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Before Zion: How Gene Banks paved the way for Duke’s stars

The first McDonald’s All American at Duke, Banks started a trend in 1977

Long before Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett were taking college basketball by storm, and even before coach Mike Krzyzewski started roaming Duke’s sideline, there was Gene Banks.

With the stroke of a pen in the spring of 1977, Banks became the first McDonald’s All American to sign with Duke, beginning a legacy that has pushed the university to the forefront of college hoops.

To date, no college has signed more McDonald’s All Americans than Duke. The commitments from top high school prospects Vernon Carey Jr. and Wendell Moore Jr. this season would give Duke a total of 78 McDonald’s All Americans in 42 years.

While Duke’s current stars have the nation buzzing, it was Banks who first helped put Duke on the map.

“I had the opportunity of coaching Gene his senior year,” said Krzyzewski. “I knew about him when Duke recruited him. It was one of those moments in Duke basketball history that changed the program and helped change our school.”

Gene Banks of Duke goes up for a shot against North Carolina at at the Greensboro Coliseum in 1980, Banks became the first McDonald’s All American to sign with the Blue Devils.

Duke University/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

There were no scouting services or mixtapes when Banks played. Word of mouth and a mention in Street & Smith’s helped players develop a rep and mystique.

Nicknamed “Tinkerbell,” Banks could dominate both inside and outside. He played with a high basketball IQ and intensity. And he was appointment viewing at West Philadelphia High School.

“Everyone wanted to see Gene. He was the best,” said Darryl Warwick, the team’s sure-handed point guard who went by the nickname “City Lights.”

During the ’70s, it was common, especially around Banks’ high school, to see gang conflicts. Youngsters would square off and fight with their fists or a knife. There would be gunplay on occasion, albeit nothing like what is seen today. But an unspoken truce would be observed for a day whenever the Speedboys performed.

“I had gang members come up and say they wouldn’t fight out of respect for what we were doing,” said Banks. “And these brothers were serious. On any given day they’d fight, but not when we played.”

“Gene could talk to anyone about anything,” said retired West Philadelphia High School coach Joe Goldenberg. “He was great with people. That’s what helped make him special.”

In 1977, Banks was named to the first McDonald’s All American team, which also featured Basketball Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Albert King, Wayne McKoy, Jeff Ruland, Darnell Valentine and Al Wood. Banks was regarded as the best of the best.

Although there wasn’t a McDonald’s game in 1977, the team was featured in the Capital Classic in Washington, D.C., against an all-star team from the D.C. area. Banks showed why he was considered the best prep player in the country. He scored a game-high 22 points and led the McDonald’s squad to a 112-92 victory, earning game MVP honors.

“I was proud to be a McDonald’s All American,” said Banks. “I was excited to play with the best players in the country. It meant a lot to me.”

Banks had options on where to play collegiately. UCLA was considered. So were the University of Pennsylvania and Villanova, two schools within a stone’s throw of Banks’ home.

Banks said it was his English teacher at West Philly, William H. Deadwyler Jr., who suggested Duke. “The only thing I knew about the [Atlantic Coast Conference] was David Thompson,” said Banks. “I saw him on TV. And of course I saw [North] Carolina.

“[Deadwyler] kept hammering me about the academics and the beautiful buildings. To get him off my back, I chose to go there [for a visit].”

In the end, it was a dream that pushed Duke to the top of his list. One day, Banks took the advice of his mother, went into his room, closed the door and prayed. In a dream, Banks said he saw himself wearing a blue and white Duke uniform.

His decision to attend Duke came as a surprise to others.

“The only thing I knew about Duke was that it was in the ACC and it was in North Carolina,” said Clarence “Eggy” Tillman, Banks’ frontcourt mate at West Philadelphia High. “I was very happy for him. I knew it was a very big decision that had been on his mind.”

While North Carolina and North Carolina State enjoyed success in recruiting African-American players, Duke was behind the trend. C.B. Claiborne was the first black basketball player at Duke. He arrived in 1965 on a “grant-in-aid” and played on the varsity squad from 1967 to 1969.

Gene Banks (left) of Duke is stripped of the ball by John Virgil (right) of North Carolina as Banks was about to make a layup off a fast break. North Carolina went on to defeat Duke, 87-83, to win the ACC regular-season championship on Feb. 25, 1978, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

AP Photo/Bryson Lewis

The first African-American player at Duke with a basketball scholarship was Don Blackman. He arrived in 1968 and played on the varsity squad in 1970 but eventually transferred. Willie Hodge, Edgar Burch, Rick Gomez, George Moses, Ken Young and Harold Morrison all played on the Duke varsity team before Banks and starting point guard John Harrell, a transfer from North Carolina Central, entered the school in September 1977.

