MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

One thing we like to do around here is engage in unprovable and unwinnable arguments, particularly about local and area sports.

We can argue about who the best high school football player was in area history, for instance, until we’re red or blue in the face and compelling and perfectly logical points can be made for as many as a dozen or so different players. And no matter how strongly each of us may feel we are right in our respective choices, nobody is actually wrong because there is no way to accurately compare so many worthy players from so many different eras of the game. Not when it comes to absolute best.

That, however, is not the case for high school basketball, as Allegany High School’s Steve Vandenberg is clearly the greatest basketball player in this area’s history, because everybody knows it. There is no logical or possible counterpoint, even from those of us who just missed seeing him play for the Campers.

So if I didn’t see him play live, how can I say he is the best basketball player in area history? Because everybody who did see him play at Allegany, from either side of town, says he was the best basketball player in area history. It is a clear matter of legend being unanimously accepted as fact, because it is fact.

Vandy, who stood 6-feet-7 and weighed 220 pounds, a 1965 graduate of Allegany, led the Campers to three state tournament appearances and two state championships. He was named All-America and received a basketball scholarship to Duke University from where he graduated in 1969.

He played three seasons (freshmen were not eligible to play varsity until 1973) for Coach Vic Bubas and was team captain for the Blue Devils in 1969. In Bubas’ final game as head coach at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and on Senior Day, Vandenberg scored his career-high 33 points to propel an 87-81 upset win over No. 2 North Carolina.

A lefthander with a sweet shooting touch, Vandy was 10 for 14 from the field, 13 for 13 from the line and had 12 rebounds. It remains one of a select number of games in Duke basketball history that is still referred to by a single player’s name – the Steve Vandenberg Game.

The Blue Devils, who finished the regular season just 13-12 that season, would still advance to the final of the ACC Tournament and led Carolina by nine points at the half, before All-American Charlie Scott erupted to save the Tar Heels. Vandenberg, however, would be named first-team All-ACC Tournament.

Two seasons prior, in 1967, Bubas had to suspend most of his team for the Penn State game, after catching the bulk of his players out after curfew on New Year’s Eve. Bubas had just six players in uniform for the visit by Penn State — two of them walk-ons and two reserves who almost never got off the bench. But Bob Verga scored 38 and the little-used Vandenberg, just a sophomore, added 16 points and 14 rebounds as Duke pulled out the 89-84 victory.

Vandy was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1969 and played just one season in the NBA before injuring his knee, but then enjoyed a good career playing in Europe.

Steve Vandenberg died Tuesday morning at age 75 and believe me when I say, Cumberland is never going to be the same again, for while I was too young (or so I was told) to see him play here, I have been blessed to have known Steve for most of my life.

After returning home from Europe, Vandenberg bought the Shopper News, a free community newspaper, and published a number of other small newspapers. When I was in college, he hired me to write for the Union Telegraph, a local trade weekly.

How I loved going to his office on Hanover Street to help put together each week’s paper and learn about publishing and hearing all of his wonderful stories about basketball and Europe. At the center of his office was a black and white print that was at least three feet high picturing Steve guarding the great Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) during a Duke-UCLA game.

Simply spectacular.

Steve always downplayed his accomplishments, but never shied away from talking about basketball (or anything else). He loved going to the river and being on or near the water, and he was the life of every party – big, loud, pleasant, happy. He was an accomplished pianist who idolized Jerry Lee Lewis, and who could do the whole act, right down to using his shoes on the keyboard. I learned that in college he used to play the Mustang Club occasionally, not something your average Duke student did in the 1960’s.

Steve Vandenberg was a completely unique experience, and being with him was always an experience, for I have never met anybody in my life who enjoyed living his life more than Steve enjoyed living his. And brother, did he love to pick on us Maryland fans through the years, more times than not having the upper hand, given Duke’s success.

Actually, Steve told me his first choice was to go to Maryland, but his mother believed the College Park atmosphere to be quite a bit more (let’s say) lively than she wanted her son to experience in college. Who knew, right?

Safe to say, Mrs. Vandenberg and her son Steve made a pretty good decision; and it’s safe to say that the legend of Steve Vandenberg was not legend at all. He was the truth … the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

We will miss him a great deal.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT