I remember the first time I saw Dwight Durante shoot. It was in the old Guilford College gym. Catawba College was the visiting team. Guilford in those days was a small college basketball powerhouse, ranked among the top NAIA schools. Our coach was future hall-of-famer Jerry Steele. We had three players who would be drafted by the pros (Ed Fellers, Pat Moriarty and Bob Kauffman, who went on to become an NBA all-star, coach and general manager). Catawba was good but not quite great, and sure to lose.
Not far past the half court line on Catawba’s first possession, Dwight Durante fired up what would have been a desperation shot for an ordinary player. But for Durante it was like a layup. Swish. The whole crowd’s jaw dropped. For the rest of the game, Durante perforated the Guilford defense with artful moves, but kept blowing everybody’s mind with these extremely long shots. I forget the final score, but I remember that Guilford lost. And Dwight had 50-some points.
Eighty amateur basketball stars gathered in New Mexico in the spring of 1968 for the Olympic Trials. Only 12 would be chosen for the USA team that would compete for a gold medal in Mexico City. Pete Maravich, Charlie Scott, Rick Mount and JoJo White were there. So was the nation’s most famous little man, 5-foot-9 All-American Calvin Murphy, who could dunk two balls at a time. But the sensation of those trials was a 5-8 junior from Catawba who scored 44 points, tied Murphy in knots and led the NAIA all-stars to three straight victories.
His name was Dwight Durante, and while the selection committee wasn’t going to put a 5-8 NAIA kid on the team, Durante proved he could play with the best. “I had a great tournament,” Durante said at Catawba’s basketball reunion. “I almost made it.”
Durante’s name is still whispered on the Catawba campus four decades after his heyday. He was a lefty scoring machine with lightning in his legs. He shot often, connected often.
The Catawba record book remains his personal property: most career points (2,913), most points in a game (58), highest scoring average for a season (32.1). He averaged 29.4 points per game for his career. He scored 777 more points than Bill Bailey, Catawba’s No. 2 all-time scorer.
Durante did what he did despite an unfortunate suspension that cost him nearly half his sophomore year and an injury that hobbled him for a month his senior year. And he did it without benefit of the 3-point shot.
“I figure 60 percent of his field goals would have been 3-pointers,” said Sam Moir, Durante’s coach at Catawba. “His teammates have told me, ‘No, Coach, it would have to be 70 percent.’ Dwight had great legs — he wore ankle braces in practice — and he could elevate and shoot accurately from 25, 26 feet.”
…”He was Allen Iverson, but he was Iverson with range,” said James Brown, a Catawba Hall of Famer who used to sneak into gyms as a youngster to watch Durante’s magic act. “If Dwight was coming out of college now, he’d get a multi-million dollar contract.”
Yes, he was that good — and decades ahead of his time. Catawba has more famous alumni, but none better at any sport than Dwight Durante. That’s why I just added him to the Catawba’s notable alumni list in Wikipedia, with three citations (you’re welcome). One of those, a list of all Globetrotters players, has Dwight listed at 5’6″. I think that’s closer to correct, but I dunno.
Other small-college players I was lucky to see back then: Gene Littles of High Point College, Henry Logan of Western Carolina University, and Earl Monroe and William English of Winston Salem State University. All were great. (Earl was my fave, and the finest ball-handler of the day.) But none could shoot like Dwight Durante. I’m not sure anybody ever will.
[Later…] I just found this 1996 item in the Sports Illustrated vault:
Dwight Durante, a 5-foot-8 freshman guard at Catawba College, Salisbury, N.C., tallied 58 points against Western Carolina to set a new single-game scoring record in the Carolinas Conference. Durante is the league’s leading scorer with a 30.1 average.
I remember that little piece because of what Jerry Steele said after Carl Sheer, Guilford’s play-by-play announcer, brought it up after a victory over Catawba. “Well,” said Jerry, in his slow Carolina drawl, “Dwight Durante might have his picture in Sports Illustrated. But I’ve got Bob Kauffman’s picture in my bedroom.” (Bob was the third player picked in the 1968 NBA draft, behind Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Also drafted from Guilford that year were Pat Moriorty and Ed Fellers, both by the Knicks. Bob went on to have a three-time all-star career, though Pat and Ed didn’t make the cut. Still, my point is that the NAIA in those days had some outstanding players.)