“There weren’t many blacks [on campus], but it was a small and significant group of blacks,” said Banks, who earned a degree in history and gave the commencement speech at graduation. “I had to achieve in order for others of my race [to achieve].”

In 1978, Banks was named the ACC Rookie of the Year and helped Duke reach the NCAA championship game. His aggressive and instinctive play helped change the image of Duke basketball. He did things on the court that previously hadn’t been seen at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He was the first Duke freshman to record a triple-double.

During his Duke career, he averaged 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, earned first-team All-ACC honors as a senior and second-team honors his first three seasons, and was a two-time All-American. He also was voted team MVP three times.

Banks, who went on to play six seasons in the NBA and served three seasons as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards, began a trend at Duke.

“Gene was a tremendous player and one of the more significant figures in Duke basketball history,” said Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker, a former McDonald’s All American who starred at Duke. “He helped energize and transform the Duke program with his commitment and decision to go there.”

Banks still keeps up with the Blue Devils and remains an ardent supporter.

“It’s a different era now,” said Banks, who was recently named the new director of basketball for Olympia Sports Camp in Muskoka, Ontario. “When I’m around them when I attend a few games, I feel welcomed. It’s home, and I’m a big part of what Duke University has become. I realize that. Of course I’m a lot closer to older [past] players, but the younger ones give me respect. I’m OK with that.

“They’ve got a lot of talent. Coach K has those guys playing very well and as a team. They have an opportunity to have a fantastic season. This could be very special.”

Banks, meanwhile, appreciates his special place in Duke history.

“When you are going through it, you don’t think about making history or being a pioneer,” said Banks. “I wanted to go to Duke and I wanted to make a difference.”

He did.

Player Year Named McDonald’s All American
Banks, Gene 1977
Taylor, Vince 1978
Dawkins, Johnny 1982
Amaker, Tommy 1983
Nessley, Martin 1983
Ferry, Danny 1985
Snyder, Quin 1985
Abdelnaby, Alaa 1986
Henderson, Phil 1986
Koubek, Greg 1987
Laettner, Christian 1988
Palmer, Crawford 1988
Hurley, Bobby 1989
McCaffrey, Bill 1989
Hill, Grant 1990
Parks, Cherokee 1991
Collins, Chris 1992
Beard, Joey 1993
Langdon, Trajan 1994
Price, Ricky 1994
Wojciechowski, Steve 1994
Domzalski, Taymon 1995
James, Nate 1996
Battier, Shane 1997
Brand, Elton 1997
Burgess, Chris 1997
Maggette, Corey 1998
Boozer, Jr., Carlos 1999
Dunleavy, Jr., Michael 1999
Sanders, Casey 1999
Williams, Jay 1999
Duhon, Chris 2000
Ewing, Daniel 2001
Dockery, Sean 2002
Randolph, Shavlik 2002
Redick, J.J. 2002
Thompson, Michael 2002
Deng, Luol 2003
Nelson, DeMarcus 2004
Boateng, Eric 2005
McRoberts, Josh 2005
Paulus, Greg 2005
Henderson, Gerald 2006
Scheyer, Jonathan 2006
Thomas, Lance 2006
King, Taylor 2007
Singler, Kyle 2007
Smith, Nolan 2007
Williams, Elliot 2008
Kelly, Ryan 2009
Plumlee, Mason 2009
Irving, Kyrie 2010
Cook, Quinn 2011
Plumlee, Marshall 2011
Rivers, Austin 2011
Jefferson, Amile 2012
Sulaimon, Rasheed 2012
Jones, Matt 2013
Parker, Jabari 2013
Allen, Grayson 2014
Jones, Tyus 2014
Okafor, Jahlil 2014
Winslow, Justise 2014
Ingram, Brandon X. 2015
Jeter, Chase 2015
Kennard, Luke 2015
Bolden, Marques 2016
Jackson, Frank 2016
Tatum, Jayson 2016
Carter, Jr., Wendell 2017
Duval, Trevon 2017
Trent, Jr., Gary 2017
Barrett, RJ 2018
Jones, Tre 2018
Reddish, Cameron 2018
Williamson, Zion 2018

Daryl Bell is the assistant news editor and columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. He's a veteran journalist who has covered every major sport, and many minor ones.