For a generation of Duke fans, Art Heyman was more than a basketball player. He was a force of nature.

King Arthur took Duke basketball to places it had never been. He breathed life into the Duke-North Carolina basketball series, igniting what would become the greatest rivalry in college basketball history. He led the Blue Devils to a perfect ACC season and to the first Final Four in school history. He became the first player in ACC history to win consensus national player of the year honors.

Heyman died Monday at the age of 71.

“Everybody talks about how good Dick Groat was,” Duke coach Vic Bubas said the day Heyman played his last game at Duke Indoor Stadium. “Groat was a great player. I guarded him. But Heyman is bigger and stronger. He’s got to be the best player to ever put on a Duke uniform.”

Of course, Bubas was speaking long before Mike Krzyzewski’s parade of great players – Johnny Dawkins, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Jason Williams and J.J. Redick.

You can debate where Heyman ranks among that pantheon. Two years ago, a panel of Duke basketball historians (Bill Brill, Jim Sumner, Barry Jacobs, John Roth and myself) voted Heyman as the second-best player in Duke history, just behind Laettner and just ahead of Dawkins.

But wherever Heyman falls on that list, I would argue that he is without a doubt the single most important player in Duke history.

Go back to the spring of 1959, when Bubas, who had been a star guard, then an ace recruiter for Everett Case at N.C. State, was hired to replace Hal Bradley as Duke’s basketball coach.

Bradley, who left to take a better job at Texas, had done a nice job in his nine years in Durham. He won two ACC regular season titles (although those titles were not recognized at that time – the ACC Tournament winner was the champ and represented the ACC in the NCAA Tournament). Bradley’s teams usually finished in the top half of the ACC, but never won a title and finished in the AP top 10 exactly once – a 10th place finish in 1958. North Carolina, which won the national title in 1957, and N.C. State, which won seven conference titles in the decade, were the big guns on Tobacco Road.

Duke was coming off a 13-12 season in 1959 when Bubas was introduced to the press. Moments after the press conference, athletic director Eddie Cameron whispered in his ear: “Don’t you think it’s time you go recruiting?”

Bubas was on the next plane to New York. He drove out on Long Island to see the nation’s best prospect, a burly Jewish forward named Art Heyman.

There was one problem – Heyman had already signed a letter-of-intent to play at North Carolina.

Duke had actually tried recruiting Heyman in the interim between Bradley’s departure and Bubas’ arrival. When the sophomore standouts of the ’59 team – Carroll Youngkin, Howard Hurt, Johnny Frye and Doug Kistler – escorted the Long Island phenom around the Duke campus, Heyman taunted them with boasts about what he would do to them when he played for Carolina.

He’s was already planning to hop on Frank McGuire’s Underground Railroad that had already delivered so many New York prep stars to Chapel Hill (including all five starters on the ’57 champs). He was scheduled to room with his Long Island playground rival, feisty Jewish guard Larry Brown.

But Bubas, who had tried to recruit Heyman for N.C. State before his appointment at Duke, knew something that many recruiters didn’t – that Heyman’s stepfather harbored a deep dislike for McGuire. Under the rules at the time, a signed letter of intent was not binding until July 1st and just before that deadline, Bill Heyman and McGuire got into a shouting match at the Carolina Inn.

“I had to step in between them,” Heyman said. “My stepfather called Carolina a basketball factory and McGuire didn’t like that. They were about to start swinging at each other.”

That incident helped Bubas win Heyman’s parents, if not the young star himself.

“He charmed my mother and stepfather,” Heyman said. “They made me go to Duke. All my friends from New York were at Carolina. If Duke had not picked me up at the airport, I would have gone down the road and started there.”

Heyman’s attraction to UNC didn’t last long.

His attitude changed early in his freshman season (freshmen couldn’t play varsity ball in those days) when the Duke freshmen faced the UNC freshman in high school gym in Siler City, N.C.

As the game started, Heyman was subjected to a line of vicious, anti-Semitic heckling – both from Carolina fans and the team. Bucky Waters, the Duke freshman coach, was certain the attacks were orchestrated. He warned Heyman before tipoff that it would get rough.

“Then the game started and they began this line of rhetoric, right in front of us ‘’ “Jew! Christ-killer!’ It was vicious.”

Waters called a time out and confronted Heyman. He told them they were trying to provoke the hot-headed star into a fight to get him ejected.

“I took two timeouts back-to-back, so I could continue talking to him,” Waters said. “I told him, ‘Play hard and kick their butts and when you walk off the floor, you can point at the scoreboard.”

Heyman did just that, leading Duke to a lopsided victory. But as the final seconds were ticking down, UNC freshman Dieter Krause walked up and cold-cocked Heyman from behind. Amazing, Heyman kept his cool, but Waters admits that he lost it.

“I was so convinced that it was all premeditated that I had [UNC freshman coach Kenny Rosemond] by the lapels and I was bouncing him off the scorer’s table,” Waters said. “I kept pushing him into the scoreboard controls and the scoreboard was going nuts. Here I worked so hard to convince Art to keep his cool and I lost mine.”

