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Steve Vacendak: Duke Basketball’s Original Mr. Hustle

Steve Vacendak
Steve Vacendak

It was 1962—the final high school game for a Pennsylvania kid named Steve Vacendak. Most said it was his best game in high school.  His academy, Scranton Prep, lost by two points to Allentown Central Catholic in quadruple overtime. Vacendak scored forty points. When the game was over the Catholic players filed silently through the Scranton locker room in a rare show of undisguised respect. Vacendak’s head was bloody but unbowed.

Jeff Mullins, recent star at Duke, called Coach Bubas excitedly from a camp he was working in New York. He said, “Coach, you’ve got to come see this guy. He’s diving for loose balls. He has a jump shot. He can drive. He defends. No matter who he plays against, he’s in your hair…”

So Vic Bubas sent his assistant coach, Bucky Waters, to see Vacendak play. The first time Waters saw him play, 6’1” Vacendak was guarding a 6’6” center. Vacendak just beat the guy into submission. He was that tough.

Later when Waters and Bubas were evaluating recruits, Bubas asked about Vacendak.

Waters just said, “I’d take him.”

“Really?” said Bubas. “Is he a good shooter?”

“I don’t know,” said Waters.

“Is he a good ball handler?”

Waters shook his head. “I’m not real sure.”

“Well, what is it that you see in him?”

“Vic,” Waters said, “he’s too small to play center but he does it. He’s tough as nails.”

In one of Steve Vacendak’s first meetings with Bubas, Vacendak had just finished playing a game on asphalt. He emerged from the contest with bloody, skinned-up elbows and knees.

“Do you always play basketball like that?” Bubas asked him.

“Yes sir, that’s the only way I know how to play this game,” Vacendak replied.

Steve Vacendak, that tough, tenacious guard, became a key player on two of Duke’s three Final Four teams in the mid-1960s. Bubas compared Vacendak’s relentless hustle with the all-out effort fans these days saw in North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. It was that competitive quality coupled with smarts and skill that made the Blue Devil an impact backcourt leader before “point guard” was defined and before assists were recorded. “Though one of yesterday’s heroes,” Bubas states, “Steve could play in any era for any team.”

Vacendak’s highest stats at Duke were a respectable 16.2 ppg and 6.6 rebounds, but that leaves out all the intangible ways he aggressively fired up the team with his constant fight and hustle. At one point, there was disagreement regarding where Vacendak belonged in the All-ACC selections. Coach Bobby Rogers of Clemson exploded:  “As far as I’m concerned, he’s [Vacendak] the best boy in the league. He’s the heart and soul of that Duke team!”

And so he was. Steve Vacendak defined what it means to play to win every  game…to leave every single ounce of energy out on the floor each night.