College Basketball

Kistler a key to Duke's 1960 'miracle'

Fifty years after one of the most stunning ACC championships of all time, the graying former Duke basketball players from 1960 left two empty seats in the team picture they took in a conference room at the Washington Duke Inn during their January reunion.

One was for Jack Mullen, whose long arms and stamina were the key to a new defense coach Vic Bubas used to shock the ACC in the 1960 tournament, and who died of natural causes in 1988.

The other was for Doug Kistler, who emerged late in that season to lead Duke to its first ACC Tournament title and earn the first of the Blue Devils' 16 tournament most valuable player honors.

Each year middle-of-the-pack teams hope to create magic the way Bubas' first Duke team did after finishing 7-7 in the ACC in the regular season and getting blown out twice by No. 2 seed Wake Forest and three times by top-seeded North Carolina.

And each year players who believe they're on the verge of personal greatness dream of putting together a tournament run the way Kistler did 50 years ago.

"He was always Mr. Potential," said Bucky Waters, an assistant coach on that team who later became Duke's head coach. "We'd kid him, 'Mr. Potential.' But that March he soared."

Kistler was a junior who had scored 20 points or more just twice in his career before mid-February of 1960. His success at the end of that season was a surprise, but what happened to him during the ACC Tournament 20 years later shocked his family, friends and the community he served as Charlotte Garinger High's coach.

At age 41, Kistler was killed along with Garinger registrar Tresa Griffin, 32, when a driver who later pleaded guilty to DUI crossed over the center line and hit their car head-on in northeast Charlotte, according to police.

"He had a lot to give," said Stuart Yarbrough, who had earlier played for Kistler at Durham Jordan High. " ... You have someone that was that talented that didn't get the opportunity to see that through their lifetime. And therefore a lot of kids missed the opportunity to play for somebody like that."

Gentle giant

Kistler always was gifted.

Growing up in Wayne, Pa., he was 6 feet 9 with long arms and the ability to score from the perimeter. In part because a cousin, Jack Kistler, had played football at Duke, Doug accepted a scholarship to play for the Blue Devils when he had offers as a swimmer at other schools.

But he had gotten off to a shaky start. When Bubas took over for Harold Bradley to start the 1959-60 season, he believed Kistler could improve dramatically if he changed his style of play.

Known as a gentle giant at power forward, Kistler preferred to play away from the basket and rely on his jump shot. Bubas, Waters and the rest of Duke's staff wanted Kistler to take advantage of his size in the low post.

Through much of the season, the coaches and Kistler wondered whether he was aggressive enough to bang in the low post.

"He worked very hard and long during the year," Bubas said. "I must admit, I think there were times when he was discouraged with how he was coming along, and we as coaches were cautious with whether we could use him in that capacity."

But one day late in the season, Bubas was unusually cheerful when he came home from practice. His wife, Tootie, asked why.

Bubas told her that he thought the light finally was coming on for Kistler. He scored 23, 22 and 22 points in three of Duke's final five regular-season games.

Kistler was about to make a splash.

Bold prediction

The Blue Devils had lost five of their last seven games entering the tournament, but Bubas told his players they were going to win it. He installed a 1-1-3 zone defense that he had learned from Wake Forest coach Bones McKinney.

Mullen was the key, as his extraordinary athletic ability allowed him to hustle and defend both sides of the floor in the zone. The long arms of Kistler and center Carroll Youngkin also created problems for opponents.

"When we played that thing right, it was really an imposing zone defense," Youngkin said.

Coupled with Kistler's newfound confidence, the zone transformed Duke.

Kistler scored what was then a career-high 26 points as No. 4 seed Duke breezed to an 82-69 win over No. 5 seed South Carolina in the quarterfinals.

Next up was North Carolina, which had All-ACC players in York Larese and Lee Shaffer, and defeated the Blue Devils by 22, 26 and 25 points that season.

But the Tar Heels hadn't faced Duke's zone. In the first half, North Carolina shot just 8-for-34 from the field as the Blue Devils built a 35-23 halftime lead. The Tar Heels rallied, but Howard Hurt rebounded a missed Kistler free throw to put Duke ahead for good with just over a minute to play. Kistler was held to four points, but grabbed eight rebounds and had eight assists in a 71-69 win.

The following night, against a Wake Forest team that featured Len Chappell and Billy Packer, Kistler led all scorers with 22 points. His 10-foot turnaround jumper gave Duke the lead for good at 59-58 as the Blue Devils won 63-59 to capture their first ACC Tournament title.

"They played three outstanding games, two particularly beating two teams that had beaten them pretty well," Packer said. "And he [Kistler] played extremely well."

