It’s the home of historic programs at Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest; of legendary coaches such as Eddie Cameron, Everett Case, Vic Bubas, Frank McGuire, Bones McKinney, Dean Smith, Jim Valvano and current Hall of Famers Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams; of unforgettable players from Dick Groat to Art Heyman to Charlie Scott to David Thompson to James Worthy to Johnny Dawkins to Danny Ferry to Christian Laettner to Tim Duncan to Shane Battier ... the list is inexhaustible.
And there are more residents along Tobacco Road than merely the Big Four superpowers. Guilford College, Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina Central University, Barton College and Gardner-Webb have all won national championships in their divisions. Hall of Fame coach John McClendon got his start on Tobacco Road, while Hall of Famer Clarence “Big House” Gaines won more than 800 games on The Road. Future NBA giants Red Auerbach, Hubie Brown, Chuck Daly and Larry Brown all worked there. So did such NBA stars as Sam Jones, Artis Gilmore and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. Globetrotter’s headliner Meadowlark Lemon grew up on Tobacco Road. The region nurtured such successful and familiar broadcasters as Bones McKinney and Billy Packer before the recent additions of Hubert Davis, Jason Williams and Jay Bilas.
All belong to Tobacco Road.
But where, exactly, is this famous thoroughfare?
The real Tobacco Road is impossible to find on a map, although there are a number of “Tobacco Roads” scattered across the landscape of North Carolina. There’s one in Pitt County, just off Highway 501 south of Chapel Hill, which is a nightmare for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which must replace the green and white road sign almost weekly as it is stolen by souvenir-seeking fans.
They are stealing the wrong sign, because the real Tobacco Road isn’t in Pitt County.
The term actually refers to the remarkably compact region of North Carolina’s populous Piedmont where college basketball was born in the South and grew to mythic proportions. Four schools, originally all located within a 30-mile radius, nurtured the sport in the early days of the 20th Century. Their rivalries were a regional phenomenon at first, but in trying to outdo each other, the four neighboring schools drove each other to greater and greater heights and turned the term Tobacco Road into shorthand for the nation’s college basketball heartland.
It didn’t start out that way. Originally, Tobacco Road was the title of an Erskine Caldwell novel about poor, rural degenerates in Georgia. But North Carolina, not Georgia, is the center of the tobacco industry and over the years, Caldwell’s pejorative term came to be accepted as a description of the basketball programs that blossomed like the bright leaf in the Carolina soil.
Tobacco was very much at the heart of the modern Tobacco Road.
Durham, the home of Duke University, was founded on the tobacco industry. Washington Duke, who built his empire on Bull Durham chewing tobacco, lured tiny Normal College from Randolph County to his new factory town in the late 19th Century. His son and heir, James Buchanan Duke, endowed what had become Trinity College with a huge gift in 1924 and the school changed its name to Duke University to honor the tobacco magnate.
The new West Campus built with Duke’s money was barely eight miles as the crow flies northeast of Chapel Hill, where the University of North Carolina had been educating planter’s sons since the 18th Century. When UNC welcomed its first student in 1796, it became the nation’s first state-supported institution of higher learning. It was the largest university in the South before the Civil War and even though the school suffered a brief decline in the reconstruction era, North Carolina bounced back before the end of the 19th Century to reclaim its place as one of the nation’s premier public institutions.
A new rival grew barely 20 miles to the East, where in 1887 North Carolina A&M was founded in the state capital of Raleigh. A land-grant institution, the school quickly became a recognized leader in agricultural science and engineering. Even though the school’s student population soon topped its rival in Chapel Hill, N.C. State College only became a university during a bitter reorganization of the state’s university system in the mid 1960s. Even then it was a close call – State College almost became the University of North Carolina at Raleigh, but after some bitter political infighting, it emerged instead as N.C. State University.
Wake Forest, a small, private school established by the Baptist State Convention in 1834, was also designated a “college” for most of its history. The smallest of the four schools on Tobacco Road, Wake Forest grew up in the sleepy farming hamlet of the same name, located just north of Raleigh’s city limits and equally close to the eastern edge of Durham. The small school remained in the shadow of its neighbors until 1956, when another tobacco giant intervened. The Smith Reynolds Foundation – based on another tobacco fortune – made a large endowment to the school with the stipulation that Wake Forest move 75 miles west to Winston-Salem, a blue-collar tobacco city very much like Durham. An entire new campus was built and Wake Forest College in Wake Forest was reborn as Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.
