Volleyball Bids Duke Adieu– Terry Pettit
On September 18, Horace “Smitty Duke”, age 68, a setter-hitter for the 1968 United States Olympic team that upset the Russians in the Mexico Olympics, the setter the Mexicans called “el hombre de las manos de oro,” the man from Texas who was a four time All American baseball pitcher for the University of Dallas, who could play every position on a baseball field better than any of his teammates, the man who was selected to the All World Volleyball team at the World Cup in Czechoslovakia 1966, the man who was the only non-West Coast male on the U.S. 68 Olympic team, the man who died his hair red along with teammate Mary Jo Peppler when they played professional volleyball for the El Paso – Juarez Sol in 1975, the man who was a legend in Texas because he chose volleyball over a career in professional baseball, the man who made the single greatest attack I ever saw in volleyball, died from prostate cancer in his home in Unicoi, Tennessee.
The play: It was 1971 at a USVBA tournament at an event center St. Louis, Missouri. Smitty Duke was playing for the Dallas YMCA, his home club when he was not playing internationally. He was stationed at right front in a 6-2 offense, attacking from the right side in the front row while setting when he was in the back row.
A free ball came over the net and was passed to the back row setter. With the middle attacker up in the air for what the volleyball world called a Jap,(a quick set in the middle) the setter backset the ball to Duke. Smitty had several options. Because the block was split he could spike the ball cross-court for a kill. Because the ball was set to the pin he could have easily wiped the ball off the outside blocker with a simple wrist -away shot down the line. Even a tip would have scored easily.
Instead, he chose to wipe the ball off the inside hand of the blocker which would require the ball to travel a minimum of thirty feet for the shot to score. The shot was hit harder than any attack I had ever seen. After deflecting off the opponent’s inside hand the ball traveled laterally for three courts while still rising and hit the wall thirty feet above the floor. Play stopped on all five courts while everyone but Smitty Duke thought about what just happened.
Why did he do it? He did it for the same reason that he chose a relatively minor sport over a much more lucrative option. In a state where football and baseball received all of the coverage and notoriety, Smitty Duke was famous for choosing volleyball. He didn’t do it because it was what the situation called for. He didn’t do it to draw attention to himself. He did it (both the choice and the shot) because he could.
Terry Pettit – Author of Talent and the Secret Life of Teams, available at www.terrypettit.com