For Danny Ferry, the trick is in the tricks, as it were. Ferry, Duke's 6'10" junior forward, has all of a sudden, or so it seems, become one of the most versatile and valuable college basketball players in the land. But any kid who grew up around the NBA, the offspring of an alltime, hang-loose prankster like his father, Bob, who played 10 years in the pros and taught his son well, is bound to know a lot about the art of illusion.
Seldom does young Ferry make a move without thinking several more moves ahead. Hardly ever has he broken free for a shot without having given his defender an ever-so-subtle push beforehand. "I love to set a solid ball pick and pop a guy in the open court," says Ferry with nary a blush.
Opposing coaches gripe about Ferry's physical play, while at the same time licking their chops at the thought of having him on their side. "The pro stuff—the hips and holds, the picks and nudges—he knows it all," says North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. "Especially jumping into you. The principle of verticality? Hah! Danny's verticality is the prone position. When he gets through with us, my guys look like Sealy Posturepedics, and the refs are acting like Verticality is my Uncle Gino's last name. Ferry may not be the most talented player in our league, but for my money he's the best."
The fact that Ferry looks so preposterously innocent—even in his uniform you can visualize him as just another buttoned-down Dookie good guy (which is exactly what he is) walking around the Blue Devils' gothic campus—makes his game even more, uh..."devious," says Mike Brey, a new assistant coach at Duke. "But the devious grin gives him away." Brey was a teacher and assistant coach at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., when Ferry played and studied there. One day Ferry walked into Brey's history class, flashing that grin, and said, "What's on for today, Big Time?"
February 15, 1988
Most people need a lifetime to learn what Ferry has known instinctively since he was in swaddling clothes—namely, just how much you can get away with. Moreover, as Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski says, "He knows who he is. He's always known that."
Probably such knowledge was most important in 1985-86 when, fresh from being named national high school player of the year in his last season at DeMatha, he went off to Tobacco Road and got swallowed up in Duke's motion offense and senior-dominated NCAA finalist team. "I was a chemistry player then," he says, meaning that he had to blend in with everybody else. He started the first 21 games for the Blue Devils in his freshman season, during which Duke set an NCAA record with 37 victories. And he also made a couple of enormous plays at the end of Duke's 71-67 win over Kansas in the national tournament semifinals, which propelled the Blue Devils into the championship game, a 72-69 loss against Louisville.
Last season Ferry led injury-bedraggled Duke in scoring, rebounding and assists as it fought through to the NCAA round of 16, where it was eliminated by eventual champion Indiana. But it wasn't until this season that he finally found his proper place in the Blue Devils' way of doing things. The place happens to be all over the deck, as well as everywhere within it: Not only is Ferry a joker and a jack-of-all-trades, but he's also a king (as in King Footer, about which, more later) and, according to Coach K, "the queen on the chess board."
"There could not be a better player for the Duke system than Danny," says Krzyzewski. "It's exciting for a coach to have a guy who can be used with so many different kinds of lineups." The Blue Devils' dazzling 10-deep array of personnel came in handy last week when Duke had to play four games in seven days, albeit all of them were at home in front of their beloved Cameron Indoor Stadium crazies. The Blue Devils defeated Clemson 101-63 and Georgia Tech 78-65, and on Saturday they led Valvano's Wolfpack by 14 points in the second half before coming up empty. Duke went without a field goal for almost eight minutes, and N.C. State bagged a 77-74 upset.
Ferry had a game-high 21 points, but it was an error on his specialty—the 94-foot desperation, game-clinching pass—that meant the difference in Duke's third defeat of the season. After the Wolfpack's Vinny Del Negro missed a free throw with seven seconds left and the Pack ahead 75-74. Ferry got the rebound and spotted teammate Phil Henderson open in the far corner at Duke's end. Unfortunately for all those Dookies chanting, "If you can't go to college, go to State; if you can't go to State, go to jail," Ferry lost his grip and fluttered the ball to midcourt where the Pack intercepted it. On Sunday Ferry had a team-high 16 points as the Blue Devils beat Notre Dame 70-61 to run their season record to 16-3.
