DURHAM -- The Duke-North Carolina series has produced a lot of heroes on the court.
The mere mention of names like Freddie Lind, Robbie West, Bobby Jones, Walter Davis, Gene Banks and Austin Rivers can conjure up dramatic moments in our memory. Great players such as Dick Groat, Art Heyman, Christian Laettner, Tyler Hansbrough and Phil Ford all carved special places for themselves in the history of the rivalry.
One name that isn’t mentioned very often these days deserves a special place in the pantheon of Duke-Carolina heroes. John “Bubber” Seward certainly earned a place in the rivalry’s Hall of Fame with his performance in the 1946 Duke-UNC game in Chapel Hill. However, the former Duke standout had already earned his hero status long before that historic upset and it had nothing to do with the basketball court.
Seward was a veteran of the U.S. Army in World War II, surviving 80 straight days of combat on the Western Front, followed by 71 days of captivity in a German POW camp. A pre-war basketball standout, Seward received his army discharge and re-joined the Blue Devils just weeks before Duke traveled to Chapel Hill to take on what was at that time regarded as the best basketball team in UNC history.
After Seward teamed with Ed Koffenberger and Dick Whiting to upset the heavily favored White Phantoms (UNC’s nickname at that time) in overtime, the ex-GI summed up the win by telling reporters: “After two seasons of victories over Carolina, I had no intention of losing to them. Sure, I thought we’d win all along.”
A YOUNG STANDOUT
Seward, a prep star from Newport News, Va., arrived at Duke in the fall of 1941. Nobody knew him as John – he was Bubber to a generation of Duke students and fans. The nickname stemmed from his infancy, when his older brother couldn’t say “brother” and called him “Bubber” instead.
Bubber was part of one of the best recruiting classes that veteran coach Eddie Cameron had ever put together.
It included three stars off Durham High School’s famous undefeated team – declared unofficial prep national champions after winning 71 straight games all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Cameron missed on Bones McKinney, the flamboyant center who attended N.C. State, but he did land 6-3 Bob Gantt, a future football All-American who would become one of the great two-sport stars in Duke history, and the gifted Loftis twins, Cedric and Garland.
The four 1941 recruits benefited from a relaxation of eligibility rules in the years before World War II. Freshmen were allowed to play on the varsity and Cameron made good use of his newcomers, teaming them with several holdovers from Duke’s 1941 Southern Conference champs to form the deepest, most powerful team in Duke’s history (up to that point).
The 1941-42 Blue Devils rolled to a 22-2 record, losing an early game at Temple and a heartbreaker late in the regular season at George Washington. The ’42 Devils – with the four freshmen all playing major roles (Cedric Loftis was, in fact, the team’s leading scorer) – won the Southern Conference championship, routing N.C. State – led by McKinney, the former prep teammate of Gantt and the Loftis twins – in the title game.
Seward, one of eight players to score more than 100 points in ’42, played an even larger role in the 1942-43 season. With Gerry Gerard replacing Cameron as Duke’s head coach, Seward started every game and was the No. 3 scorer on a team that again dominated the Southern Conference and again won 20 games. Although the Devils were upset by George Washington in the Southern Conference title game, Seward was honored as a first-team All-Southern Conference player.
In his freshman and sophomore seasons at Duke, Seward played against North Carolina four times. Three were lopsided Blue Devil wins … one was an overtime victory in Durham in the 1942 regular season finale. Seward led the team in scoring in both 1943 victories.
But his next chance at Duke’s rivals would have to wait almost three years.
WITH THE CACTUS DIVISION
Seward, like so many young men of his generation, entered the service in the spring of 1943.
He was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program, a controversial program designed to provide junior officers with specialized technical training.
The ASTP was based on a number of college campuses. Seward found himself at Oklahoma A&M in Stillwater, Okla. While there, he played on the camp basketball team and often scrimmaged against Henry Iba’s powerhouse team (which would win the 1945 and 1946 national titles). Seward, at 6-foot-1, was the biggest player on his camp team and found himself matched against 7-foot All-American Bob Kurland.