The New Sport
Like everywhere else in the South, originally football was king on Tobacco Road – dating back to November of 1888, when Trinity College defeated North Carolina in the first football game played south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The sport became so big that in 1895, the Trinity faculty – reportedly worried about professionalism at UNC – voted to ban football from the Durham campus.
It was almost a decade before basketball emerged to fill the void.
In 1905 – 14 years after Dr. James Naismith came up with his original 13 rules for the sport in Springfield, Mass. – Wake Forest’s Richard “Red” Crozier, a student in charge of the school’s gymnasium, formed a team to play “basket ball” (as it was usually referred to in those days) against various YMCA and club teams.
His team attracted the interest of a young instructor at Trinity College. Wilber Wade Card – known as “Cap” after captaining the Trinity baseball team as an undergraduate – had done graduate work at Harvard, where he met Naismith and saw the new game played. Card brought basket ball back to Durham, planting the seed that would blossom under Eddie Cameron, Bubas and Krzyzewski.
Card and Crozier arranged for Trinity to play Wake Forest in what was long believed to be the first intercollegiate basketball game played south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Some historians believe that Wake Forest may actually have faced a team from Guilford College about a month before the first Trinity-Wake Forest meeting on March 2, 1905, but the evidence is contradictory.
The Wake-Trinity game was clearly the first clash of the future Tobacco Road juggernauts. It was played on the undersized court in the Angier Duke Gym on the Trinity Campus, built in 1898 and still standing today on Duke’s East Campus. Crozier’s more experienced “Battling Baptists” won that first matchup 24-10 as forward Vanderbilt Couch scored 14 points to single-handedly outscore the entire Trinity team. The losers were encouraged by the fact that they actually won the second half. Card expected to fare better in the next meeting with the neighboring school. Despite the Trinity optimism, Wake Forest would win their first six games in the series before Card’s “Methodists” finally beat their first rivals in 1909.
The other two future Tobacco Road powers were slow to pick up the sport. Neither North Carolina nor N.C. A&M fielded a team until 1911 – six years after Wake Forest and Trinity began their series. Basket ball had been a part of physical education classes in Chapel Hill for several years before a student named Marvin Ritch convinced track and field coach Nat Cartmell to put together a team to represent the university. That same year, a faculty committee in Raleigh suggested that the agricultural school form a team in the new sport and “The Farmers” took the court.
The Tobacco Road rivalries that would become so prominent in the second half of the 20th Century were remarkably slow to form. Wake Forest appeared to be a catalyst – the other three schools may not have played each other, but they all played the Baptists from the beginning. The A&M Farmers played Trinity for the first time in 1912 and a year later took on North Carolina for the first time. But that future rivalry was allowed to lapse and the two state schools wouldn’t meet again until after World War I.
The Basketball Boom
Why did basketball bloom in a region surrounded by football hysteria?
It was obviously a gradual process that began in the 1920s, when North Carolina enjoyed a brief run of success. Oddly enough, the boom of basketball interest was built around UNC’s rivalry with a team from Durham ... but not with the team from Trinity College.
It’s easy to forget that Naismith invented basketball as a YMCA activity and the game was spread nationally by the Christian organization. In the early years of the 20th Century, many colleges found better competition from YMCA clubs than from collegiate rivals. That was certainly the case for UNC, which began a hotly contested rivalry with the Durham YMCA in 1911 and faced its early rival at least once and often three times in every season in that first decade of Carolina basketball.
The two teams traded victories much as UNC and Duke would trade wins in the 1980s and 1990s. It all led to the first basketball game on Tobacco Road to capture the public’s imagination. In an era when 50 to 100 fans for a game were normal, more than 2,000 spectators jammed into the Durham YMCA gym on Dec. 12, 1921 for the season opening game between the “White Phantoms” of UNC and the Durham Y.
