Art Heyman and Larry Brown were two kids from Long Island, both gifted basketball players, both headed to play for Frank McGuire at North Carolina in the late 1950s.
Then at the last moment Heyman went to Duke instead, and the history of ACC basketball changed forever.
Heyman died Monday in Florida. He was 71. The cause of death was not available.
Brown woke up Tuesday and heard the news. It hit him hard, he said. It had been a long time since he and Heyman had spoken. A longer time, 51 years, since their fight at Duke Indoor Stadium instigated a melee and maybe ignited what became college basketball’s greatest rivalry.
Since news of Heyman’s death spread late Monday night, people have wanted to talk about that fight, which broke out at the end of North Carolina’s game at Duke in February 1961. A grainy black-and-white clip of the brawl lives on YouTube. But really it was nothing new, Brown said Tuesday.
“I had fights with him long before that,” said Brown, a former Tar Heels guard who is now coach at Southern Methodist. “We’d fight on the playground.”
They grew up together. Heyman lived in Oceanside, N.Y., and Brown in Long Beach. They competed in the playground across the street from the bakery that Brown’s grandfather owned.
There were fights then, too. But also mutual respect. Heyman and Brown decided to play together at North Carolina.
“I remember when we both committed to North Carolina, it was at a restaurant called Lenny’s on Long Island, in Long Beach,” Brown said. “And we committed to go to North Carolina, but his stepdad had an issue (and) he went with coach (Vic) Bubas.”
Heyman was set to go to North Carolina until his stepfather became angry with McGuire. The disagreement sent Heyman, considered the best prospect in his class, to play for the Blue Devils. That argument changed the course of college basketball history and led to Duke’s national ascent.
Ultimate will to win
Freshmen were ineligible in those days, of course, but Heyman wasted no time asserting himself once he could play on the varsity. He averaged 25.2 points per game as a sophomore during the 1960-61 season – the first of three consecutive in which Heyman earned All-America honors.
One of 13 players whose jersey has been retired at Duke, Heyman averaged 25.1 points and 10.9 rebounds in his three varsity seasons. He was a three-time All-ACC selection and in 1963 led Duke to its first Final Four. The Blue Devils didn’t win, but he still earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
Heyman was known as much for his talent as he was his intensity. Before one varsity game, former teammate Jeff Mullins remembers, Heyman was so energized and enthusiastic that he stuck his hand into the Blue Devils’ huddle and broke Bubas’ thumb.
“You really had to be careful putting your hands into the huddle,” Mullins said. “… He was just so fired up and so energetic at the time that coach’s thumb got in the way.”
Mullins earned All-America and All-ACC honors during his years at Duke, too, and he became an NBA All-Star. All these years later, though, he remembers Heyman as one of the few players who wanted to win so badly it made him physically ill.
“Art was the first player, and one of the few that I ever played with, that was so into the game that before the game he actually had an upset stomach,” Mullins said. “He was that driven, and I’d never seen that before.”
Where that drive came from, though, Mullins couldn’t articulate. Neither could Bucky Waters, who coached Heyman on Duke’s freshman team during the 1959-60 season.
Waters was 23 then, barely removed from his playing days at N.C. State when Bubas, the Wolfpack’s former coach, hired him. One of Waters’ earliest responsibilities, he said, was to harness Heyman’s energy and teach him to use it for good.
“Vic Bubas says to me, all right, now this is a tough New York guy,” Waters said. “Are you a tough enough Jersey guy to handle this? … (Heyman was) going to be a great player. But he also had an edge – his aggressiveness. He was a beast on the court. And so we had to put all that together without putting out the fire.”
That fire erupted in a brawl against the North Carolina freshman team and again in the more publicized, memorable one in 1961. That latter started when Brown drove the basket, and Heyman aggressively fouled him.
The benches cleared and spectators poured onto the court. Heyman escaped and found himself near midcourt.
“But Art, when he got to halfcourt and realized he was out of the pack, he turned around and ran right back in,” said Mullins, then a freshman who watched from his seat about 10 rows up. “That’s when the real fight started. It was a donnybrook from there.”
The fight didn’t end the relationship between Brown and Heyman. They continued to speak.
They were never what one might describe as friends, though they admired each other, Brown said, for the role they played in their rivalry. They would have been roommates had Heyman followed his original path to North Carolina.
“He was as good of an offensive player as I think the ACC has ever seen,” Brown said. “He was a little nutty, but I think that’s what made him good.”
He battled Duke, too
That hard edge is what also might have made Heyman sort of a recluse. Mullins and Waters spoke of the difficulty they had in keeping in touch with him over the years.
Duke was slow to retire his jersey and didn’t hang it in the rafters until 1990. In 1996, Heyman announced a public divorce from Duke.
In a story The News & Observer published on June 1, 1996, Heyman said he planned to sever all ties with Duke, auction off all his Blue Devils memorabilia and move back to New York.
He spoke then, among other things, of his disappointment at having to wait so long for his jersey to be retired.
“I have no feeling for Duke,” Heyman said then. “There’s no loyalty. Take the plaques and trophies. Maybe other people would like them better. I don’t want it.”
Heyman and his wife moved back to New York, where he owned at least three restaurants at various points. Over the years, his anger toward his alma mater apparently cooled.
A Duke spokesman said Tuesday that Heyman, though not a regular visitor to campus, had returned in recent years.
Waters said he had last seen Heyman at a reunion for the 1963 team, which won an ACC championship and lost to Loyola of Chicago in the national semifinals.
“We had a big reunion,” Waters said. “And he was affable – he couldn’t have been friendlier, more wide open.”
Waters said he tried to make Heyman feel more welcome, tried to bring him back into the Duke community.
“When you’re that close to a person, you see the halo and you see the freckles,” Waters said. “I wish I would have said more, done more, to just let him know how important he was to our program, the university, my life. But it was hard to do that for him. He’d brush you off.”
After his college career ended, Heyman became the first Duke player selected first in the NBA draft. The New York Knicks selected him and he played eight seasons in the NBA and ABA, where he and Brown reunited on the court again.
Heyman was still “different” then, as Brown put it, and still had that edge.
But, Brown said, “I think Artie changed a lot. Things didn’t seem to go the way we all expected it for him. I don’t know if he was bitter or what. The way I look at it, there weren’t many players that were better than him in college and what he achieved was pretty remarkable.”
“I feel bad,” he said. “I hadn’t seen him in a while. And when you hear things like this, you think, I wish I would have had an opportunity just to visit.”