March Madness

The Early History of Duke Basketball

Duke sports fans have developed a special fondness for the early Spring. "March Madness" is peculiar to television and the NCAA and ACC tournaments, but intercollegiate competition in the state began years ago with enthusiastic participation by Trinity College. The initiator at Trinity was Wilbur Wade "Cap" Card, for whom Card Gymnasium is named.

In 1906, basketball was a relatively new sport. It had been invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a YMCA director in Springfield, Massachusetts, who sought an indoor activity during the harsh New England winter. It spread more quickly through the YMCA movement than among colleges, where football and baseball reigned supreme. Many thought the sport an "impracticable game" that would never attain popularity, especially in the South, but Trinity's Card advocated it. A native of nearby Franklinton, N. C., Card graduated from Trinity College in 1900, and, upon choosing athletics for a career, sought the best training available in hygiene and physical education at Harvard University. After a year of academic study, he returned to Harvard every summer through 1913 to train and work at the famed Sargent Normal School of Physical Education. While at his first job as director of the Mobile, Alabama YMCA, Card received an invitation from President John C. Kilgo to return to his alma mater as Director of a new program in physical education.

The college had an excellent new facility in the Angier B. Duke Gymnasium, now known as The Ark, and superb playing fields, complete with a grandstand from a previous race track, in its spacious campus. Card coached baseball and introduced gymnastics, track and field, hockey, bowling, fencing, swimming and volleyball to the campus. Not everyone, however, appreciated the new physical activity. One student successfully won exemption from required participation because he walked four miles round-trip at dawn every day to milk cows to earn money to attend school.Angier B. Duke Gymnasium (The Ark)

Ever since football was banned in 1895, students deplored the lack of intercollegiate competition. In late 1905, Richard Crozier, the coach at nearby Wake Forest College, approached Trinity for a basketball game. Card knew the game and was interested, but he had to convert the gym and recruit and train a team, neither of which could begin until after the semester's exams. By the time Trinity played host to Wake Forest on March 2, 1906, Wake and Guilford College had played the first intercollegiate game in the state, but the game in what is now the Ark on East Campus marked the beginning of so-called "Big Four" or Tobacco Road rivalry. Wake won the game 24-10 but the Trinity team was proud of its effort since it had trailed 18-3 at the half. No one from Trinity had ever played a game and a graduate student in English as well as a Law student had to be recruited to make up a team.

The original game is hardly recognizable today. Two-handed passes and shots were the norm. The goal had a bottom to catch the ball, which had to be knocked out with a stick after every score. A center jump began every quarter as well play after every score, even free throws. A designated shooter attempted all of a team's free throws. Few fouls were called, perhaps because the home team provided the umpire and the opposing coach was always the referee. Occasionally, officials stopped the contest to consult the rule book.

Card coached Trinity for seven years and had a 30-17 record, with a majority of the opponents being high school and YMCA teams. Gradually, intercollegiate competition emerged with Wake Forest, Guilford, Davidson, William and Mary, VMI, VPI, Virginia, Tennessee, Furman and A & M (NCSU). Trinity had the state's first twenty victory season with a 20-4 record in 1917. Surprisingly, UNC did not join Trinity's schedule until 1922.

After Card, Trinity had a succession of ten coaches in fifteen years and it was not until the arrival of Edmund M. Cameron in 1929 that stability returned to the program. In Cameron's first year, Duke helped launch the Southern Conference and to the surprise of many advanced to the tournament championship game. In Cameron's second year Duke had its first All-American player, Bill Werber, and the path to today's "March Madness" was set.


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© 1990, 1996. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.