With a title like “The best ever basketball fight” you might be expecting me to discuss Malice at the Palace. That one was a truly great fight, with unexpected twists and turns— mainly Metta World Peace twisting to see who threw a cup at him, and then turning his fist toward that guy, or someone who seemed like that guy.
But I’d argue that basketball history holds an even better, more exciting fight. One that’s so very petty you can’t help but enjoy it. (Oh, wait, am I a bad person? Nah, I’ve given to charity before, I’m covered.)
In 1961 UNC and Duke engaged in what I’m declaring as The Best Ever Basketball Fight. Not just because the fight itself was ten minutes of chaos involving players, fans, coaches, and the scorekeeper. Nor is it because in the old days fans wore suits to games, so this brawl looked very fancy. It’s a combination of these factors and more that raise this fight from great to greatest.
Lemme set the stage for those of us who aren’t super familiar with the state of college basketball 60 years ago. UNC and Duke had been nurturing feelings of hatred for some time.
Yes, being basketball powerhouses located just eight miles from each other created some rivalry. But real bitter emotions between UNC and Duke were born of affronts more personal than merely hating your neighbor.
In 1960, the NCAA put UNC on probation for “excessive recruiting entertainment,” which sounds like they hired exotic dancers, but I’m pretty sure coach Frank McGuire was just handing out money very liberally to potential recruits instead.
But even cash isn’t a foolproof recruiting technique. In 1959, New York high school standout Art Heyman committed to UNC … but then Heyman reneged and decided to go to Duke. So here McGuire is, being punished for illegal recruiting tactics that don’t even work. Not to mention how embarrassing it is to be publicly rejected by a high school kid.
Thus UNC had an enemy, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that as a freshman Heyman was really good. Back then, freshmen couldn’t play on varsity teams, but Heyman was averaging 30 points a game on the freshman team.
The UNC freshman team wasn’t about to let Heyman embarrass their school again, and came up with a way of stopping him: Dieter Krause punched him in the face so hard he needed stitches. While I’m sure that fight was exciting, it doesn’t come anywhere near the category of best. Someone got actually hurt, which is not really the kind of thing I want to see. I’m not a sicko. I just like excitement and pettiness. Plus there was only one punch so … I mean … does that even count as a fight?
The next season, on the varsity squad, Heyman was averaging 26 points a game. But then he played North Carolina and Doug Moe held him to just 11 points, which I think must have hurt more than the Krause’s punch.
After the game, apparently, Heyman put a picture of Moe up on his dorm room wall, never letting himself forget the humiliation and who had caused it. See what I’m talking about with the pettiness? This is good stuff. I didn’t know that kind of thing happened outside of TV and movie montages.
The rematch was set for early February. Duke was ranked fourth in the country with a record of 15-1 and UNC was fifth at 14-2.
The game kept teasing fans with the possibility of a fight. At one point, Frank McGuire yelled at a Duke assistant trainer for talking to UNC players. At halftime, a male UNC cheerleader gave Heyman one of those athlete-butt-pats, for encouragement, but Heyman, perhaps sensing a little sarcasm, shoved him.
Moe and Heyman got in a little dust up because in Heyman’s words. “He spit on me. Everytime I went to take a shot, he spit on me.”
You gotta hand it to Doug Moe. That is very clever. Is a ref gonna see you spitting on someone? Probably not. And even if they did, I bet Moe was being clever about it, maybe spitting while yelling “shot” or “I got ball” so it looked like an accident. There were no HD cameras to catch you back then. Nobody had any idea he was spitting on Heyman, except the lightly moistened Heyman himself. The downside to Moe’s literal dirty play (apart from the whole being really gross thing)? It wasn’t even a little bit effective.
Heyman had a great game and with 15 seconds left in the game, he’d scored 36 points and Duke was up by five.
With a last push, future-NBA coach Larry Brown drove to the basket where he met Heyman, who went ahead and fouled him, hard. Brown immediately chucked the ball at Heyman, benches cleared, and fans rushed the court. The score keeper jumped over the table and got a UNC player in a headlock. Fists were flying in every direction. After more than ten-minutes the ten policemen Duke had brought to the game managed to calm things down. Nobody was seriously injured (so we basically don’t have to feel guilty at all about voyeuristically enjoying it) and only Heyman was ejected.
There was such chaos it was hard for refs to see what happened exactly. Heyman later claimed Frank McGuire, the adult coach of UNC, kicked him. Though to be fair to McGuire, Heyman did later admit to punching him in the groin,
It was largely reported that Heyman threw the first punch, mostly because that’s what referee Charlie Eckman said happened. But uh-oh Charlie, these games are taped.
Duke Coach Vic Bubas called a press conference where he played the tape, or as it was adorably called in the 1960’s “the movies,” of the game. Brown threw the first punch, then UNC’s Don Walsh tackled Heyman from behind, THEN Heyman started punching people, in the groin and elsewhere. Oh, and the tape/movies also revealed why ref Charlie Eckman recounted events wrong: he didn’t have a great view of the fight from where he was hiding behind the basket.
The ACC commissioner suspended Brown, Walsh, and Heyman for the rest of the season. But one UNC alumnus was still angry. A lawyer — named Blackwell Brogden in case you were wondering if he was a villain or not — swore out an assault and battery warrant against Heyman for shoving the cheerleader at halftime.
The cheerleader didn’t want to be involved, presumably because it was a ridiculous case. But Brogden subpoenaed the cheerleader. Blackwell must’ve really loved going to UNC to be such an ardent/aggressive supporter/attacker. I hope the alumni association hit him up for donations cuz I have a feeling he’d be a soft touch.
The case was dropped pretty fast, but not before headlines that failed to mention the cheerleader was male made the rounds. With headlines like “Art Heyman Accused of Assaulting Cheerleader” Heyman looked like a monster.
Though fans were involved in the fight, Duke resolved to not to make any changes to seating arrangements or add barricades or do anything at all. The University released a statement saying “It is our duty to preserve the fine rivalry between North Carolina and Duke.” What a perfectly Duke way to say “we’re … gonna ignore this.”
Oh, I almost forgot, Duke ended up winning 81-77. A close game is the cherry on top. This brawl had everything, from spitting and low blows to cowardly refs and a lawyer being a baby. I think I’ve made my case. The 1961 UNC-Duke fight is the Best Ever Basketball Fight.
Every week we’ll be writing up a fun historical sports story that we enjoyed. We find a lot of these while researching, but if you want to make suggestions on a thing you want to read about, let us know in the comments.