Heyman averaged over 30 points a game for the Duke freshman that season and keyed three victories without a loss over the Tar Heels.

A year later, he joined four senior starters from Bubas’ first Duke team – one that unexpectedly won the 1960 ACC title after finishing fourth in the regular season. Those were the same players that Heyman had taunted during his recruitment in the spring of 1959.

Despite the presence of the four veterans, there was never any doubt as to the team’s star. Heyman topped 20 points in six of his first seven games. He scored 27 points against Penn State and had 25 points and 23 rebounds at Georgia Tech. He added 34 points in 34 minutes against Florida, then burned Marquette in the semifinals of the Dixie Classic for 29.

Through nine games, Heyman was averaging 26.0 points and almost 11 rebounds. He was a unique player, who dominated almost by force of will, rather than skill. He was only a fair shooter, but nobody ever followed his own shot with more determination. He was just 6-5, but he dominated under the boards.

“He was so strong, you could hit him with an axe handle and he’d still make the three-point play,” teammate Fred Schmidt.

“He was a step above,” Waters said. “Nobody ever took over a game or put a team on his back like Art. And he was such a great, great passer.”

Indeed, Bubas usually used Heyman to bring the ball up when Duke was being pressed. Assists were rarely measured in those days, but the ACC Tournament was an exception. As a senior, Heyman recorded the first official triple double in ACC history when he had 21 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists in a tournament victory over Virginia.

“He is just like a king in a checker game,” Bubas told reporters. “I can move him anywhere and he gets the job done.”

From that point on, Heyman was celebrated as “King Arthur.”

The newly crowned king led Duke to a No. 6 national ranking by Christmas of his sophomore season – matching the highest ranking in school history to that point.

Duke took on North Carolina in the championship game of the Dixie Classic and at first it looked like the Blue Devil freshman would put up a another big number as he scored 11 points in the game’s first five minutes. But McGuire came out of his zone and assigned senior Doug Moe to guard Heyman. The veteran defender limited Heyman to just four points the rest of the way and UNC won 76-71.

His failure gnawed at Heyman. He ripped a picture of Moe out of the Durham newspaper and pasted it in his locker.

He would get his chance for revenge on Feb. 4, 1961, when UNC visited Duke. The Tar Heels were 14-2 and ranked No. 4 in the UPI (coaches’) poll and No. 5 in the AP poll. The Blue Devils were 15-1 with a No. 4 ranking in the AP poll and No. 5 in the UPI rankings.

Is it any wonder that Bubas called the game, “the biggest ever played in the South”? It was certainly the first time – although far from the last – when Duke and UNC would meet with both in the top 5. The game was televised regionally and an ice storm that blanked the state and kept people inside guaranteed the largest viewing audience in ACC basketball history.

Heyman stepped onto the stage and claimed the spotlight. He abused Moe early, hitting nine of his first 11 shots and getting the Tar Heel star in early foul trouble, despite a disgusting defensive tactic by the future NBA coach.

“Moe kept spitting on me,” Heyman said. “Every time I took a shot, he spit on me.”

There was an ugly atmosphere in Duke Indoor Stadium that night. In the freshman preliminary, the Duke frosh won a slugfest as UNC lost so many players to fouls and ejections that they finished the game with just three players on the floor

There was a near-brawl at the end of the first half of the varsity game as Heyman and Moe squared off and the infamous Dieter Krause came off the bench to join in before he was intercepted by Duke trainer Jim Cunningham.

There was another incident as the two teams left the court at halftime. A male Carolina cheerleader was slapping UNC players on the butt as they exited through the narrow passage between fans. When he also hit Heyman on the butt, Heyman turned and shoved him.

The incident became big news the next Monday when a UNC fan in the stands – a lawyer named Blackwell Brogden – swore out an assault warrant against the Duke star. To his credit, the UNC cheerleader didn’t want to have anything to do with the case – he had to be subpoenaed to appear in court. The charge was dismissed, but made national headlines.

“A lot of the stories failed to note that it was a male cheerleader,” Heyman said.”My mother was playing cards when she heard about it and she was really upset, thinking I had hit a woman!”

Heyman continued to dominate Moe and the Tar Heels in the second half, leading Duke to the brink of victory. He had 36 points (11 of 13 from the floor, 14 of 17 from the foul line) as Duke was up five with just seconds remaining. That’s when everything blew up.

It started when UNC’s Brown took a long inbounds pass and drove for a layup. Heyman wrapped his old playground rival up, giving up an intentional foul rather than the layup. Brown responded by throwing the basketball at Heyman. He then threw a punch that glanced off Heyman’s head.

The Duke star stepped back, stunned, but UNC’s Donnie Walsh – the future NBA executive – had jumped off the bench and slugged Heyman from behind, knocking him to the ground.

“It was right in front of their bench and before I knew it, everybody was hitting me,” Heyman said. “But I was strong and I fought my way back to my feet and I fought back. They were beating the hell out of me and I was just fighting back.”

