Meet Ron Burt, the Most Likable Duke Basketball Player of All Time

The stadium scene.
March 12 2012 11:12 AM

Blue Angel

Meet Ron Burt, the most likable Duke basketball player of all time.

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As drained as he was at the end of each day—“I don’t think I was ever not tired again until the season was over”—Burt still reveled in his minor celebrity. Before a preseason exhibition against the Soviet Selects, the late Al McGuire approached and said, “I’m hearing you’re outstanding in the open court.” And with the game against the Soviets in hand, Burt actually saw some action. “The first thing I did,” he says, “was dribble the ball off my foot out of bounds.”

That season, Burt played sparingly. Thirty-eight minutes, to be exact. He attempted 11 field goals, made three, and scored 10 total points. But Krzyzewski didn’t treat his only walk-on like a walk-on. The second semester of his senior year, Burt was awarded a full basketball scholarship. And like his high-profile teammates, he wasn’t immune to his coach’s wrath. One day, Krzyzewski went around the locker room, harping on each player’s shortcomings. “We thought you were going to be much more vocal, we think you’re holding back,” he said, looking at Burt. “We expect you to bring more energy.” In the moment, Burt felt less abashed than proud: “He’s actually talking to me right now.”

During the 1992 NCAA Tournament, the Duke program itself was in the crosshairs. That didn’t seem to bother the Blue Devils, who rolled up three straight double-digit victories en route to an East Regional Final matchup against Rick Pitino, Jamal Mashburn, and Kentucky. With 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Sean Woods hit a bank shot to give the Wildcats a 103-102 lead. During the subsequent timeout, Laettner guaranteed a Duke victory. Burt’s thought at the time: “Whatever, dude.”

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Burt was skeptical, in part, because he figured Kentucky would triple-team Laettner, who had 29 points and literally hadn’t missed all night. Laettner, though, had little trouble catching Hill’s baseball pass above the foul line. The national player of the year dribbled once to his right, spun, and lofted up a jumper. When the now iconic shot hit the net, Burt, who was sitting on the end of the bench next to forward Christian Ast, leapt up and sprinted toward Laettner, who’d taken off down the floor. Burt thinks he was one of the first players to reach Laettner. Then, he says, everybody just went “down in a heap.”

Gene Wojciechowski’s book The Last Great Game refers to Burt only twice in its 320 pages. One of those mentions comes near the end, when Laettner says he “watches replays of the Duke-Kentucky game … to see the joy on the walk-on Ron Burt’s face.” I read Burt that passage and asked if it could possibly be true. He laughed. “I honestly do believe that,” he says. “It was just one of those moments. There are only a few people who can say they’ve had those moments. They’re very rare.”

In the Final Four, Duke disposed of Indiana and Michigan’s Fab Five. Burt and Williams, who were roommates their final three years of college, say it took months before they came down from their championship high. Burt actually had a chance to attend graduate school at Duke and play another year of basketball, but opted against it. “Part of me just thought that moment was so perfect,” he says. “I didn’t want to mess it up.”

Now 41, Burt works in finance and lives in Brooklyn. Over the years, relatives have snatched up most of his old Duke gear, leaving him with just a ratty practice jersey. In his basement, there’s a small shrine, with photos and his Glenn E. “Ted” Mann Jr. Award, given annually to the Blue Devils reserve who contributed most to team morale. Two decades later, people still ask about his days as a walk-on. “Guys will say, ‘I hate Duke,’ ” Burt says, “but that must’ve been pretty cool, right?”

Hang Up and Listen host Josh Levin, college hoops stats maven Ken Pomeroy, and Basketball Prospectus and ESPN.com writer John Gasaway will be chatting with readers about March Madness this week: What are the best strategies for filling out your bracket? Which teams are likely upset victims? What stats are most predictive of NCAA Tournament success? Join them on Slate’s Facebook page at 1:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday, March 14 to take part in the chat.

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