Jacobs: Nearing 80, Bucky Waters’ legacy is bigger than coaching

Duke head coach Bucky Waters gives instructions to his players in a huddle at the bench during a 1972 ACC Basketball Tournament game.
Duke head coach Bucky Waters gives instructions to his players in a huddle at the bench during a 1972 ACC Basketball Tournament game. 1972 News & Observer archive photo

He came south from New Jersey in 1954, after the ACC’s first season, to play basketball under Everett Case at N.C. State. As one of Vic Bubas’ assistants, he helped guide Duke to prosperity in the 1960s. At age 29, as the youngest head coach in college basketball, he inherited the task of leading West Virginia University’s first black varsity players. Eight years later, despite posting winning records at two tradition-rich schools, he was gone forever from the bench.

Raymond Chevalier “Bucky” Waters, who turns 80 this week, was the right man at the right time for the Mountaineers, leading a near-seamless transition to racial integration starting in 1965-66. “The times were changing in a lot of ways – socially and athletically,” says Jim Lewis, one of those player-pioneers. “I thought Bucky was very fair with everybody. I really do.”

But when Waters arrived at Duke for the 1969-70 season as Bubas’ hand-picked successor, he was the wrong man for the times, an old-school disciplinarian caught in the clash of personal and political values that roiled college campuses while the Vietnam War raged. In that regard, he somewhat mimicked his no-nonsense coach at Collingswood High School, World War II naval officer Jack McCloskey, later Wake Forest’s head coach.

Lewis spent 45 years in coaching, beginning when he followed Waters to Durham in 1971-72 as the ACC’s second African-American assistant coach after Maryland’s George Raveling. Of the tensions with players at Duke, he recalls, “Unfortunately, I think it just snowballed.” Five players transferred during a two-year period, unusual roster disruption for that era, sparking a “Fire Bucky” movement among students.

“I didn’t change much,” Waters concedes. “Maybe didn’t keep step with the culture, with the kids.”

Still, his four Blue Devil squads posted a 63-45 record, won 20 games in 1971, twice went to the NIT, and finished in the top half of the ACC every year. “He was a good coach,” says Chris Redding, the scoring leader on the 1973 Duke squad. “I enjoyed playing for him. He was always straight and honest with me. You knew what you had to do with him.”

A wealth of quips

That surety included adherence to strict rules for everything from hair length to on-court comportment during practice. “That’s the way I was wired,” says Waters, who admittedly “looked like a drill sergeant.” This while young people nationwide and at Duke mounted broad challenges to convention, demanding equal rights for blacks and women, an end to warfare in Southeast Asia, and greater involvement in decision-making. Males manifested unwillingness to conform by growing Afros, facial hair and long locks.

Waters, also at odds with the school’s athletic director, resigned shortly before the 1974 season. But he never left Duke, advancing to vice chancellor for alumni and development at Duke Medical Center before his 2004 retirement. Even as he raised money for the hospital, Waters spent nearly 40 years as a basketball analyst on college telecasts. “I have just been blessed with an incredible run,” he says.

He still regularly attends games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, seated on press row opposite the home bench, a perch from which he jokingly insists he sends plays to coach Mike Krzyzewski via “Polish hand signals.”

Waters has a wealth of ready basketball quips and a rich repertoire of anecdotes, many from the ACC’s earlier years. He vividly recalls Case arriving at his home on a recruiting visit in a burgundy Cadillac with big tail fins. Once enrolled at N.C. State, he found Case to be more entrepreneur than game strategist. “He surrounded himself with really good people and didn’t micromanage them. There was a love for him, and he was creative,” says Waters, joined in the coaching ranks by Case disciples Bubas, Norman Sloan, Mel Thompson and Les Robinson, among others.

Key recruits

The 6-2 guard appeared in only 28 games in three varsity seasons for the Wolfpack. After a year as a graduate student at Appalachian State – while doubling as head basketball coach and athletic director at Ashe Central High School in Jefferson – Waters became freshman coach under Bubas, newly hired at Duke in 1959-60.

Among Waters’ charges that first year was prized recruit Art Heyman. The tough 6-5 New Yorker remains Duke’s career leader in scoring (25.1 points per game), compiled before the advent of the 3-point field goal.

The Blue Imps were playing North Carolina in Siler City when a brawl broke out over repeated anti-Semitic remarks directed at Heyman by the Tar Babies (their official nickname). Waters insists the slurs were premeditated; Heyman, a late Duke convert, had reneged on a commitment to UNC and head coach Frank McGuire. During the melee, an infuriated Waters conspicuously grabbed and manhandled Ken Rosemond, his coaching counterpart.

Waters kept his job and later helped recruit key players on Duke’s Final Four teams of 1963, 1964 and 1966. He also was instrumental in landing C.B. Claiborne, a gifted student and Duke’s first African-American player.

West Virginia University began integrating in 1954, but as in the ACC, overt racism endured. The autumn that Waters arrived on campus, one fraternity pointedly continued flying the Confederate flag on football game days in defiance of pleas from the athletic department, which believed the practice hurt recruitment of black players.

Integrating West Virginia

Mostly, though, having five African-Americans on the squad went smoothly – at home. “Morgantown was fine. Bucky was cool,” says Lewis. But he recalls road trips offered “a lot of problems,” especially a visit to the University of Richmond that was “a nightmare.”

Waters took over in the wake of West Virginia’s first losing season in 21 years. Behind sophomore guard Ron “Fritz” Williams, an eventual pro, the team compiled a 19-9 record, including victories over North Carolina and top-ranked Duke. In 1967, WVU again finished 19-9, won the Southern Conference tournament, the nation’s oldest, and reached the NCAAs. There was yet another 19-9 mark in 1968.

Before Waters left, renewed success propelled long-delayed construction of a new arena. “Bucky Waters regretted not having the opportunity to coach in the Coliseum, but he left an enduring legacy of overseeing the smooth racial integration of WVU basketball,” wrote Ronald L. Lewis in his 2013 book, “Aspiring to Greatness, West Virginia University Since World War II.”

That legacy proudly includes the quiet deflection of a potentially wounding act of racial exclusion. According to tradition, when the Mountaineers won a Southern Conference title, they celebrated with a free weekend at the Greenbrier Inn in White Sulphur Springs. “It’s like something in the Wizard of Oz,” Waters says of the resort. “Absolutely beautiful. Stunning, white.”

But in February, as West Virginia advanced to the ’67 Southern championship, the coach was warned to dampen expectations his team and its black players would enjoy a trip to the grandiose hotel. “If we win that sucker, I’m bringing them. My tab,” Waters says he insisted. He laughs, adding as an aside: “My $13,600 salary wouldn’t cover breakfast.”

The ban was never mentioned again.

“That gives you just a snapshot, an example of how he looked after us as a team that happened to have African-American players,” Jim Lewis says of Waters, who kept the story from squad members until recently. Players were left to enjoy what Lewis calls “a wonderful experience,” memories lingering of posing for photos on luxuriant putting greens, and of a huge dining room adorned with ice sculptures where “probably 50 waiters” bore trays with exotic, flaming desserts that mutely saluted the team’s feats.