With big assist from Hurley, Duke toughs it out

MIKE LITTWIN

April 02, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

INDIANAPOLIS -- Now, admit it, you thought Bobby Hurley was one of those suburban kids that Duke is always recruiting. That's the knock on Duke, you know. The kids are smart enough, but are they tough enough?

Some would propose the toughness factor as an explanation for all the disappointments in the Final Four. That when it comes down to it, really down to it, Duke is a little too soft, a little too nice. Sure, you've got a whole team of boys next door.

But, now they're in a new neighborhood. A weary, exhausted, worn-down Duke team out-toughed Kansas, 72-65, last night, in much the same way that the Blue Devils had stood up to UNLV two days before. They're finally champions, and that's because Hurley, the slight point guard, wouldn't allow them not to be.

He played every minute of both games. He wasn't trying to exorcise any ghosts -- although he did admit to dreaming about sharks -- but only to play his game. He didn't mind that everyone was watching, either.

When we last saw Hurley, then a freshman, getting manhandled a year ago by UNLV as Duke lost by 30, nobody was really surprised. Except Hurley and everyone who knows him. Hurley is the kid who wants to take on the world and is disappointed every time the world doesn't fight back. He's the emotional boy next door. And, besides, if you're next door to Hurley, you're somewhere in Jersey City, where you never have to look far for a basketball court.

"I didn't grow up in the suburbs or anything like that," Hurley said. "I played on the playgrounds, right there in the projects. There were no refs. There was nobody to stop someone from beating you up.

"I was a little nervous at first. I was the only white kid playing. But the guys I played with respected what I did on the court."

He brought the same attitude to Duke, not that he could help it. He was born to it.

"I talked a lot about that with Coach K," Hurley was saying of Mike Krzyzewski, a tough little city kid himself. "I told him I wasn't going to lose that city toughness. It's what makes me whatever kind of player I am.

"Coach told me it was a lot like a country club at Duke. He said, 'Don't ever lose that hunger.' "

We know about Christian Laettner, who was exhausted having to play Mark Randall all night, but who struggled to put up 18 points and take down 10 rebounds. And there's always someone like Billy McCaffrey, who came off the bench to score 16 points, on any team that wins a championship.

But the key throughout the tournament was Hurley, who had nine assists and three turnovers last night, bringing his totals to 43 assists and nine turnovers for the NCAA playoffs.

He played the entire game. He could have played all night. And it was just a little different a year ago.

"About 37 points different," Krzyzewski said.

The problem with Hurley was gathering in his emotions. It was a team project. He would yell at officials, and the coaching staff put together a film of his worst tantrums. He learned. He would get a little crazy on the court, and Laettner gently remind him to straighten out. You think Laettner is too soft, too?

"We've been working with Bobby," Laettner said. "He was asked to do so much so young. But for the last month, he has played with so much poise."

He needed it to come back from last year, especially since he had to come up against Vegas again. Kansas would have to be easier.

"He did what college kids are supposed to do -- learn from failure," Krzyzewski said. "It's not bad to fail, if you learn from it."

Someone had to step up. Like it or not, Duke had to deal with history, and not with the ancient kind taught by some professor, either. No matter how hard everyone tried to deny it, the players on this Duke team were many of the players who had been disappointed so often while millions look on.

The Blue Devils had been, of course, victims of their own success. It shouldn't have to be pointed out that to lose the big game, you have to play in it first. To get to the Final Four in four consecutive seasons, and five years in six, in these times is certainly a greater achievement than winning one title.

And yet.

Quickly enough, the win over UNLV on Saturday was forgotten and the questions about Duke's Final Four problems were being raised.

"It's the first time this team is in the Final Four," Krzyzewski said. "This team is more resilient. It's better. They've listened and they've believed all we've said all year long. I haven't pulled any punches with this year's team. Last year's team, I did a little bit. This year's team is tougher."

A loss would have been devastating, particularly since Kansas didn't have as much talent as Duke, but it did have Randall, a Duke kind of player who was, in fact, recruited by Duke and who went on instead to be All-Big Eight and All-Academic Big Eight. And he also went to be the kind of tough 6-foot-8 inside player who you can't seem to keep away from the basket and who gets -- didn't he? -- every big rebound.

Kansas came back in the end, as you guessed the Jayhawks would. The key play for Duke was a timeout by Grant Hill, with 27 seconds remaining, when the Blue Devils were having trouble getting the ball past midcourt in 10 seconds. It was a smart play, which is what you'd expect from Duke, and a play that would pretty much put the game away.

Meaning the Blue Devils didn't fold. And the bad news for everyone else is that they have almost everyone back for next season. Maybe they're too tough.

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