“He’s plenty big, but how that fellow can get around,” Seward later told Durham Morning Herald reporter Whitie Smith.
Seward also told Smith that it was during this period where he was introduced to the revolutionary one-handed set shot.
“Out there, everybody shoots with one hand,” he said. “They are taught that way. I guess that’s where I picked it up.”
Seward’s army career took an abrupt turn when the ATSP was cancelled in the late summer of 1944 after a congressional charge that it was wasting resources. The enrollees were shipped to combat units as replacements.
Seward, who expected to see service as a junior officer in a specialized field, found himself assigned as a private to the 103rd Infantry Division – the Cactus Division. He joined his new unit at Camp Howze in northern Texas in time to join the division for its deployment to France.
The Cactus Division disembarked at Marseille in southern France on Dec. 15, 1944. It was almost immediately rushed to the line to shore up the southern flank of American forces pushed back in the Battle of the Bulge. For the next three months, Seward, who had earned promotion to corporal, was in combat 80 straight days, much of it in the bitter fighting in the Vosages Mountains.
His unit was still in line near Strasbourg when his squad of 18 men was assigned to help rescue a number of soldiers that had been cut off by the Germans.
Seward’s unit soon found itself cut off and surrounded. Over the next two days, the small group held out as five of the original 18 GI’s were killed. Finally, just after midnight of Jan. 20, 1945, the 13 survivors – out of ammunition – surrendered … only to discover that their captors were members of the 2nd SS Panzer Division.
That summer, the same unit had perpetrated one of the war’s great atrocities when the Nazi fanatics had murdered hundreds of women and children in the tiny town of Ordour-sur-Glance, France. Only a month earlier, members of another SS panzer unit had murdered 80 disarmed American prisoners at Malmedy.
Seward’s tiny group avoided that fate, but the next few months weren’t pleasant. Lewis Bowling, who tracked down the story of Seward’s captivity for a 2010 article, reports that
they were put on a cold, dirty box car and taken to a POW camp in Limburg, Germany, called Stalag 12-A. He was soon moved to another camp – Stalag 9-B at Bad Orb (near Frankfurt).
On the way to Germany, the prisoners stopped at a small French village and were put in a building for a short while, Bowling reported. While they were there, an artillery shell hit the building, blowing the roof off. Seward and the other prisoners sprawled on the floor, covering their heads. Several GIs were injured and a couple were hurt so badly that the Germans sent them to a field hospital. The rest, Seward included, were herded back on the box cars.
“My feet nearly froze in the cold, wet box car they put us on after our capture,” Seward told a reporter after the war, Bowling reports. “We were in these box cars for three days. I was in the prison camps about three months. We had a bowl of soup at 10 in the morning consisting of flour water and potato peelings, and at 5 in the afternoon we had a piece of black bread. That’s all we had to eat the entire time I was a POW. I lost about 40 pounds. When we first got to the camp, they made us sleep in foxholes on the ground. This was during the winter, and it was cold, and there was snow on the ground. I made a promise to myself if I ever got home I would never sleep on the ground again as long as I lived.”
Seward was in captivity for 71 days before the German guards fled the camp upon the approach of tankers from the Third Army. Only then did he learn that his capture was never reported – he was listed as missing-in-action and believed dead.
He returned to the United States in May and after treatment in Florida for his frozen feet, was assigned to Camp Patrick Henry in Norfolk, Va. – very near his Newport News home.
Seward was healthy enough to play basketball again in the fall of 1945. Using the one-handed set shot he had learned in Oklahoma before going overseas, he was the leading scorer on a 10-4 Camp Henry team before his discharge came through on Dec. 3, 1945.
Seward immediately re-enrolled at Duke, joining a Blue Devil team that was already off to a disappointing 2-2 start.
THE RETURN OF BUBBER
The Duke team that Seward rejoined in December of 1945 was very different than the one he left in the spring on 1943.
The stars of the ’42 and ’43 teams were all gone, although Garland Loftis would return from the service to play again in 1947.