Oddly, UNC would not have a coach that season, but the team from Chapel Hill did have a brilliant sophomore named Cartwright Carmichael, whose older brother Billy was starting his senior season. The Durham Y boasted Tobacco Road’s first great big man, 6-3 giant Myrtle Knight, universally known as “Footsie.” In an era when every basket was followed by a jump ball at center court, a dominant big man could be very dominant indeed. The 1922 UNC team would go on to win the Southern Conference Tournament, but on that afternoon in Durham, the Cartwright brothers couldn’t cope with Footsie Knight inside or Durham’s Curtis Perry outside. They led the Durham Y to a lopsided 41-18 victory. A month later in Chapel Hill, Knight and Perry would again abuse the college team as the Durham Y posted a 46-25 victory.
The YMCA team’s dominance in those two games would delay recognition of UNC’s emergence as one of the South’s first basketball powers. It really began later that 1921-22 season, when the coach-less team from Chapel Hill traveled to Atlanta for the inaugural Southern Conference Tournament. The new league, formed earlier that year, included 22 teams, many of which would later break off to form the SEC and the ACC. The league’s new tournament – the inspiration for the ACC’s famous postseason event – originally was a matter of necessity. There were just too many teams in the league to play a round-robin schedule. As it was, UNC had to win five tournament games to claim the title, beating such diverse schools as Samford, Newberry, Georgia, Alabama and Mercer on successive days.
That 1922 triumph would be just the forerunner for UNC’s first era of basketball glory. The 1923 team finished 15-1, losing only to Ole Miss in the Southern Conference championship game. And in 1924, as senior Cartwright Carmichael was joined by the talented Jack Cobb and Carolina moved into its new home, an all-metal structure dubbed the Tin Can, the White Phantoms didn’t lose at all – winning 26 straight games and a second Southern Conference championship.
That 26-0 season also set the stage for the first great Tobacco Road controversy. It stems from a 1942 decision by the Helms Foundation to retroactively award North Carolina the 1924 national championship. That’s an award that the UNC faithful cherish and their Tobacco Road rivals reject out of hand.
Is North Carolina’s 1924 championship a valid national title? In the absence of an NCAA playoff, which didn’t begin until 1939, it’s impossible to tell. UNC was the nation’s only major undefeated team that season, but in an era when the best basketball was being played in the East and Midwest, North Carolina played nothing but Southern teams. The Southern Conference champs did not participate in the only national tournament played that season – the AAU championships in Kansas City, won by Butler University. The Indiana school beat a field that included teams from as far away as New York and California and was acclaimed at the time as the nation’s best team.
While the exact merits of UNC’s 1924 “national championship” are open to debate, there’s no doubt that Carolina’s victory in the Southern Conference Tournament generated the kind of excitement usually reserved for a football triumph. News of UNC’s 1924 triumph, flashed from Atlanta to Chapel Hill via telegraph, set off a wild celebration on Franklin Street and suggestions that the triumphant White Phantoms should compete in the national tournament in Kansas City. But two days later, the faculty decided that the players had missed enough class and should return to their studies. Football was still king on Tobacco Road, especially at Duke, which resumed the sport with a vengeance in 1920, building a massive stadium on the new West Campus and hiring celebrated coach Wallace Wade away from Alabama.
Basketball remained on the fringes of the action. All four Tobacco Road programs enjoyed moments of success in the late 1920s and through the Depression years, but nothing that attracted the attention of the North Carolina sporting public – much less the national press. Grantland Rice or Graham McNamee might visit Durham to watch Wade’s unbeaten, untied and unscored upon Iron Dukes take on Pittsburgh and its “Million Dollar Backfield”, but basketball heroes such as N.C. State’s Morris Johnson, Wake Forest’s Jim Waller, UNC’s George Glamack and Duke’s Bill Werber played out their careers in relative obscurity. Well, that’s not quite fair – Werber did attract quite a bit of attention, but it was for his baseball prowess. The Blue Devils’ first basketball All-American signed with the New York Yankees and eventually played 11 seasons in the Major Leagues, ending up as the starting third baseman and leadoff hitter for Cincinnati’s 1940 World Series champions.
Building Basketball’s Shrine
Tobacco Road did acquire one of its crown jewels during this period ... thanks, in large part, to football.
