Duke Basketball: The Rapid Rise and Fall of Three Blue Devils

Thousands of kids dream of bursting onto the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium dressed out in resplendent Blue and White to the screams of the Duke crazies. These kids have bargained with ethereal dream-makers: Could you just arrange it, even if I’m only a walk-on? How about if I show up at the first practice with a huge crowd of hopefuls and my turn-around jump shot from way beyond the arc catches the attention of someone on the Duke staff. I see him whisper to Coach K. Coach inserts me into a scrimmage and this magic day I simply cannot miss. I make the team! I begin averaging over one minute per game!

Well, back in 1974 a 6’0”, 160 lb. point guard named Bruce Bell showed up at Cameron as a walk-on. Maybe he figured since he played hoops at Henry Clay High in Lexington, Kentucky it might win him some points. After all, Kentucky was the land of the basketball bluebloods, right? Well, something about Bell must have stood out to Coach Bill Foster, because he made the team.

Bell only got a few scattered minutes of game time his first couple of years, but he worked hard to impress the coaches. Then near the end of his junior year (1976-77), Tate Armstrong was again injured. Bell suddenly became part of the starting line-up for the final few weeks of the season. He was in heaven. The starters began treating him with a modicum of respect. Duke students began recognizing him in hallways—slapping him on the back. He averaged 24 minutes of game-time during the last seven contests. What would happen during his senior year? Maybe he’d be the regular point guard.

Meanwhile, a hometown boy named John Harrell was averaging over 19 points per game for North Carolina Central. He’d been a star at Hillside High School, and he wasn’t entirely happy at Central. He approached the coaching staff at Duke, they watched him play, and began showing interest. He made the team and red-shirted the ’76-77 season.

Almost simultaneously, a kid named Bob Bender was finishing out the season as a freshman for Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. In fact, this was the famous 1976 national championship team. Of course, Bender was only given a few minutes here and there of playing time, but he’d expected that.

At the first practice, Knight told players to start a particular drill and the freshmen had no clue what was going on. So the smart ones would eventually latch onto an upperclassman and mimic whatever he did. If you made a mistake in practice, one of the assistants would remind you of it. If you did it a second time, Coach Knight would tear into you. Sometimes he would drive a player almost to the breaking point, but he usually knew when to back off. Just the same, it meant constant mental and emotional strain.

The tension grew throughout the season, and at the end Bender went to Knight and told him he needed to transfer. Knight made him come back three or four times, perhaps to see how persistent were Bender’s feelings. He said, “Coach, I know I can become better here. But I worry about making one mistake, and it tightens me up so much I make two or three mistakes. That’s no good for me and I’m certainly not going to help the team much.”

Finally Knight discussed schools where Bender might go and when he mentioned Duke, Knight nodded reluctantly. Later, at Duke, guys would say, “I’ll bet your practices at Indiana were a lot harder than they are at Duke.” And Bender would answer, “Not at all—from a physical standpoint. It was the mental standpoint that took its toll on you.” Still, Bender said that he never learned as much about basketball as he did during that year at Indiana.

In 1977-78, walk-on Bruce Bell’s dreams of again starting did not come true. John (Johnny Gun) Harrell became the starting point guard for a team starring Gene Banks, Kenny Dennard, Mike Gminski, and Jim Spanarkel. Especially after helping Duke win a tough road trip against Maryland with 13 points, he became the resounding favorite for point guard. He was a deft ball handler with great quickness, who knew his role was to play tough defense, minimize turnovers, and disperse the ball primarily to Banks, Gminski, and Spanarkel. Banks later claimed that Harrell did not receive adequate credit for helping Duke reach the NCAA championship game that year. This year featured a great Notre Dame club—a team that ultimately produced eight NBA players. In the semi-final Harrell hit all six of his free throws down the stretch to help Duke defeat Notre Dame 90-86. Digger Phelps claimed that Johnny Gun was as good as Phil Ford and one of the best defensive players he’d ever seen.

Harrell experienced a freak accident on the Duke campus post-season when he stepped into a hole and injured his Achilles. It slowed him down a bit and affected his lateral movement in 1978-79. Foster replaced him with Bob Bender. Harrell would only start three games that year and Bender started 27. It could be that Harrell felt Coach Foster did not give him enough of a chance to start that season. Banks later reported that it led to some of the team’s struggles.

That year, ’78-’79, Bender averaged 27 minutes per game, 6.8 points, 3.3 assists, 1.5 rebounds, no blocks and no steals. In 1979-80, Harrell decided not to play his senior year. He was clearly better than Bender defensively, but maybe he was convinced that the long-term results of his injury would not allow him to play at his highest level. His reputed relationship with Foster wasn’t great at this point either. Harrell was a mathematical genius and he decided to graduate from Duke early and move on.

In 1979-80, in spite of 82 turnovers, Bender handed out 159 assists. That year Duke won the ACC tourney and upset Kentucky in the NCAAs to reach the Elite Eight. There, Duke lost to a very strong Purdue team.

So we started out with Bruce Bell, walk-on, who in ‘76—‘77, started in the final seven games sometime after Tate Armstrong’s injury. Then came ‘Johnny Gun’ Harrell, transfer from North Carolina Central, who almost led Duke to the national championship in 1977-78—losing only to Kentucky. After Harrell’s injury, Bob Bender, the transfer from Indiana, took over a starting role at point. Over a year later, Bender played on a Duke team that reached the Elite Eight, defeating Kentucky.

Three Duke players—each feverishly fighting to get onto the court for the Blue Devils, each successful in his own way. Bell would go on to law school in Kentucky, then joining his dad’s law firm. Harrell became a valued Verizon consultant. Sadly, he passed at age 50 of an aortic aneurysm. Bender served on Mike Krzyewski’s coaching staff for six seasons, coached for several universities, then joined NBA staffs for the Clippers, Hawks, and eventually the Bucks.

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