The new star was sophomore center Ed Koffenberger, who was quite an interesting story in his own right. The 6-2 native of Wilmington, Del., joined the Navy’s V-12 program in 1942 and was assigned to the University of North Carolina. He not only enrolled at UNC, but also played football for North Carolina, although as a 160-pound backup end, he saw little action.
Midway through his freshman season, the Navy decided that Koffenberger should study engineering, but since UNC did not have an engineering school, he was ordered to transfer to Duke.
Koffenberger played some football at Duke. He even made the trip with the team to the 1945 Sugar Bowl, although he didn’t play in that team’s dramatic victory over Alabama in New Orleans.
He did however, make his mark on the basketball court at Duke, starting as a freshman in 1945-46 and leading the team in scoring.
Ironically, Koffenberger credits much of his success at Duke to UNC coach Ben Carnevale.
“I learned an awful lot of basketball in the months I was at UNC,” he said. “Carnevale was a great coach and they had an outstanding V5 program [to train naval aviators]. I got to play against a lot of great players coming through. I played against Otto Graham [the Hall of Fame football quarterback] – he was quite a good basketball player.”
At Duke, Koffenberger was joined by two newcomers – freshman Richard “Flash” Gordon and Dick Whiting, a veteran guard who had transferred from Muhlenberg College.
Gerard’s rebuilding efforts didn’t look so strong after the Devils split the first four games – losing a pair to military teams, while beating weak squads from Virginia and Davidson.
But the outlook changed when Seward joined the team after his discharge.
According to a reporter for the Durham Morning Herald, “His presence has added a spark that Duke has lacked. Not only is Seward a fine shotmaker, he handles it well and feeds it to his teammates.”
“Bubber was a forward with good size and a decent outside shot,” Koffenberger recalled. “He was well built and an all-around good athlete. He did not play inside much. I played center and was a hook shot artist.”
Koffenberger was impressed with Seward’s one-handed shot. He remembers Rhode Island’s Ernie Calverley as popularizing the shot in the days immediately after World War II.
Seward’s impact on the 1945-46 Blue Devils was immediate. In his first game back, the ex-GI scored 11 points in a smashing victory over South Carolina in Columbia. He played a key role as Duke routed Maryland in Durham and Davidson again on the road.
That brought Duke’s record to 5-2, but even with five wins in a row, the Blue Devils were considered a monumental underdog as they prepared to head to Chapel Hill.
That’s because Carnevale’s White Phantoms were considered a juggernaut, winning national recognition for a late-December trip north that saw UNC upset NYU in Madison Square Garden and St. Joseph’s in the Philadelphia Palestra over the span of 48 hours. Although that was the era before the wire service polls, one national survey ranked North Carolina as the nation’s third best team, behind only Oklahoma A&M’s defending NCAA champs and the George Mikan-led NIT champs from DePaul.
UNC was 10-1 heading into the Duke game, losing only to a military team from Greensboro, but beating two supposedly powerful military teams from Fort Bragg -- one of which featured pre-war N.C. State star Bones McKinney.
McKinney would eventually join the 1946 UNC team after his discharge, but he was still in the service when Duke and UNC met for the first time that season on the night on Jan. 9.
Carnevale’s team still featured two All-Americans, slender forward John “Hook” Dillon (like Koffenberger, a renowned hook shot artist) and Jim Jordan, a former small-college All-American from St. Marty’s College, plus future pro draft pick Bob Paxton.
The two rivals met on Jan. 9 – a week less than a year after Seward was captured by the Germans. The matchup attracted an overflow crowd of more than 6,000 fans to UNC’s Woollen Gymnasium.
“Spectators were hanging from the rafters, peeping through the windows and sitting on the floor,” Jack Horner wrote in the Durham Morning Herald the next day. He said that hundreds were turned away at the door.