Duke earned the ACC's lone NCAA Tournament bid by winning the conference tournament. The Blue Devils defeated Princeton and St. Joseph's before falling 74-59 to New York University and senior standout forward Tom "Satch" Sanders in a regional final in Charlotte.

"That run we had into the NCAA, it wasn't as great as Jimmy Valvano's run in March to a national championship [with N.C. State in 1983]," Waters said, "but we were one win from the Final Four."

Kistler married his high school sweetheart, Earlene Poole, that June. He played his final season at Duke and then spent one season with the New York Knicks ("He got in the game if they were 30 points ahead or 30 points behind," said his brother, Paul.) Then Kistler returned to Durham to start a career coaching the game he loved.

Best in the state

It didn't take long for Kistler to demonstrate his team-building ability in his first coaching job at Jordan High. Waters saw him work and said he was the kind of coach who could get into players' souls and lift them.

At the end of practice Kistler would make them run "suicide sprints" so intense that players sometimes vomited before they were through. They didn't mind doing it because he connected with them, joining them on the court and participating in spirited drills and scrimmages with the team.

"When we ran our drills, it was loose," said Steve Pendergraft, who played for Kistler at Jordan. "It was fun. Everybody was laughing."

Kistler molded a state championship team led by three longtime teammates - center Yarbrough (Duke), forward Billy Chambers (North Carolina) and point guard Mike Blalock (Virginia Tech) - who went on to play college basketball.

When they were seniors in 1968, Jordan set a state championship game record for margin of victory that still stands with a 91-41 hammering of Laurinburg Scotland, completing a 26-0 season.

Kistler later coached at the private Ravenscroft School before deciding he wanted to use coaching to help less fortunate students create better lives for themselves.

He moved to Charlotte to coach Garinger High, where he also served as a guidance counselor.

In 1979, he established a summer basketball league to give his players something to do at least a few nights a week when school was out.

Kistler arranged for players to attend the renowned Five Star camp in Pennsylvania.

"He felt like this was a place where he could really make a difference," said Judy Atwell, Kistler's second wife.

But his time at Garinger turned out to be far too short.

Tragic end

The 1980 ACC Tournament was the 20th anniversary of Duke's underdog ACC title run led by Kistler. The tournament program featured a profile about Kistler.

Another Duke team, led by Mike Gminski and Gene Banks, was fashioning an ACC Tournament title run, but Kistler wouldn't be able to see it through to the end. Atwell said he watched some of the opening day of the tournament on TV. But early the next morning, she got a call from the hospital saying she needed to come immediately.

At about 12:40 a.m. on Feb. 29, the day the Blue Devils defeated North Carolina in the semifinals, Kistler's 1974 Honda was hit head on in northeast Charlotte.

Kistler and Griffin had been killed in the wreck at Grier and Orr roads. Joseph Michael Chisholm, then of Charlotte, was the driver of the 1972 Chevrolet that crossed the center line and hit Kistler's car, according to police.

Chisholm, who was 29, pleaded guilty to two counts of involuntary manslaughter and to driving under the influence. He was sentenced to five years in prison. According to Department of Corrections records, he served two years before being paroled in June of 1982. Reached by telephone, he politely declined to comment for this story.

When Kistler moved to Charlotte to coach at Garinger, he called it "coming back to the real world," an opportunity to help teens who many times were at risk and in greater need than the more affluent players at Ravenscroft.

"He had good kids but from all sorts of backgrounds with some family and motivational problems," Atwell said. "He would make them understand they had potential not only in basketball, but otherwise as well."

That work ended in an instant. His widow and his brother, Paul, took his ashes to be spread in Ashe County in northwestern North Carolina. Kistler owned property and a tiny cabin there where he used to like to sit on the bank and pull trout out of a stream near a waterfall.

Kistler's son, Doug Kistler Jr., was a freshman at Appalachian State at the time and was moved by the grief of the Garinger players at his father's funeral. Coaching had been Doug Sr.'s passion, to such an extent that Doug Jr. said it kept him away from his family to some extent.

Doug Sr. and Earlene had divorced years earlier, and Doug's time with Doug Jr. and his other son, Gregory, was limited.

Nonetheless, Earlene hoped that as her boys grew older their father could fill the role of a friend and trusted adviser to them. He did help Doug Jr. with the process of choosing and enrolling in college.

"And then to lose him like that, it was overwhelming," Doug Jr. said, "because I didn't get to spend a whole lot of time with him."

While attending Jordan High with the children of Lee Shaffer, Doug Jr. got to know the former North Carolina standout who played against his father. Every time Shaffer saw him, he'd tell Doug Jr. that his father was a great player.

That - and his father's influence on the players he coached - make Doug Jr. proud.

"He just made a tremendous impact on all the kids he coached," Doug Jr. said. "And he wanted them to be the best they can be and he just really enjoyed it. That was his life."