Basketball (M)

Men's Basketball: Dwight Durante Was a 5-8 Sensation

by Mike London, The Salisbury Post,


Eighty amateur basketball stars gathered in New Mexico in the spring of 1968 for the Olympic Trials.  Only 12 would be chosen for the USA team that would compete for a gold medal in Mexico City.  Pete Maravich, Charlie Scott, Rick Mount and JoJo White were there.  So was the nation's most famous little man, 5-foot-9 All-American Calvin Murphy, who could dunk two balls at a time.  But the sensation of those trials was a 5-8 junior from Catawba who scored 44 points, tied Murphy in knots and led the NAIA all-stars to three straight victories.

His name was Dwight Durante, and while the selection committee wasn't going to put a 5-8 NAIA kid on the team, Durante proved he could play with the best.  "I had a great tournament," Durante said at Catawba's basketball reunion.  "I almost made it."

Durante's name is still whispered on the Catawba campus four decades after his heyday.  He was a lefty scoring machine with lightning in his legs.  He shot often, connected often.  

The Catawba record book remains his personal property: most career points (2,913), most points in a game (58), highest scoring average for a season (32.1).  He averaged 29.4 points per game for his career.  He scored 777 more points than Bill Bailey, Catawba's No. 2 all-time scorer.

Durante did what he did despite an unfortunate suspension that cost him nearly half his sophomore year and an injury that hobbled him for a month his senior year.  And he did it without benefit of the 3-point shot.

"I figure 60 percent of his field goals would have been 3-pointers," said Sam Moir,  Durante's coach at Catawba.  "His teammates have told me, 'No, Coach, it would have to be 70 percent.'  Dwight had great legs -- he wore ankle braces in practice -- and he could elevate and shoot accurately from 25, 26 feet."

Durante grew up in Charlotte, led West Charlotte to championships, then moved to Massachusetts to live with relatives when his parents went to teach in Nigeria.  Moir knew about Durante and didn't lose track of him.

Prior to the 1964-65 season, Western Carolina signed Asheville's Henry Logan, who became the first African-American player at a traditionally white North Carolina college.  Logan, who scored 60 one night, was a sensation three years before UNC's Scott was dominating ACC opponents.

Moir recruited Durante, and he and Lawrence Bullock became Catawba's first African-American basketball players in 1965-66.  "I came to Catawba for a visit and was sure they'd stick me in a dorm somewhere," Durante said.  "Instead, I stayed with Coach's family.  His late wife (Betty) served me a great breakfast.  I think that breakfast is what sold me."

The stocky freshman debuted at Boyden High, where Catawba played most of its home games.  He scored 25 against Campbell.  On Dec. 4, Durante and Logan, a 6-footer with astonishing leaping ability, met for the first time in what would become a storied rivalry.  Western won 105-81. Durante scored 39, but Logan topped him with 41.

"Everyone's out of the locker room except Dwight, and it looks like he's been crying," Moir said.  "He looks up at me and says, 'Coach, we'll never lose to them again.'  Well, I thought that was crazy because Henry Logan was the best player I'd ever seen.  But Dwight did what he said he'd do.  He had to score 58 one night, but he wouldn't let us lose to them."

On Jan. 20, 1966, the Catawba-Western rematch took place at North Rowan.  Durante hit 17 field goals, added 24 free throws and scored 58 points, still the school record.  A foul-plagued Logan scored 28, and Catawba won 89-81.

Durante scored 50 at Newberry.  Then he broke the Carolinas Conference tournament scoring record with 42 at Lexington YMCA against Guilford.

"We would film games three or four times a year," Moir said.  "What we'd notice on film was Dwight was putting the ball through his legs.  He did it so fast you couldn't see it when you were watching the game."

As a pioneer black player in the South, Durante ran into rednecks on the road, but he let his left wrist do the talking. 

"We were playing down in South Carolina one night, and there were people in that crowd that weren't thrilled Dwight wasn't white," Moir said.  "They were giving him a fit.  He told me, 'Don't worry, Coach, they'll be leaving here crying because I'm gonna get 40.'  Well, he didn't get 40 -- he got 45."

His junior year, Durante led Catawba to its first 20-win season since 1960.  His 35-footer at the horn beat Western 85-83.  Logan had tied the game with eight seconds left, but his teammates got out of Durante's way and let him do what they knew he would do.

Durante had 27 in an 86-79 upset of unbeaten Winston-Salem State. He scored 33 as Catawba beat Western again.  In a conference tournament semifinal, Durante and Logan went at it for the last time at the Winston-Salem Coliseum.  Logan scored 38 to Durante's 34, but Catawba won 92-88.

Durante opened his senior year with a 40-point outburst against Pfeiffer, poured in 43 against Western and dropped 45 on Newberry.  But then he hurt his left leg in a Christmas tournament at Fort Eustis, Va.   "It was the first time I'd been hurt," Durante said.  "I wanted to play, but I couldn't land on the leg."

He missed games.  His average suffered when he did try to play.  But by February, he was healthy again and showed it with 53 points against Atlantic Christian.  The game Durante remembers best came three days later. 

High Point was 21-1 and came to the North Rowan gym ranked fourth in NAIA.  Durante scored 32, and Garland Davis grabbed 31 rebounds in a stunning 81-77 Catawba victory.  "They beat us bad at their place, but that night we took care of business," Durante said.

High Point star Gene Littles ended Catawba's season and Durante's career in the Carolinas Conference tournament.  Durante scored 28, went out with guns blazing.  "You can't stop Durante," High Point coach Bob Vaughn told the Post after that game.  "You concede him his 30 and try to stop the rest."

Durante became Catawba's first first-team NAIA All-American.  He was drafted by the New York Knicks in the sixth round in 1969, but the Olympic Trials had shown him a 5-8 player was unlikely to get a fair shake.

"There was no place in the NBA if you weren't 6 feet," Durante said.

He signed instead with the Harlem Globetrotters, saw the world, got an education you couldn't get from books and never had cause to regret his career decision.  After globetrotting, he became an educator in Fayetteville.

Now retired and living in Charlotte, Durante has been slowed by arthritic knees, but he enjoys his Bobcats season tickets.  It's unlikely he'll see anyone more entertaining than he was in the 1960s.

"He was Allen Iverson, but he was Iverson with range," said James Brown, a Catawba Hall of Famer who used to sneak into gyms as a youngster to watch Durante's magic act.  "If Dwight was coming out of college now, he'd get a multi-million dollar contract."

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