Most of the fans came expecting to see a romp by Carnevale’s White Phantoms. Instead, Gerard’s Blue Devils seized control early – thanks to Seward and Koffenberger, who would finish with a game-high 14 points each. Duke was up 21-15 late in the first half when Carnevale called time out and the handful of Duke fans in the crowd taunted the home team with the chant, Poor … poor Tar Heels.”
But it was too early to gloat.
Two buckets by Seward early in the second half maintained Duke’s lead at 28-23 with 15 minutes to play. The action became frantic – both Jordan and Seward were injured by rough plays (Jordan leaving the game briefly, but Seward remaining). Gerard tried to slow things down at the seven minute mark with Duke leading 34-31. But Carolina scored seven straight points – the go-ahead basket coming on a hook by Dillon – to take a 38-34 lead.
After Gordon and Koffenberger combined to hit a couple of free throws, Seward scored with just over three minutes left to tie the game at 40-all. The final minutes were frantic, but UNC seemed in control after Dillon hit a hook shot for a 45-43 lead and Koffenberger missed at the other end.
UNC tried to ice the game, but Duke came up with the ball with about 20 seconds remaining (no digital clocks in that era, so the exact time was uncertain). Not knowing how much time was left, Koffenberger launched a 20-foot shot (well outside his normal range). The ball rolled all the way around the rim and dropped in – forcing overtime.
“It was from well beyond the top of the key,” Koffenberger recalled. “I just put both hands on it and threw it up there.”
The freshman Gordon put Duke up in the extra period with a layup and the veteran Whiting added two baskets and dribbled away much of the five-minute period as Duke escaped Woollen with a stunning 51-46 victory.
“Combat in the European theater and German prison camps haven’t changed Seward’s basketball one bit,” Whitie Smith wrote in the Durham paper after the game. “He’s as scrappy as ever. If the game with North Carolina is any indication, he came back to Duke with even more fight than before.”
Smith Barrier of the Greensboro Daily News wrote of the game: “[Seward] was the outstanding player on the floor.”
AFTER THE TRIUMPH
Seward helped the ’46 Blue Devils to 21 wins and the Southern Conference title. He finished as the team’s second-leading scorer (to Koffenberger).
“Bubber was easily recognized as the most aggressive, scrappiest player on the team,” according to an article in the Duke Chronicle.
Unfortunately, he was not able to continue his perfect streak against Carolina. When the two teams met again in Durham on Feb. 16, UNC had added a third All-American – 6-6 Bones McKinney, recently discharged from the Army Air Force, had elected to continue his education at UNC, rather than return to N.C. State. The former Durham High star would make all the difference in the rematch. His 21 points – plus his rebounding and passing – led the White Phantoms to a 54-44 victory.
“Bones McKinney can look back to Feb. 16, 1946 as the day he defeated Duke University in basketball,” Durham Sun Sports Editor Hugo Germino wrote the next day. “Bones was clearly the margin of victory. He played the whole game and scored 21 points, but his main forte was in feeding the ball to his teammates and in controlling the ball off the backboards.”
Duke did, however, get the last laugh during the Southern Conference tournament in Raleigh. After Wake Forest upset UNC in the semifinals, the Blue Devils blasted the Deacons to claim the school’s fifth conference championship in nine years.
A year later, Seward earned Southern Conference honors for the second time in his career and was again Duke’s No. 2 scorer behind Koffenberger as Duke won a solid 17 games.
The popular “Bubber” was also elected as Duke’s Student Government President. He met and married fellow Duke student Matilda Paty during his second tour in Durham. After graduation, he was a semi-pro basketball star and a successful businessman in Johnson City, Tn., where he served many years on the local school board.
Bubber and Matilda had four children, a daughter and three sons. One son, Steve, played college basketball at Vanderbilt and William & Mary, later serving as an assistant coach at Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, Steve Seward died at a tragically young age from leukemia. In response, Bubber Seward spearheaded a drive to raise $3 million to build the Steve Seward Cancer Center in Johnson City.
Seward died in 2008, his basketball career just a small footnote to his impressive obituary.
He should be remembered as one of the heroes of the Duke-Carolina series.
But he should be remembered for a lot more than that.