COLUMBIA — Good luck, Duke athletics officials warned me, in finding one-time Duke basketball great Art Heyman. Better luck, they said, in dealing with him.
Undaunted, I headed to New York during the summer of 1987 not only having found an ever-elusive Heyman by telephone, but also received his blessing to spend a few days getting to know him. Heyman said he would greet me at the airport and had arranged my hotel.
Good to his word, Heyman was waiting when I arrived at LaGuardia Airport and he proceeded to escort me to my hotel on Long Island. He told me to check in at the front desk while he waited inside his car, then we would head to Manhattan for dining.
The front-desk clerk barely looked up from her perch behind a glass wall and was rather non-plussed in asking: How many hours do you need to use the room?
As I quickly scurried out of the house of ill repute, Hyman waited, and I could hear his uproarious laughter clear through the car windows.
That was the Art Heyman I grew to both curse and love that weekend and over the next decade as we developed as close a friendship as you could with a man who somehow managed to be caustic and kind through all 71 years of his life.
At that time, I was working on a Heyman profile to be included in my 1988 book, ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History.
Many years later, while working a different story in New York, I again hunted down Hyman upon learning he was managing a bar on Manhattans Upper East Side.
I found the bar, only to learn Heyman had not managed the place for a couple of months.
And who are you? the bartender asked.
An old friend of Arts from my days in North Carolina, I responded.
You mean he has a friend?
I understood. Heyman was not an easy man to get along with, as he proved during four turbulent years as a Duke undergraduate, through a stormy eight-year career in pro basketball and beyond in what like a never-ending shifting of jobs and careers mostly in the northeast.
I always was willing to overlook his self-absorbed nature and his inability to carry on a simple conversation. For Heyman not only was one of the greatest players in ACC basketball history but also one of its greatest characters.
Heymans on-court play put him in the same category with the likes of David Thompson, Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan and Christian Laettner. Away from the game, he could have been the most valuable player of the all-time Great Characters team, right there with Lou Bello, Bones McKinney and Kenny Dennard.
Heymans late decision in the summer of 1959 to derail Frank McGuires underground railroad and attend Duke instead of North Carolina served as the early spark to what eventually became the fiercest rivalry in college athletics. His decision made Duke and UNC despise each other and led to an on-court brawl during Heymans freshman and sophomore seasons.
At halftime of the latter game, a UNC male cheerleader patted Heyman on the back as he headed to the locker room. Heyman swung at the cheerleader, and the player was charged with assault. The case was dismissed as a crowd of 300 jammed a Durham courtroom to watch.
That same school year, Heyman was arrested and jailed in Myrtle Beach, charged with transporting an underage female across state lines. Duke coach Vic Bubas pulled some strings to get the charges dropped, but reporting of the case revealed everything you needed to know about Heyman.
He registered at a Myrtle Beach hotel under the names of Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Robertson.
Heymans Duke teammates took to calling him The Pest. Coaches had to coax him out of consistently pump faking a defender into the air during practice, then jamming his elbow into that teammates jaw. That apparently was Heymans idea of fun, that and grabbing a university bus and driving it through campus.
I wasnt a Boy Scout, Heyman told me during the New York interview. But I never drank, never smoked and always took care of myself. I went down there as a kid and came out as a man. You had to be a man to survive all the crap I went through there.
Prior to Heymans junior season, he was convicted of assaulting a Duke student and fined $25 and costs of court.
Heyman essentially was the Adam Pacman Jones of his day. He was the ACCs first bad boy. He rubbed UNC fans, the ACC office and even Dukes administration the wrong way. As a result, he never gained favor with Duke officials, and despite his many accomplishments not the least of which was a 1963 national player of the year standing his No. 25 jersey was not retired until 1990.
Heyman was miffed over the slight.
I dont understand those people, Heyman told me. Who gave that school more publicity, good or bad, than me? It takes a lot of different people. To have a Bloody Mary, you need salt and pepper.
I always believed, in a strange way, Heymans bad behavior was his way of forever wanting to be loved. However difficult at times, he wanted you to like him. Beneath his veneer of bombast, I often found a man with a big heart.
One day he called and requested a meeting for lunch at a Durham restaurant. Frankly, I was reluctant. Those meetings usually turned into Heyman recounting his glory days at Duke.
This time, he presented me his Duke warm-up jacket from the 1962-63 season, complete with HEYMAN stitched across the back. I am not one for collecting memorabilia. But that is one piece I will treasure until the day I pass it to my son, and tell him of the legend of Art Heyman, one of the great players and great characters in ACC basketball history.
Morris, a sports columnist for The (Columbia) State, is the author of the 1988 book ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History.