Art Heyman leaves lasting legacy at Duke

Art Heyman was a trail blazer of sorts back in his day.

He was a superstar basketball player who committed in the spring of 1959 to play for Frank McGuire and North Carolina but ended up helping rival Duke beat the Tar Heels several times, igniting what might be the greatest rivalry in American sports.

But as integral as Heyman was to giving that rivalry the fuel it still feeds off of, he was more important to Duke basketball in general. On Tuesday, Heyman died at his home in Florida at the age of 71.

Heyman’s legacy is a complicated one. He was a great basketball player but a complex figure. Hot headed with a temper, Heyman almost seemed to look for trouble on the court and sometimes off of it, as well.

His career at Duke is marked by greatness, including performances matched by very few in the hoops-historic conference, but he was known to burn bridges and went through much of his life with a chip on his shoulder.

In fact, Duke long ignored Heyman because his reputation overshadowed his basketball exploits. The school didn’t retire his jersey until 1990, 27 years after his senior season.

“Duke took way too long to honor him, which was a shame and hurt him,” said Barry Jacobs, an ACC historian and columnist who in 2008 authored the book, “Across the Line: Profiles in Basketball Courage: Tales of the First Black Players in the ACC and SEC.”

The Blue Devils had a solid program before Heyman’s arrival in the fall of 1959, but they were clearly the third program on Tobacco Road behind N.C. State and UNC, which had won a national championship in 1957. By the time Heyman left, though, Duke was on the national map, and he would be etched into the fabric of ACC basketball forever.

Vic Bubas took over the Duke program for Heyman’s freshman season, but freshmen weren’t eligible to play in college at the time, so Bubas had to wait a season before coaching Heyman. Two years later in 1963, Heyman led Duke to its first Final Four and was named the National Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. He was later the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick by the New York Knicks. Heyman played eight seasons in the NBA and ABA.

Duke basketball was finally an equal to N.C. State and UNC, and had arrived nationally, and no player was more responsible than Heyman.

“He was an essential player in getting the Vic Bubas era forward gaining national prominence,” said Jacobs, who along with several other Duke basketball historians recently voted Heyman the second best player in Duke history behind Christian Laettner and ahead of Johnny Dawkins.

Heyman averaged 25.1 points and 10.9 rebounds for his career and was a three-time All-American. Heyman is still one of three players to unanimously make three All-ACC first teams, joining N.C. State’s Davis Thompson (1973-75) and UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough (2006-09).

In 1959, Heyman signed a letter of intent to play at UNC as part of McGuire’s successful “underground railroad” that routinely brought kids from the New York area to Chapel Hill to play basketball for the Tar Heels. UNC’s entire starting five on its 1957 unbeaten NCAA title team was from the New York area. So Heyman followed.

But an altercation between McGuire and Heyman’s father prompted the young man to change his letter of intent, which was legal at the time, to Duke.

“He was poised to go to Carolina, but he went to Duke and was the biggest get for Bubas,” Jacobs said, also noting that it further raised the heat in the rivalry, “especially when he and Larry Brown fought at Duke Indoor Stadium.”

UNC visited Duke in 1961 matching top-5 teams in a game that drew one of the largest regular season television audiences in the ACC at the time. The heated atmosphere that carried over from a wild freshman game that saw several ejections was the perfect fuse for the varsity contest.

Heyman got into a scuffle with future NBA coach Doug Moe in the first half, and later, with just seconds left and Duke ahead by five points, UNC’s Brown reacted to an intentional foul by Heyman by punching him in the face.

A brawl ensued as things got totally out of hand. It lasted nearly 10 minutes and required several police officers to restore order. The UNC-Duke rivalry has never been the same since.

Nicknamed “King Arthur” because Bubas once described Heyman’s play on the court to a king in a checkers game, the legacy he leaves Duke basketball with is something modern day fans should embrace. Legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, the all-time leader in victories, sure does.

“Art Heyman was a wonderful player and an idol to many of us who were playing basketball in the 1960s,” Krzyzewski said in a statement released by the school. “Obviously, he has a huge impact on Duke basketball and was truly one of the elite players to ever wear a Blue Devil uniform. When I was fortunate to become the Duke head coach, my admiration for Art blossomed into a great friendship that lasted for more than 30 years.”

Time softened Heyman, but it shouldn’t cloud his accomplishments. His passing should serve as a reminder of the ACC’s amazing, deep culture and the role Heyman played in giving so many people a cherished product they’ve long embraced as their own.