Igniting a Rivalry: The 1961 UNC-Duke Basketball Fight

The basketball rivalry between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University is one of the most contentious and well-known in America. One of the earliest and fiercest displays of this rivalry was an on-court fight on February 4, 1961. It was at this UNC-Duke matchup that UNC players Larry Brown and Don Walsh and Duke player Art Heyman started a bench-clearing brawl. It has been suggested that some of the hostility between Brown and Heyman may have resulted from having played against each other in high school. Heyman had also committed to attending UNC before changing his mind and enrolling at Duke.

Video of the February 4, 1961 Duke – UNC fight, Duke University. Basketball Game Film Collection University Archives, Duke University.

In attendance at this game was James H. Weaver, Commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the athletic conference to which both schools belonged. In a letter found in the files of then-chancellor William B. Aycock, Weaver reacted to the fight. He criticized the behavior of students in the crowd, calling them “juvenile delinquents” who

amuse themselves by tossing articles onto the playing floor, booing officials, booing visiting players while they are attempting foul shots, and at the same time, eagerly awaiting any opportunity to rush onto the court and further display their total lack of maturity.

Commissioner Weaver pointedly warned that though the three players primarily involved in the altercation were young and at the beginning of their careers, “sophomores must be made to realize that they too can cause riots.” As a result of this incident, Larry Brown, Don Walsh, and Art Heyman were “declared ineligible to compete against other Atlantic Coast Conference teams for the remainder of the regular season 1960-61,” were “not to appear in basketball uniforms at games in which they are ineligible to compete [or to] to sit on the players’ benches during such contests.” These penalties did not apply to tournament play, but UNC was already ineligible for such games as they were serving one year probation due to recruiting violations.

Observation of ACC Commissioner Weaver. From Office of Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: William Brantley Aycock Records, 1957-1964 (#40020), University Archives

In addition to documenting the storied animosity between UNC and Duke, this incident is noteworthy for including several notable figures. In the years since, Larry Brown has coached 13 college and professional basketball teams and has won both NCAA and NBA championships. Brown was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and is currently the head coach of Southern Methodist University’s men’s basketball team, the Mustangs. The second UNC player suspended due to the fight, Don Walsh, has served as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, general manager and president of basketball operations of the Indiana Pacers, president of basketball operations with the New York Knicks, and is currently a consultant for the Pacers. Heyman went on to be the first overall pick in the 1963 NBA draft and was selected by the New York Knicks.

Remembering Dean Smith

Dean Smith pictured on the cover of the program for the 1966-1967 season. From the Records of the Office of Athletic Communications (#40308), University Archives.

Few people in UNC’s history are as iconic and universally-beloved as basketball coach Dean Smith, who passed away this Saturday at age 83.

Smith arrived at UNC in 1958 as an assistant basketball coach under Frank McGuire. Three years later, he took on the role of head coach during a difficult time for the team. After a massive 1961 gambling conspiracy in which players from 22 schools threw the outcome of games, the team faced sanctions by the NCAA and the resignation of Coach McGuire.

Despite assuming leadership in such a challenging time, Smith soon brought the Tar Heels to the top, winning three consecutive ACC titles in 1967, 1968, and 1969. In his 36-season career, the team made eleven appearances in the Final Four and won two NCAA championships (1982 and 1993). Smith was credited with the invention of several basketball innovations, including the four corners offense, and retired with 879 career wins, a record which went unbroken for a decade. During his tenure at UNC, he coached an array of basketball legends including Phil Ford, Billy Cunningham, Charlie Scott, Bob McAdoo, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, and Vince Carter, just to name a few.

However, it was not Smith’s skill as a coach alone that made him an icon. Committed to racial integration, he used his influence to promote the integration of local businesses and was the first coach in the ACC to recruit black players. He emphasized the importance of

Smith speaking to players. From the 1973 Yackety Yack, North Carolina Collection.
Smith speaking to players. From the 1973 Yackety Yack, North Carolina Collection.

personal integrity and promoted academic excellence for his players, opposing freshman eligibility for high-profile sports. Perhaps most of all, Smith is remembered for his life-long devotion to his players, remaining a mentor and friend to many of them long after they left Carolina.