In February 2002, Bill Wheeler M.B.A. ’93 decided to treat family friend James Suttenfield to a Duke home basketball game. Wheeler had grown up playing with Suttenfield’s son, and the elder Suttenfield had become a mentor after Wheeler’s father died. Wheeler knew Suttenfield had been awarded three Bronze Stars during World War II and had gone on to play varsity basketball at the University of Richmond. But on the drive from Virginia to Durham, Suttenfield began to share a story Wheeler had never heard— one that connected battle-hardened soldiers at the end of World War II to the Duke men’s basketball program.
In the summer of 1945, he said, after Germany surrendered and the war began to wind down, the Army decided to form a basketball league to keep the troops entertained. Servicemen had to try out for the teams, which would compete for several months, culminating in a tournament. Some of the teams were the 1st Division (The Big Red), 71st Infantry, and 10th Replacement Depot. Members of the winning team would have more than just bragging rights—they would be rewarded with expedited flights to New York.
Suttenfield, a first lieutenant, made the final cut of fourteen players on the 4th Armored Division team. The team was coached by Captain John “Cap” McEwan, who had coached football at West Point in the 1920s and, later, the Brooklyn Dodgers. But after about four weeks of league play, McEwan was transferred and Suttenfield was tapped to coach the team.
“I had no idea why I was selected as coach,” he told Wheeler. “Here I was a twenty-one-year-old [whose] only experience was playing high-school basketball. And now I was being asked to coach these men.”
The pool of league players was deep. It included future first-round NBA draft pick Bob Lavoy, who would play for the Indianapolis Olympians and the Syracuse Nationals; Carlisle Towery, an All-American at Western Kentucky who would go on to play for the Fort Wayne Pistons; and Vic Bubas, who was an All-Southern Conference guard and coached the Duke men’s basketball team from 1959 to 1969, leading the Blue Devils to three NCAA Final Four appearances.
“Vic was a great guard and could really handle the ball,” Suttenfield said. “I constantly tried to recruit him to join the 4th Armored team. He was very loyal to his team and would not switch.”
Yet Suttenfield managed to put together a stellar lineup that included Corren “Ceep” Youmans, a six-foot, 185-pound forward from Miami.
“In the winter of 1945, our team made it to the semi-final game of the Class A Division Championship,” said Suttenfield.
“We were winning the game, and I took Youmans out to save him for the championship game. Youmans was sitting next to me on the bench and kept elbowing me saying, ‘Put me back into the game.’ I wanted to look after my men and, like every young coach, I made a mistake. With about three minutes left, I gave in to Youmans and put him back in the game. Within a few seconds, he sprained his ankle, and he could not play in the championship game. The next day we lost the championship game by twelve points. I know we would have been on that plane back to New York had Youmans played.”
Instead, the team toured Europe and played in exhibition basketball games for the next couple of months. When Youmans returned to the States, he enrolled at Duke and played football and basketball and ran track. Since first-year students were not allowed to play on the varsity team, Youmans first made his mark as a member of the junior varsity basketball squad, but quickly rose up through the ranks. He was named All-Southern Conference Player (1948-50), was Duke’s leading scorer three years in a row, and was named co-captain his senior year in 1950.
“Youmans was sitting next to me on the bench and kept elbowing me saying, ‘Put me back into the game.’ ”
In a December 1949 match against Washington & Lee, Youmans made a play that presaged the historic buzzer-beater made by Christian Laettner ’92 in the East Regional finals against Kentucky. With only four seconds left to play in the game and Duke trailing 62-60, Youmans received the inbound pass and arched a shot from close to midcourt. The ball rimmed the hoop and almost jumped out, but fell through to send the game to overtime. Duke went on to win handily, 81-61.
More than fifty years later, Suttenfield and Wheeler braved the cold February air to make their way to the Duke Basketball Hall of Honor before tip-off. There were the familiar faces of relatively recent hoops stars—Elton Brand ’99, Steve Wojciechowski ’98, and Georgia Schweitzer ’01, Ph.D. ’08, M.H.S. ’12. They spotted two-time All-American Ed Koffenberger ’47, a member of the Army V-12 program who was the first Duke player to score thirty points in a game. Suddenly Suttenfield stopped. A smile spread across his face as he gazed up at a life-size banner of his former Army basketball-league player.
“That looks just like Youmans,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.
Adapted from “A Soldier’s Outlet From the War,” by Bill Wheeler, which appeared on DukeReport.com in November 2012. He is a CPA and lives in Richmond, Virginia.