February 14, 2011

A Brilliantly Obnoxious Moment in History: When Duke Invented the “Air Ball”

To celebrate its upcoming 32nd birthday, it is important to recognize one of the single greatest moments of mass public snark in history – the biting, yet brilliant “air ball” chant. It brought me great joy, smug satisfaction, and a touch of genuine surprise to learn who created this classic jeer.  WE did.  And by “we,” I mean my people, the ingenious Cameron Crazies.  The inventors of invisibility cloaks and powerpoint fuck lists.

On February 24, 1979, the Tar Heels were visiting Cameron to face Duke in a regular-season showdown. It was one of the craziest games in Duke basketball history. Dean Smith started the game with UNC in the Four Corners offense; he claimed that this was to take the Crazies out of it early. After Duke took a 2-0 lead, UNC point guard Dave Colescott walked the ball past mid-court and started passing it around.  As the crowd showered the Tar Heels in boos, UNC took more than 12 minutes off of the clock.  The Duke defense just sat back and waited.  Eventually, the Tar Heels got bored and the ball was passed to center Rich Yonakor on the baseline.   He took one dribble and shot the ball with his left hand; it flew over the rim, missing the basket entirely.  And then the Crazies took over, creating a chant that would still be used decades later to taunt opponents: aiiiiiiir-baaaaallllllllll, aiiiiiiiiiir-baaaaallllllll. Unfortunately, the only video of the event does not have any sound.

When the pretty lady missed, only a few students yelled out the infamous cheer. Duke rebounded his airball, took the ball down the court, and scored.  4-0, Duke.  UNC went back into the Four Corners and eventually Yonakor got the ball again – and he again missed the basket entirely.  This is when the Crazies went, well, crazy. They screamed “airball” in unison, tormenting the poor and inaccurate Rich Yonakor, along with the rest of the Tar Heels, who still hadn’t hit the rim. Those were the only two shots, and misses, that UNC would take in the half.  With about four minutes left in the first, Duke led 5-0.

If the “airball” chant wasn’t a big enough fuck-you to the Tar Heels, what Duke did next is arguably even better: they went into Dean Smith’s patented Four Corners offense.  I am not sure if Coach K would ever have let it happen, but Coach Bill Foster did. Duke killed the rest of the clock purely to humiliate the Heels.  When the crowd realized what was happening, it exploded. Bill Foster was aiming to shut out the Heels completely for the half – the ball hadn’t touched the rim once.  For the next four minutes, the Crazies went nuts as the Duke players simply tossed the ball around, playing keep away.  The score at the end of the first half was 7-0. 

In the second half, play returned to normal, but not without incident.  Near the end of the game, Mike Gminski, the lovable Duke center, elbowed UNC’s Al Wood, which sent the teams into a mini-brawl.  Dean Smith ran onto the court, infuriated, and got into Gminski’s face (well, it was seemingly impossible for him to do that considering that at 5'11, he was a foot shorter than Gminski, but whatever). The refs then ejected Gminski, for the first and only time in his career.  Oh, the crazy did not stop there. The ejection sent Mike Gminski’s father, Joe Gminski, running from the stands onto the court. Duke fans were pissed that UNC had ruined Senior Night with their first-half slow-down offense, as both teams played evenly throughout the second half. Duke wound up winning 47-40.  The seven points in the first half were all that really mattered.

After the game, Dean Smith stuck by his strategy, claiming that it was important to slow down the clock, take the crowd out of it, and try to win their way; he said it only failed due to poor execution and impatience. Bill Foster, entertained by the insanity, retorted that he “thought Naismith invented basketball, not Deansmith."  Oh, BURN.  I wish I could have been in Cameron to hear the venom, the snickering, and the subsequent pandemonium on February 24, 1979.  While the Blue Devils earned their bonfire celebration, the Tar Heels – the first victims of the “airball” chant – were ridiculed for weeks in the media following the game. I plan to ridicule them for life.

Happy (almost) 32nd, Air Ball. Thank you for being invented in such an awesome fucking way.


  1. Awesum history lesson. Love Foster's smart-ass reply too. Regardless of how K masked it, Bill Foster flat-out hated Dean Smith, and I know from first-hand experience!

    The State Pep Band (incl your's truly) played at the ACC Basketball Coaches dinner in Raleigh in I believe the Fall of 1978. Each team's fight song was played for the Coaches in attendance (threat of expulsion if we went disharmonic on anyone). Dean and wife showed up way, way late, after everyone else was seated and their fight song had been played. They came in the back and had to work their way through the crowd, Dean stopping to shake hands along the way, all the UNC faithful standing and shouting and applauding, and us rather pissed off State band members playing his damn UNC fight song for him. An historic piece of showboating douchebaggery on Dean's part.

    Bill Foster was seething. After we finished playing (right next to the head table) and Dean was still working his way through the crowd, Bill turned to his wife and said "can you believe this shit? Goddam bastard pulls this crap every goddam time!" (may not be a direct quote, but damn close - could have even been an F-word in there). You could tell he was going to light into Dean, but the wife had tight hold of his arm and talked him down. Dean then proceeds to work his way down the Coaches' seats, shaking each of their hands and mumbling about traffic being really bad (though clearly it had not been for the other coaches). Bill did not make eye contact during the most awkward hand shake I've ever witnessed. Dean seemed to be enjoying the hell out of it in an "aww shucks" way.

    How nice to think that Bill got his revenge in spades in that game, was able to make his wonderfully snarky retort, AND the "air ball" chant was invented!

    And that, as they say, is the rest of the story, sports fans!

  2. Lol, that is a GREAT story, sanfran. But more importantly, what instrument did you play in the pep band? Trombone? I don't know much about Bill Foster, but he sounds like a firecracker and someone who I will definitely be reading more about.

  3. Yep, trombone in every musical organization State offered (lots of them). I screwed up in grad school at Duke (89-91) since if I'd marched in the Marching Band for football, I'd have automatically qualified for the Pep Band (yes, including travel through and to the finals in both NCAA tourney's: the 30 pt ass-kicking by UNLV, and the following year's first Natty). I was convinced I'd be too busy at the B-School to pull it off (and I was, but screw it, I would have still gotten the degree). This is pretty much the only thing on my list of life's regrets so far, so I guess I can't complain (but sometimes I still do).

  4. Great history lesson. I had forgotten it was against dUNCe all the better. I loved Bill Foster he brought us back from the depths of the 70s which was pure hell as a teenager who bled Duke blue (still do). Bill Foster gave us back our respect and allowed us to stick it to the heels several years in a row until K brought us to the promised land. I loved sticking it to my Tar heel friends in those years because we had almost beome irrelevant. Any time we could belittle Dean Smith was an added bonus. I understand the K hate because I was raised to hate Dean in the same way (y dad despised the man), he had no redeeming qualities. Anyway good read!!!