Coach Bubas enthusiastically recruited Bob Verga out of St. Roses High School in Belmar, New Jersey. Verga drove onto the Duke campus for the first time in a vintage burgundy Sting Ray convertible. The son of an affluent M.D. in Sea Girt, New Jersey, he was dating a drop-dead gorgeous model from New York City. Sought after by Duke’s prestigious Kappa Alpha fraternity, he pledged without hesitation. Verga declared his major as psychology and studied hard, but somehow he still found time to have fun. He was the campus runner-up in the pool tournament, and he often drove south down Cornwallis in Durham to the renowned Stallion Club. It was almost exclusively a black club featuring such musical luminaries as Ike and Tina Turner, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, the Tams, and Joe Tex. Though a basketball star, Verga was, in some ways, a loner. He didn’t hang with Duke teammates much and on campus, though friendly enough, he was definitely no Mr. Congeniality.
Verga’s play spoke for him. At only 6’0” and 180 lbs. the guy could shoot blindfolded. When Verga was hot he could seemingly score any shot from any angle. As a senior he averaged 26.7 points per game—only J.J. Redick has done better. Players in Verga’s time could not play on varsity in their freshman year. There was also no 3-point shot. Some stats now kept were not tallied during this period. But in only 80 games, Verga averaged 22.0 points per game and about 4.0 rebounds. He averaged 72% in free throws and 49% of his field goals. In comparison, playing 59 additional games, Redick averaged 19.9 points per game, 2.7 rebounds, 91% free throws, 43% field goals. We’re not talking a level playing field here. If Verga had been able to play all four years with the expanded schedules and could have shot 3-pointers, there’s no telling how staggering his stats would be.
Several of Verga’s best shooting games were 41 points against Ohio State, 39 against Wake Forest, and he went 10-13 for 22 points in a win over Syracuse that sent Duke to the 1966 Final Four. If Verga had not contracted strep throat Duke might have beaten Kentucky and then gone on to defeat Texas Western, who won the championship that year. At least it would have been terrific watching them try.
Was Verga somewhat of a maverick? Maybe a little but not in a radical way. Apparently, there were a few occasions Verga questioned coach and missed curfew, but he rarely got caught. There was one New Year’s Eve when most of his teammates got busted for staying out until the wee hours. Verga may have been late too, but he escaped notice. So, while his teammates got benched for the Penn State game on January 3, 1967 Verga played—in fact, he carried the team to a win: 89-84. (Incidentally, this was also the first game C.B. Claiborne, Duke’s first black player, got minutes).
Some believe that Bob Verga is not given enough recognition for his achievements at Duke. Though he was first team All-ACC all three years and was an All-American his junior and senior years, his jersey is not retired. Though he’s included in the Duke Hall of Fame, his name sometimes doesn’t appear on the lists of the best Duke players. But those of us who know the stats and saw him play know that Verga was one of the best ever.
Online, I came across a brief excerpt written by a Duke fan in the ‘60s who loved Bob Verga. The family lived in Carey, North Carolina but never had the chance to see a game in Cameron. However, if they were close enough to Durham, the dad and two sons would sit in the car and listen to the entire game on the radio. If the station faded out, they’d find a hill or somewhere the reception was better. Especially if it was a close game, they’d drive around forever to hear how it ended. Verga and his teammates were just that magnetic.