Eddie Cameron, Duke’s basketball coach during the 1930s, also served as a football assistant to Wade. When the Blue Devils earned a trip to the 1939 Rose Bowl, Cameron was able to convince his boss to invest some of the profits in a new basketball facility. Although legend has it that Cameron first sketched the design of the new arena on a matchbook, the building first known as Duke Indoor Stadium was, in fact, designed by Horace Trumbauer’s Philadelphia architectural firm. The actual work was done by a young black architect named Julian Abele, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Abele’s design bore a striking resemblance to The Palestra in Philadelphia with 5,000 permanent seats around the upper deck and room for another 3,800 spectators in moveable bleachers on the floor. Critics wondered why Duke needed such a huge structure for a sport with such limited interest. UNC was at the same time building the 4,000-seat Woollen Gym to replace the aging Tin Can; N.C. State played in the 3,500-seat Thompson Gym; tiny Gore Gym in Wake Forest – which held an undersized 90-foot court – barely seated 2,200 fans. Even Trumbauer suggested that Duke officials should scale back the design to something smaller. When a crowd of 8,000 fans – still 800 under capacity – turned out for the arena’s 1940 gala opening game against visiting Princeton, one local columnist predicted that the new stadium would never be filled.
He couldn’t foresee the explosion in basketball interest that was on the horizon.
In hindsight, there were a few hints of that was to come in the air as Duke opened its new arena on the eve of World War II. That skeptical columnist should have looked across town to the phenomenal interest being generated by a high school basketball team and the emergence of a character who was to become the very symbol of basketball on Tobacco Road.
Bones And The New Game
In a very real sense, Horace Albert “Bones” McKinney was a direct basketball descendent of Footsie Knight, the big man who bedeviled North Carolina in the early 1920s. When Knight hung up his oversized sneakers, he became an administrator at the Durham YMCA. There he founded and developed one of the state’s finest basketball training grounds, turning out prospects who would stock the rosters on Tobacco Road for more than three decades. Several other YMCA programs in the state copied Knight’s approach, especially at the Charlotte YMCA, which turned into a breeding ground for future UNC players.
But as good as YMCA products such as Rufus and Bunn Hackney, Jack Glace and the four McCachren brothers would prove to be at the college level, nothing ever seen on Tobacco Road could approach the excitement generated by the stream of talented players that Knight sent to Durham High School starting in 1939. Bob Gantt, Gordon Carver and the three Loftis brothers were wonderful players – but they were all overshadowed by the charismatic McKinney. The Durham High star was a unique combination of down-home charm and devilish humor. Picture a combination of Meadowlark Lemon and Andy Griffith – two more Tobacco Road products – and you have McKinney.
The examples of his wit are legendary. Once, dribbling downcourt in the heat of battle, Bones reached out off the court, grabbed a handful of popcorn from a courtside spectator and gobbled it down as he drove to the basket. On another occasion, when called for a foul, he followed the referee to the scorer’s table, crawling on his knees with his hands grasped as if in prayer. When the official turned back towards him, McKinney bent down and pretended to tie his shoe as the crowd howled with laughter.
Bones was a 6-6 forward whose weight varied from between 174 and 210 pounds, “depending on how much I was a’sweatin’,” he said. His slender frame had nothing to do with his nickname, which was derived from a character he played in a school play.
“I don’t remember exactly when people started calling me Bones,” he recalled. “But with a name like Horace Albert, the sooner the better, right?”
The gangly big man was the centerpiece of the revolutionary style of basketball that Durham High coach Paul Sykes unleashed upon the unsuspecting fans on Tobacco Road. Taking advantage of a 1937 rule change that eliminated the center jump after every made basket, Sykes installed a running game that showcased the talents of his young stars. McKinney was the key to the new strategy, starting fast breaks with his outlet passes after rebounds or even after made baskets, when he would rip the ball out of the net and push it up the court. In an era when winning scores were usually in the 30- and 40-point range, Durham High routinely topped 50, 60 and even 70 points a game.
It’s not clear whether Sykes devised the new tactics on his own or borrowed them. Some of Sykes’ former players suggested that it was Knight who polished the new scheme at the Durham YMCA. It’s also possible that inspiration came from John McClendon, a Naismith disciple who had just begun his Hall of Fame coaching career across town at Durham’s all-black North Carolina Central College by introducing a similar fast-breaking style. It’s tantalizing to note that McClendon was heavily involved in the YMCA at time.
Whatever the source of the new style of play, Sykes’ Durham High greyhounds soon became a sensation. After losing the opening game of the 1938-39 season to the Wake Forest freshmen team, McKinney and company would win 72 straight games over the next three seasons, beating all manner of competition from across the Eastern Seaboard.
