Mark Story: Ex-UK basketball walk-on Jim Duff has made a big mark in a different 'court'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 13, 2012 

Jim Duff, here dribbling against Auburn in 1972, was one of the "Super Kittens" at UK, the freshman team that went undefeated at a time when freshmen couldn't join the varsity team.

PHOTO PROVIDED

Not many people go from walk-on basketball player at Kentucky to playing hoops on "the highest court in the land."

Jim Duff has.

During the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, Duff was at the elbow of his then-boss, Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, as the latter presided over the deliberations in the U.S. Senate.

"It was amazing. You knew every moment was historical," Duff said of the impeachment trial that ended with Clinton not being removed from office. "It was a very somber and serious proceeding. I thought every one involved rose to the magnitude of the event."

Later, another Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Roberts, named Duff the administrator in charge of the entire federal courts system.

This Friday, the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences will induct Duff, 59, a prominent Washington D.C.-area attorney, into its Hall of Fame.

Yet inside Kentucky, the Duff achievements that might start the most conversations are from a court other than a legal one.

A Hamilton, Ohio, product whose parents were Eastern Kentucky natives, Duff helped convince a close high school friend, Kevin Grevey, to come to the University of Kentucky to play hoops.

In an era when freshmen were ineligible for varsity sports, Grevey, in turn, persuaded Joe B. Hall — then UK freshman coach and head man in waiting to Adolph Rupp — to let Duff be a walk-on member of Kentucky's 1971-72 freshman team, a collection of talent so ballyhooed that its nickname was "The Super Kittens."

"There was so much hype, I don't know that there had ever been a freshman class like that at Kentucky before that," Duff said Friday. "We went out as a freshman team and went 22-0. It was just an unbelievable experience."

Late-night call to Joe B.

Besides Grevey, the scholarship players on that freshman team included Jimmy Dan Conner, Mike Flynn, Bob Guyette, G.J. Smith, Jerry Hale and Steve Lochmueller.

"We had the (high school) player of the year from four states," Duff said. "Kentucky (Conner), Indiana (Flynn), Illinois (Guyette) and, of course, Ohio (Grevey). Now, with Coach (John) Calipari, they have a class like that every year. But back then, it was a big deal."

Grevey would go on to become one of the best players in Kentucky history, averaging 21.4 points a game over his UK varsity career. Yet he thinks he would have never been at Kentucky had it not been for Duff and his father, Cecil.

One day, Grevey said Cecil Duff asked him, "Why isn't Kentucky recruiting you?"

"I said I don't know," Grevey said. "And the next thing I knew, Mr. Duff got on the phone, called the Kentucky basketball office and talked to somebody and said, 'You all need to start recruiting this guy.' And they did."

Once it was apparent that the 6-foot-5 left-hander was going to pick Kentucky, Grevey went to bat for Jim Duff, a 6-1 guard, to get a shot to play with him at UK.

"I knew Jim was going to UK anyway, so I was getting ready to sign and I asked Coach Hall, 'Why can't Jim play on the freshman team?'" Grevey said. "And Coach Hall said, 'He can. He can live in the athletics dorm, too.'"

Hall said Duff "was the kind of guy you wanted around the (scholarship) players. He was smart and he was honest, just a dependable kid. You could tell even then, he was going to be a big success after college."

Though he did not play much, Duff was part of one of the more memorable moments of the 1971-72 Kentucky basketball season.

During Christmas break, 1971, the Kentucky basketball players were the only students on campus. They were bored and tended to stay out past curfew. A security guard working at Holmes Hall (then the athletics dorm) kept turning in the tardy players to the coaches, who made the whole team run as punishment.

The players decided to "get even" with the security guard. Ronnie Lyons, a guard from the UK varsity, had some "fake vampire blood" left over from Halloween.

"They just coated me in that vampire blood," Duff said. "I had it coming out of my ears, my eyes, my nose. Then all the really big guys on the team, they acted like they were beating me to death. The security guard, he bought the whole thing and it scared him to death."

In the wee hours, the phone rang at Hall's house.

"It was the security guard, and he was an older guy, and his voice was quavering," Hall said. "He says 'C-c-c-c-oach H-h-h-h-all they're beating one of your boys to death.' "And I said 'Oh, I can't imagine that's true. Get me Duff on the phone.' And the security guy says 'C-c-c-c-oach, that's the one they've killed.'"

The Supreme Court

Duff played only that one season of freshman basketball at UK. In 1972-73, Hall replaced Rupp as UK head coach and The Super Kittens became the nucleus of his first three teams.

"Freshmen became eligible my sophomore year and they started a JV team at UK and asked me to play," Duff said. "But there would have been no way to top that undefeated freshman season. Plus, I thought it was time to really buckle down on my books."

Duff earned UK degrees in history, philosophy and political science, then went to Washington, D.C. for a job. While working as an aide to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, he earned his law degree at Georgetown University.

Duff is now the President and CEO of the Freedom Forum, which oversees the Newseum and First Amendment Center. He has been in the Washington area since. He and his wife, Kathleen, also an attorney, have three children.

From 1996-2000, Duff worked as Rehnquist's de facto chief of staff. "He was brilliant," Duff said of the former Chief Justice, "but he also had common sense."

Roberts, the current Supreme Court Chief Justice, appointed Duff to run the administrative side of the U.S. Federal Courts from 2006-11. "I like John Roberts," Duff said, "even though he is an Indiana fan."

For a time when he was in private practice, Duff represented the interests of UK in Washington, D.C. In recent years, Duff's name has been linked in the rumor mill as a possible University of Kentucky President.

'Highest court in the land'

Last February, The Super Kittens came back to Lexington for a 40-year reunion of their undefeated freshman team. "I'm so glad we did that because it turned out to be the last time we will ever all be together," Duff said.

In August, G.J. Smith died of a heart attack. Smith had been Duff's roommate during their freshman year at UK.

Duff said the friendships he forged through basketball at UK remain among the most important in his life. He texts with Jimmy Dan Conner "almost every day," Duff said.

After his playing days at UK, Grevey spent most of a 10-year NBA career playing for Washington. Even now, he has business interests (including a popular restaurant) in metropolitan D.C.

"It's really neat," Duff said, "that we grew up together, went to college together and then ended up in the same city as adults. We're still close, and our families are close."

Even with the NBA championship ring Grevey earned with Washington in 1978, he may not have ultimate hoops bragging rights on Duff.

In the U.S. Supreme Court building there is a one-time storage room above the law library. Even with a cement floor and a low roof that makes outside shooting impossible, it has been converted into a make-shift basketball gym.

As a young aide in the 1970s, Duff said he used to play hoops in that gym often. In later tenures at the Supreme Court "I got glass backboards put in," he said. "I wanted to raise money (privately) for a wood floor, but the ceiling is so low, we couldn't raise the floor even a little bit."

In a word play on the Supreme Court's own nickname, they call the makeshift gym "the highest court in the land."

For a former UK walk-on, it's a pretty cool place to have gotten to play ball.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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