Vic Bubas, the legendary Duke University basketball coach, had one question for Steve Vacendak after watching him play for the first time. Bubas wanted to know if Vacendak always played with such energy, such desperation.
“It’s the only way I know to play, Coach,” the future Duke star replied.
Bubas said he could have asked the Atlantic Coast Conference Legend the same question after any game he played.
“Steve was always the same. He played as hard as he possibly could. He played so hard that it made everybody else on his team want to play that much harder too,” Bubas said. “He gave 100 per cent effort all of the time."
Duke’s Jeff Mullins had seen that unbending competitiveness in Vacendak while they were playing in a high school camp in Cornwall, N.Y.
Mullins was so impressed that he called Bubas and told him that he needed to see this guy play. Bubas asked questions about Vacendak’s skills and shooting. Bubas wanted to know what the kid could do before making the trip.
Mullins finally explained, “He just gets in your hair the whole time. If he gets in my hair, he is going to get in the hair of anybody he plays against.”
Bubas went to Camp All American at the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson to see this guard that so harassed Mullins. Bubas saw a tenacious defender who dived on the floor in scrimmages and who pursued errant passes far off the court. Bubas saw intensity and determination. Bubas saw a player he wanted to coach.
“I didn’t know it then, but he was a player that made everyone better,” Bubas said. “Steve never complained. He was ready to go anytime. Whatever you asked, he did his best to do it.”
The 6-foot-1 guard began his basketball career at Duke University in the fall of 1962, and in 1966 he was named the MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and was the Player of the Year, although he had been a second-team all-ACC pick after the regular season.
He helped the Blue Devils to a 72-14 varsity record. He helped Duke to the NCAA championship game in 1964, where the Blue Devils lost to UCLA. Duke was among the favorites in 1966, but lost to Kentucky in the semifinals.
Vacendak played three seasons in the American Basketball Association with Miami and Pittsburgh and helped Pittsburgh to the American Basketball Association championship in 1968.
But Vacendak’s career in athletics was just starting when he finished playing. He was the East Coast Regional Manager in sales and marketing for Converse Rubber Company for ten years before coaching at Greensboro College for a season.
From 1980-1985, Vacendak was Associate Athletic Director at Duke University. He later was the the athletic director and head basketball coach at Winthrop before moving to the AD role full time.
Vacendak helped the Rock Hill, S.C., school move to NCAA Division I. Winthrop has been a member of Division I since September of 1986.
He is a member of the Duke Sports Hall of Fame and the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
He currently is the Executive Director of NC Beautiful, a private non-profit organization dedicated to raising the awareness and appreciation of our natural beauty and resources and the importance of environmental stewardship through its various education programs.
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