“They are a team of basketball professionals masquerading under the name of Durham High,” a sports writer from Daytona, Fla., wrote after Durham routed the Florida state championship team 54-14. Later that season, Sykes’ team traveled to Glen Falls, N.Y. (just outside Buffalo), where Durham defeated three of the top teams in the East and was proclaimed the nation’s best high school team.
Naturally, the four Tobacco Road coaches cast covetous eyes at the Durham High stars. Duke’s Eddie Cameron had the advantage of his huge new arena and a family connection through burly 6-2 forward Bob Gantt, the son of former Duke baseball star Bob “No-hit” Gantt. The Blue Devils figured to get the bulk of Sykes’ stars.
But an incident one night at Duke Indoor Stadium cost Cameron a chance to land Durham High’s biggest star.
As Bones used to tell it, his rejection of hometown Duke was due to a campus policeman. You see, when he was young and unknown, he used to sneak into Duke’s games. When the Durham High team became famous, Cameron used to leave tickets for all of the team’s players to get in for free.
“But I was a stubborn cuss and I didn’t like taking the easy way out,” Bones explained. “So I kept sneaking into Duke games.”
At least he did until one night when a Duke campus cop caught him trying to squeeze his lanky frame through a narrow window into the men’s rest room on the first floor of the Indoor Stadium (the one just beside the door where the students now enter). Instead of merely ejecting or perhaps arresting the young trespasser, the policeman sat down, pulled the teenager onto his lap and delivered a spanking in front of a crowd of jeering college students.
“I was so embarrassed ... that’s when I decided I’d never play at Duke,” he said.
Instead, Bones traveled 20 miles southeast to Raleigh and helped turn a Pack team that had been 8-11 and 6-9 in the two previous seasons into a 15-7 contender that earned a spot in the Southern Conference championship game. Unfortunately for McKinney, that game was against Duke, which featured his former teammates Gantt and the two oldest Loftis brothers. The Blue Devils would win their second straight Southern Conference title that night, wrapping up a brilliant 22-2 season with a 45-34 victory.
Bones would have to wait four years for his revenge. He left N.C. State after the 1942 season and entered the service. After World War II, he returned – not to Raleigh, but to join Ben Carnevale’s burgeoning program at North Carolina. There he teamed with John “Hook” Dillon and Jim Jordan on a team that swept 13 of 14 Southern Conference games.
Although the White Phantoms (the nickname still being used at that time) were upset by Wake Forest in the Southern Conference Tournament, UNC was selected to represent the league in the eight-year-old NCAA Tournament. McKinney helped Carolina beat NYU and Ohio State to reach the NCAA championship game in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
However, the championship contest turned into a showcase for Oklahoma A&M’s Bob Kurland, college basketball’s first dominant seven-footer. Kurland, who had scored 22 points to lead Hank Iba’s Aggies to the 1945 championship, started slowly against McKinney’s aggressive defense. The White Phantoms were within three points when Ol’ Bones fouled out and Kurland was able to take over. The Oklahoma giant scored seven straight points and the Aggies held on for a 43-40 victory over the first Tobacco Road team to reach what would become known as “The Final Four.”
After the season, Carnevale left UNC to take a better job offer from the Naval Academy – a pretty good indication of the low status that basketball still had on Tobacco Road.
The UNC coach was not the only one to go. McKinney would pass up his final year of collegiate eligibility to join Red Auerbach’s Washington Capitals in the fledgling NBA. He would later return to Tobacco Road for a second career as a coach and later still for a third career as a TV commentator.
McKinney’s remarkable career – as a player, a coach and a commentator – would span the transition of basketball on Tobacco Road. When he first emerged at Durham High, basketball filled a nice little niche as a popular winter sport. When he retired as a broadcaster more than 40 years later, basketball was king.
The man known as ‘Bones’ played a large role in changing the landscape of Tobacco Road. His groundwork would pave the way for Everett Case, the former Indiana high school coach who would build a dynasty at N.C. State and sell basketball to a generation of North Carolina fans. And Case’s success would spur rivals Duke and North Carolina to upgrade their commitment to basketball in order to match him.
In the end, the rivalry between Duke and UNC would be at the heart of Tobacco Road.