As for the nonfriendly confines of the Atlantic Coast Conference, after last week Duke was 5-2 and tied for first place with North Carolina and N.C. State. Ferry ranks third in the league in scoring (18.7 points a game), sixth in rebounding (7.4), ninth in assists (4.3) and fourth in free throw percentage (.822). He has come a long way since his freshman season, when he was sometimes benched and was thought, by some, to have underachieved.
Bob Ferry, however, says his son "withheld 30 percent of his ability" that season to fit in with the team, and Krzyzewski maintains that Danny "subordinated himself magnificently." Coach K adds, "I know it was a blow to him not to start. He looked on it as a demotion even though it wasn't. But Danny knew what the team needed."
With his background Ferry would have had to have been a dunce not to know. Here's a kid who grew up watching his 6'4" brother, Bob, play high school ball at DeMatha; watching terrific college teams—like Maryland and Georgetown—that his father scouted as vice-president and general manager of the Washington Bullets; and watching the Bullets practice since he was six years old. "I didn't have babysitters," Danny says. "I went to games." Wes Unseld held Danny upside down over a banister. The sons of Elvin Hayes and Dick Motta were his grade school playmates. He has an antique chest in his room at Duke that was given to him by his godmother, Dottie (the former Mrs. Gene) Shue. The night in 1978 that Washington won the NBA championship, Danny and his older sister, Laura, watching at home on TV, dressed up their brother Bob's dog, Bullets, in a Washington T-shirt. Given all that, Danny says, "Hey, I should be a good player."
Before he even got to high school, he was much taller than most of his classmates and already throwing bullet outlet passes of the sort that had made Unseld famous. "He'd get the ball and just fling it downcourt," says his father. "Sometimes the other kids would even catch up to it."
At the time, the Ferrys lived in Bowie, Md.—they've since moved to Annapolis—so DeMatha, with its legendary coach, Morgan Wootten, was the obvious place for the boys. "I wanted a good Catholic school," says the senior Ferry, "and a place where they would learn how to win." Their mother, Rita, drove the one-hour round-trip sometimes twice a day. "Saint Rita," Danny says. "We genuflect when we see her now."
The brothers played against their dad and one another in a sideyard court, though that competition ended when young Bob, who is four years older than Danny, went off to Harvard instead of N.C. State (where he probably would have been a member of Valvano's 1983 NCAA championship team). Anyway, Danny was growing something fierce and the home-court games had become overly rough. "My dad fouled too much, and my brother fought too much," says Danny, laughing.
Danny was one of the few freshmen ever to play for Wootten. "At 15 he had the basketball mind of a 30-year-old," says Brey—not to mention the know-how to execute picks, screens and body slams.
"Once I was watching a game and Danny set this vicious back pick," says his father. "Some poor kid just bounced off him onto the floor. I told him he simply couldn't do that, and Danny said, 'Why not, Dad? Ricky [Mahorn, then a Bullet bruise brother] gets away with it all the time.' "
By the time Danny was a DeMatha senior, the Stags were crowned national high school champion by USA Today, and he was the object of an intense recruiting battle between Duke and North Carolina. The night in 1985 that Harvard showed up to play a game in Durham, the Duke crowd chanted, "We want your brother!" at Bob. "I was the best-treated visiting player in the history of Cameron," says Bob, who nevertheless pulled a nifty hoax. When the name "Bob Ferry" was announced over the P.A. system during the introduction of the Crimson starting five, Kyle Dodson ran onto the floor in Ferry's stead. Dodson is black. It was the first—and probably last—time that the Duke zoo was dumbstruck, silenced in its own cage.
That prank was typical of the Ferry clan, whose progenitor was a journeyman center for the Hawks, Pistons and Bullets from 1959 to '69 before he moved to Washington's front office. Ferry's considerable executive abilities were for a long time overshadowed by his reputation as a roistering fun lover. And his friends returned his favors in kind: Once when he was celebrating his birthday, for instance, a buddy arranged to have a live lion appear at Ferry's front door.
But a few years ago Ferry suddenly found himself less a drinking buddy than a recruiters' target. Maryland coach Lefty Driesell was a family friend who used to bring the Ferrys fish he caught on excursions to Maryland's Eastern Shore. When Danny was in high school, Driesell even camped out in Rita's real estate office to hook the real whopper. Danny wouldn't bite: He wanted to go away to school.
The senior Ferry kept the brews cold for many of his other old friends—now his son's suitors. "Dean Smith had a beer," Bob says. "Bobby Cremins [of Georgia Tech] and I got smashed. Coach K was scared to drink one. Hell, I hope there's not an NCAA law against me giving them something."
"I don't like beer," Krzyzewski says. "Anyway, I didn't want to spit and slur while explaining the motion offense."
Danny was known as Beanpole in high school, and his dad still calls him Beans. But he always had great hands and could run, dribble and shoot from afar. And, oh, how he could see the floor and pass. Sometimes he saw too much and didn't take shots he could have made easily. "He was selfless to a fault," says Wootten. "He'd overpass. I'd tell the other kids to just keep their hands up, and Danny would get them all in double figures." Until a few weeks ago Krzyzewski was having similar difficulty persuading Danny that he was Duke's first option to score.
One downside of Ferry's NBA upbringing was his shot selection. "I told him the pros' goal is to get the shot off, but our goal is for the shot to go in," says Krzyzewski. "Danny's base was too narrow. He was leaning and lunging as though he were on a teeter-totter. Now he's squaring up, using the proper footwork, developing solid moves."
Last season Ferry averaged only 11.6 shots a game and hit 44.9% of them. On the team Krzyzewski coached at the World University Games last summer in Yugoslavia, Ferry learned to play mostly inside, where a roughhouse tower belongs. This season, beginning with Duke's 91-85 loss at Arizona on Dec. 30, Ferry began posting up comfortably and through last week was averaging 15 shots per game and hitting 52.6%.
"Danny's greatest asset is still his mind," says Krzyzewski. "He'll out-think you every time. Let John Thompson put him on the Olympic team in that spread-out international game, and Danny will get double-figure assists feeding David Robinson."
And the U.S. would be represented by one more lean, mean banger. "I'd like to be labeled a physical player," says Ferry. "But don't call me a dirty one."
The former Mahorn protègè achieved a bit of that reputation last season after his involvement in altercations with Virginia's Tom Sheehey and Georgia Tech's Craig (Noodles) Neal. Sheehey, who got thrown out of a game for elbowing Ferry in the jaw, claimed his action was in response to Ferry's slapping him in the crotch. "I might have popped him too low," says Ferry, "but Sheehey was the most hated guy in the ACC. He was old news." As for the incident at Georgia Tech, for which Ferry was hit with a technical, tapes showed that he wasn't responsible for a melee that broke out between the teams. Later Fred Barakat, the ACC supervisor of officials, apologized to Ferry. Last week Neal, who got his moniker for his lanky build, was given his comeuppance when the raving Dookie spectators showered the court with packets of uncooked macaroni just before the Blue Devils beat Tech behind 22 points from Ferry.
"Danny's no dirtier than anybody else I've played against," says Duke senior co-captain and exquisite defender Billy King. "All great players have tricks, and they get, uh, victimized."
Ferry's preppie irreverence makes him seem right at home on the Duke campus. Amid the polyglot student mass he has found kindred spirits in Quin Snyder, a point guard from Mercer Island, Wash., and Paul Stewart, who lives in Switzerland and is the son of former Scottish Grand Prix driver Jackie Stewart. As a birthday prank, Snyder took Ferry's clothes during practice and hid them in a locker room freezer. In return Ferry stole the car Snyder was driving while out on a date. Trouble was, it was Ferry's car, and when Snyder relocated it he plastered it with gooey Oreos. Stewart recently spread "a million" pieces of Styrofoam around Ferry's room and later filled his bed with oily salad vegetables. And, oh yes, on Thanksgiving, Stewart took a peach pie and smashed Danny in the face with it. Ah, youth.
"Danny's nothing but a Footer," says Snyder, who shares a house with Ferry and two other Duke students. Footer? "You know, as in seven-footer. Slow, clumsy, eats a lot, clothes don't fit."
At first Ferry resented that nickname. Then he embraced it and organized the other Duke frontcourt players into a powerful group with secret votes and policies. He calls himself King Footer; center John Smith is Onion, for the shape of his head. The initiation rite for new Footers includes the prerequisite itching powder in the jock.
Says Snyder, "Everybody knows I signed to come to Duke first, and Ferry just came here so he could play on the same team with me."
Whatever. Nowadays the King Footer stomps the hallowed halls and hardwood of Duke and plays with, and beats, most anybody he wants to.