Also in Slate, Josh Levin and Jim Pagels detail the 18 most hateable moments in Duke basketball history.
On Oct. 15, 1991, dozens of students shuffled into Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium with hopes of making one of the best college basketball teams ever. In the real world, walk-on tryouts aren’t cinematic. As the hopefuls scrimmaged, it became clear who was going to grab the Blue Devils’ single open roster spot: Ron Burt, a senior from Kansas City. (Among those who didn’t make the cut: future CBS March Madness staple Seth Davis, who at the time wrote for the campus paper.) After the tryouts, Burt got a call from Duke assistant—and current Harvard coach—Tommy Amaker telling him to show up for the next day’s practice. “I was excited for a second, but then it hit me,” Burt says. “I was scared as hell.”
Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear dozens of stories about the 1991-92 Blue Devils, who 20 years ago beat Kentucky in the greatest college basketball game ever played en route to their second straight NCAA title. Duke’s dominance that season surprised no one. Burt’s path, on the other hand, was both unlikely and fortuitous. On a team featuring four NBA lottery picks, he was a bizarre outlier: a 6-foot college senior who played his high school hoops in rural Maine and whose previous athletic peak was an intramural championship.
Growing up in the 1980s, Burt’s favorite sport was baseball and his favorite player was the Cardinals’ Ozzie Smith. Burt gave up the game when he was a teenager, however, seemingly putting his sports aspirations aside for good. On the suggestion of his aunt, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, he attended Gould Academy, a tiny boarding school in Bethel, Maine. At Gould, he played on the basketball team, and he was accepted to Duke the same year as eventual co-captains Laettner and Brian Davis.
As freshmen, Burt and his buddies—including Mark Williams, who eventually became the manager of the Duke team—formed the Diaper Dandies, an intramural squad named for one of Dick Vitale’s favorite insufferable catchphrases. Together, the Dandies won a pair of campus titles. In his spare time, Burt also played pickup ball with members of the varsity team. “If you can hold your own and not slow the game down, they’d always welcome you,” Williams says.
In the spring of 1991, the mechanical engineering major saw an opening. Two Blue Devils, Billy McCaffrey and Crawford Palmer, had decided to transfer, leaving Duke with just 11 scholarship players. That summer, Burt spent his days running from Kansas City’s Hilltop Townhomes, where he lived, up and down a gorge, and on to the nearby Blue Valley Recreation Center, where he shot hoops and lifted weights. When that work paid off and he made the team, his mother reacted like mine would have—by telling the whole family that he’d be starting in no time.
The initial euphoria wore off quickly. Every time he got onto the court, Burt says, it was “like looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.” Among other talents, there was petulant and demanding Christian Laettner (“Not the most diplomatic person I’ve been around,” Burt said), future All-Star and Sprite pitchman Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley, an All-American junior point guard who was robbed of a potentially great pro career by an auto accident. (The team’s fourth lottery pick: Cherokee Parks.) Burt’s job each practice was to attempt to make Hurley’s life difficult. “You knew at the end of the day, things were not going to be very good for you,” he says.
During one of his first days as a Blue Devil, he sprained an ankle. When a trainer asked why his ankles weren’t taped, Burt was dumbfounded—he didn’t realize that was mandatory. Practice, Burt recalls, was conducted at a frightening pace. “I could compete well for a couple of minutes,” he says, “but Bobby would go through an entire practice then be on the StairMaster for another hour.”
For Burt, facing Hurley caused a series of existential crises. “This is pointless,” he’d say to himself, “I don’t know if they’re getting anything out of this.” Occasionally, he got dunked on, spurring teammates to start choruses of “Roooooonnnnn!” He also once made the mistake of trying to strip the ball from Laettner, who promptly elbowed him in the teeth.