s system would Thompson have accumulated if he had played varsity basketball as a freshman?
With that in mind, I took another look at the top 10 point-getters on Dan’s list. If you rank then by points per year, you get:
I’m not sure that’s a better list – Laettner, Duncan and Ford deserve to be in the top 10, but at least it shows Thompson’s clear superiority.
Of course, neither list is fair – Dan goes out of his way NOT to rank the 79 players on his list. His publisher wanted to present the players by their point total, but Dan argued for a chronological ordering of his 79 “Hall of Famers”
“I wanted to make it about the stories and not the rankings,” he said. “Those stories need to be recovered.”
Indeed, even though Hansbrough ends up with 3,025 points – to Thompson’s 2,950 – Collins writes that the former Wolfpack superstar is – according to almost every informed opinion (including his own) – the greatest player in ACC history.
He stands by his point system, but admits, “it’s a good formula for getting at the best players … it’s not as good measuring the best of the best.”
THE BEST OF THE BEST
While Collins’ book may not offer a real ranking of the ACC’s top players, the whole point of Dan’s enterprise is to take the debate to its logical conclusion and rank the greatest players. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown does not distinguish between Babe Ruth or Willie Mays at one end and Andre Dawkins or George “Highpockets” Kelly at the other. But no one in his right mind would rank marginal Hall of Famers such as Dawson or Kelly with the true giants such as Ruth or Mays.
And Collins may not differentiate between Tim Duncan and Tyler Zeller, but there still quite a gap between them. Collins’ knows that.
“It’s the first word, not the last word,” he said. “I hope readers will use it as a starting point. Let’s argue about it!”
I can recall another interesting debate with my peers.
I was seated courtside at the Georgia Dome in 2009, watching the ACC Tournament with Barry Jacobs and John Prouty – two extremely well-informed ACC basketball historians. We were watching Jon Scheyer lead Duke to the ’09 ACC championship – he would win the Case Award as the Tournament MVP by a wide margin – when the question occurred to me: Has there ever been an ACC player so accomplished as Scheyer who had never made ANY All-ACC team?
At that point, Scheyer was completing his junior year with 1350 points, 250 assists, 150 steals and a career 38 percent average from the 3-point line. He was coming off a season in which he averaged 14.9 points and 2.8 assists for one of the league’s top teams.
Yet, Scheyer had never made even third-team All-ACC?
Talking about Scheyer with my compatriots, we started to debate the greatest players in league history to be dissed by the All-ACC voters. We even picked an all-time all-star team of the greatest players who never made first-team All-ACC.
I can’t remember the total makeup of the team, but it included Maryland’s Buck Williams (who averaged 15.5 points and led the ACC in rebounding – ahead of Ralph Sampson – in 1981); N.C. State’s Chris Corchiani (who has the best assist-per-game average in NCAA history); Ed Cota (who quarterbacked UNC to three Final Fours) and Duke’s Steve Vacendak (for the remarkable feat of winning the ACC MVP award as a second-team All-ACC pick).
I’ve made the point before – All-ACC voters are mesmerized by scoring. How else can you explain Harrison Barnes beating out teammate Kendall Marshall for the last first-team slot in 2012 – with Marshall completing the most impressive play-making season in ACC history (his 351 assists were 48 more than the previous ACC record, set 24 years earlier).
The truth is that ACC voters have always undervalued point guards, even though it’s the single most important position in college basketball. It’s not just Marshall, Cota and Corchiani – Craig Neal, who set that ACC assist record in 1988 that would stand until Marshall’s big season in 2012, did not even make second team (but Sam Ivy and Mel Kennedy did?). Steve Blake, who quarterbacked Maryland to the Final Four in 2001 and to the national title in 2002 (leading the ACC in assists both teams) finally sneaked on the third-All-ACC team as a junior and finally make first team as a senior in 2003. Even Bobby Hurley, despite quarterbacking Final Four teams in his first three years, didn’t make first-team All-ACC until his senior year in 1993 (when coincidentally, he upped his scoring average to 17.0 ppg).
. My point is that as an All-ACC voter for more than 40 years, I’m a bit uncomfortable with basing too much on such an erratic electorate.
Don’t get me started on the John Roche vs. Charlie Scott votes in the late 1960s … votes that were seriously warped by racial prejudice. Or the tie in the voting for ACC MVP in 2001 – between a Joe Forte who slumped badly the last three weeks of the season and a Shane Battier who was leading Duke to the NCAA title (to be fair, Battier’s postseason heroics came after the MVP vote).
This all goes back to the Ted Williams losing the MVP award in his triple crown seasons of 1942 and 1947 – while contemporary opinion is very valuable, it isn’t infallible. I’m not going to accept that John Roche was a greater player than Charlie Scott because racial prejudice so clearly played a part in the All-ACC and MVP voting in 1969 and 1970. I’m not going to accept that Tyler Hansbrough was a more significant ACC player than David Thompson.
I don’t mean to diminish Hansbrough, who was one of the most productive players the ACC has ever seen. I would make the case that he had the greatest freshman season in league history. He’s the ACC’s all-time leading scorer and he helped UNC to two Final Fours and a national championship (although teammate Ty Lawson was the ACC MVP in UNC’s title season).
I’m not sure where Hansbrough would rank in my personal pantheon. He has to be in the top 10. Top 5 … maybe.
That’s the beauty of this debate. We all have our opinions. I’m not saying they are all equally valid. I’ve seen a lot more ACC basketball that most of you have. Dan pointed out to me that his 27-year-old son was born after Jordan finished his playing career … a 40-year-old would not remember Thompson. My memory goes back to Chappell and Heyman and Doug Moe. I remember Joe Speaks and York Larese.
My experience doesn’t mean I’m right – I have my prejudices, just like everybody else.
I think Len Bias was a spectacular talent, but I don’t think he was one of the top 10 players in league history. I know that Ralph Sampson was a three-time national player of the year (something that Thompson didn’t do), but I also think he was a choking dog that I wouldn’t want on my team – give me Duncan, Chappell or Hansbrough in the middle instead.
I think that Jason Williams would have been a top 10 ACC player if he had played one more year. But you can say that about a bunch of guys – Michael Jordan for one. Dennis Scott for another. Maybe James Worthy. If Kenny Anderson played even three years, he’d be in the greatest point guard debate.
I’m glad that Dan does sample contemporary opinion. It allows him to honor the three players whose reputations have most suffered over time — Len Chappell (the guy averaged 25 points and 14 rebounds for his career … and led Wake to two ACC titles and its only Final Four), Sam Perkins (he’s the Lou Gehrig of ACC basketball — overshadowed, first by James Worthy, then by Michael Jordan) and Danny Ferry (nobody remembers the breadth of his game). Add Tommy Burleson to that list – the fact that he lost out to Len Elmore in the 1974 All-ACC vote was a crime – Burleson ALWAYS kicked Elmore’s butt. Maybe Bob Verga – I still can’t understand why Mullins’ jersey is hanging from the Cameron rafters, but not Verga’s. How did Verga not make the ACC’s 50-man 50th year anniversary team in 2003?
There are no definitive answers in such debates … only opinions.
Dan Collins’ new book doesn’t close the debate either. He merely offers opinions too – substituting the opinions of contemporarily all-star voters for his own.
It certainly doesn’t settle anything … but it is a useful addition to the debate.
And for old-timers such as Dan and me, it’s all about the debate. Bring your best argument and join us for a cold one.
by Al Featherston