The ensuing brawl – usually judged the worst in ACC history – lasted more than 10 minutes and took 10 policemen to quell. Amazingly, just one player was ejected – Heyman. Brown, who threw the first punch, was allowed to shoot his free throws.

Afterwards, referee Charlie Eckmann blamed Heyman for starting the fight in his official report to the conference. Bubas responded by calling a midweek press conference and rolling he gamefilm for the assembled reporters – slowing it down to show that Brown and Walsh had both thrown punches before Heyman started to fight back.

ACC commissioner Jim Weaver, who had been trying to stamp out a rash of fighting in the league, came down with severe penalties – suspending Brown, Walsh and Heyman for the remainder of the ACC regular season.

“That cost us a national championship,” Heyman said. “I really believe that. We lost our focus after that. Even when I came back for the tournament, it wasn’t the same.”

Even so, Heyman’s stardom was established. He averaged 25.9 points a game and 10.9 rebounds. He was a unanimous first-team All-ACC pick – he would be unanimous first-team in all three of his varsity seasons, a feat just one other ACC player (David Thompson) ever accomplished.

He was also the only returning starter the next season, when he teamed with three sophomore starters, including a brilliant forward from  Lexington, Ky. Bubas had stolen Jeff Mullins from under the nose of Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp.

The rambunctious Heyman and the gentlemanly Mullins appeared to be exact opposites, but they shared a mutual respect.

“Every other coach had stories about Art Heyman,” Mullins said. “That’s one of the reasons I made another visit to Durham in the spring. I didn’t meet Art on my first visit and I wanted to see what he was like. From day one, we hit it off.”

Heyman and Mullins would turn out to be the highest scoring duo in ACC history. In 1961-62, Heyman averaged 25.3 and Mullins added 21.2 for a 20-5 team that finished No. 10 in the nation. A year later, Duke dominated the ACC as Heyman averaged 24.9 and Mullins added 20.3. The Blue Devils stormed through the ACC undefeated – with an average victory margin of 17 points a game.

“I think that’s the most overall talent I’ve seen on one ballclub in our league,” N.C. State coach Everett Case said. “Carolina in ’57 didn’t have much depth. Duke’s got a lot of [talented players] and they can vary their lineup. Just take ‘em in and out – it doesn’t make much difference.”

Heyman capped his Duke homecourt career with a 40-point, 24-rebound performance against North Carolina. He then earned outstanding player honors as Duke swept Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest (the two-time defending ACC champ) to win ACC Tournament and earn what was only the school’s third ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“Heyman was slow to get started, but he finished great,” Bubas said after watching his star dominate the final minutes of the championship game.

In the layoff between the ACC Tournament and the start of NCAA play, the individual awards started to roll in. Heyman was a unanimous first-team All-American and won every major national player of the year award.

But he was determined to add team honors to his sweep of individual awards. Addressing a massive pep rally in front of the Duke Chapel, he told the crowd:

“We started practice on October 15, we won our first game on December 1 and we’re going to win our last game in Louisville on March 23!”

As it turned out, he was right, although it did not turn out exactly as he hoped.

He helped Duke beat NYU and St. Joseph’s in College Park, Md., to win the East Regional and earn its first-ever tip to the Final Four. In Louisville, the No. 2 ranked Blue Devils were matched against No. 3 Loyola of Chicago in the semifinals.

Duke got off to a terrible start against the Ramblers and almost – but not quite – came all the way back before faltering in the final minutes. Heyman had 29 points and 12 rebounds in the defeat. One night later, he scored 22 points to lead Duke past Oregon State in the consolation game.

As he predicted, Duke won its last game on March 23 – just not the game he wanted.

Still, third place was the best finish in school history and Heyman was so impressive in Louisville that he was voted the outstanding player in the Final Four – one of four winners of that award who didn’t play on the championship team.

Heyman should have enjoyed a long, successful NBA career. The No. 1 pick in the 1963 draft, he averaged over 15 points a game and made the all-rookie team for the Knicks. But his production soon tailed off. He takes the blame for that.

“I could have been something special,” he said. “Maybe I wasn’t mature and I didn’t grow up. I just wasn’t ready. It’s really sad, but I have no one to blame but myself.”

Heyman did enjoy a brief revival in the ABA. He averaged 20 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game for Pittsburgh in 1968, teaming with Connie Hawkins to lead the Pipers to the ABA championship.

Still, he will be best remembered for his three glory years at Duke, when he became the best player in college basketball and planted the seeds of Duke’s basketball greatness. His number 25 now hands in the Cameron rafters – thanks to Mike Krzyzewski, who teamed with Bubas in 1990 to honor the 1960s star, who played at a time when AD Eddie Cameron refused to retire any numbers (other than Dick Groat).

Heyman lived briefly in North Carolina, but returned to New York in the mid-1990s, when he operated a successful bar/restaurant.

It’s been a half century since he played and for many Duke fans, Heyman is just a name on a jersey in the Cameron rafters and a set of impressive statistics in the Duke record book.

But those who saw him play at Duke, know that he was one of the special players – and special people – in Duke history.