1991-92 men's hoop squad will never forget Duke Wallenborn

Duke Wallenborn

Feb. 8, 2012


By TJ Cotterill, WWU sports information office

The buzzer sounded and the raucous crowd stormed onto the court at Sam Carver Gymnasium. The building had erupted in a roar of sheer jubilation. The players were the same way, screaming in joy and excitement while searching for someone to embrace.

The 1991-92 Western Washington University men's basketball team had just topped arch-rival Central Washington by the slimmest of margins.

A defensive stop on Central's final possession gave the Vikings a 64-63 victory. With it, they had clinched the regular-season NAIA District 1 championship and the top seed in the upcoming district playoffs.

"The crowd was going nuts. We were going nuts," said Brian Jones, Western's junior forward. "We were on top of the world."

The Vikings' star player, Duke Wallenborn, had done it again. Duke scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half, including a decisive three-point play in the final minute, lifting Western to the win. He was among his teammates celebrating, jumping up and down, hands raised in the air, soaking in the joy of the moment. Life could not have been better.

Two days later, the jubilation turned to tears. The excitement turned to anguish. Two days later, Duke was dead.

Jones first heard of Wallenborn's death only a few hours after it happened. Wallenborn died in his sleep on March 2, 1992, 30 hours after the game, from a congenital heart problem. Wallenborn was Jones' roommate, teammate and his best friend.

"I didn't sleep for weeks," Jones said. "I was a mess. It was just so devastating. We were just all in a state of shock."

Wallenborn had been aware of his heart problem since he was 10 years old. He was scheduled to have surgery that summer to correct it.

His parents, Tom and Nancy, and sister Staci had all been in attendance at the Central game. Staci traveled up from the University of Oregon, where she was a guard on the women's basketball team. She and her mother returned to Oregon afterward.

For Staci, that time with her brother is something she is so glad that she had the opportunity to share.

A police officer knocked on her door near the Oregon campus at about 8 a.m. the morning Duke passed away. Her mother was there as well.

"I remember watching him play that game (against Central) and thinking `Man, he looks so lethargic and pale. He doesn't look so good,'" Staci said. "He just looked like he was moving slower than he usually did. But when it happened and he died, it was so surprising, so shocking."

Staci didn't attend her class that morning as she and her mother headed back to Bellingham.

However, Jay Shinnick, Western's junior guard, did attend class. He did not believe what he had heard earlier that morning over the phone.

"I just thought there was no way that it could be true," Shinnick said. "When class was over a couple of people were standing there when I came out. That's when I had to accept it."

WWU was scheduled to face Lewis-Clark State in a district semifinal that Wednesday, March 4, at Carver Gym - a team the Vikings had already beaten twice during the regular season. But they would be without their leading scorer, the star, the soul, and the heart of the team. Life had to move on. The game would still be played, even without Duke. His presence, however, was felt everywhere.

Signs hung on the east wall, reading "Do It for Duke" and "Duke is Watching." Every player wore a wristband with "Duke 32" written on it and patches with No. 32 on their uniforms. Jones, Shinnick and Brad Grover shaved "Duke" on the back of their heads.

Staci sat on the bench with the team, wearing Duke's game uniform. Jones wore Duke's practice jersey underneath his uniform.

With emotions riding so high, the players were about to experience the most difficult game in WWU history.

There was a moment of silence just before tipoff, followed by the playing of "Amazing Graze" on bagpipes. Shinnick couldn't hold back his tears. He hugged Jones then found Staci for another hug.

"We wanted to win that game for him," Shinnick said. "We wanted to do as much as we could to honor him. We just didn't have the energy and focus we thought we would have."

The Vikings didn't score a point the first seven minutes of the game. Through 13 possessions, they went 0-for-8 from the field with six turnovers and trailed 11-0.

It wasn't because of a lack of effort.

"We wanted to play and play that game for him," Jones said. "That game, it was such an emotional game. We were flying all over the court, throwing bodies around, almost overly emotional."

WWU came back, and even took a 33-31 lead late in the first half. But it didn't last long. The Vikings lost 90-75 -- their season was over.

After the victory over Central, many of the players had Kansas City, the site of the NAIA National Tournament, on their minds. Jones recalls he and his teammates chanting "Kansas City" and looking forward to hosting district playoff games.

"We were on this high," Jones said. "We were on top of the world and thinking we were going to the championship. Then for him to die, it was just heartbreaking."

The silver lining in the cloud of sadness surrounding the basketball program was, in fact, that the season was over. It gave many of the players the opportunity to truly grieve and deal with the loss Duke.

A memorial service was held at Carver Gym the next day, and the team traveled to Vancouver that weekend for another memorial in Duke's hometown.

Jones said the players would get together every night the following few weeks after the game. A few players even got tattoos.

"That's when the real grieving started," Jones said. "It was about turning the page. At the end of that (L-C State) game there were a lot of tears and emotions throughout the whole gym. I just wanted to figure out why, or blame someone. But you couldn't. You just had to deal with it."

Duke was known as a person everybody liked. He was creative and enjoyed life.

Being Duke's roommate, Jones was especially close to him. Duke would make a mess in the apartment and Jones said he would demand Duke clean it up.

"He would make me do everything," Jones said. "I told him he had to clean his mess, but he would just say, `How about we play a game of cribbage - loser has to clean.' That is an awful deal for me. He was just one of those guys that had that way of making you give into anything. Nine times out of 10, I would lose and have to clean up."

Duke was more than just a teammate, he was a friend, one that everyone wanted to be around.

"He was a guy that everyone liked, you couldn't not like him," Shinnick said. "I just think of him as a friend more than anything. Basketball was just a thing that you go to. Sport comes and goes, but friendships are always there."

Duke is still remembered that way today, 20 years later. Even after his death, he brought people closer. Jones, Shinnick and another teammate, Jeff Dick, moved in together and continued to tell stories of Duke long after.

"He just had a way that was just great," Jones said. "Everyone was a part of what he was doing. He was one of those guys who was the center of attention without doing anything. He wasn't loud and crazy, he was just Duke. Everyone wanted to be around him."

The 1991-92 squad will be honored before WWU's game Saturday with Alaska Fairbanks. Jones said most of the team will be returning to Bellingham, getting together for dinner, and telling more stories about Duke.

The season didn't end triumphantly with the championship the players envisioned. But much more came out of it. The team is still remembered to this day for Duke, for his life, his legacy and his impact on those who knew him best.

"It took me a long time to get over that," Jones said. "It was like I lost a part of myself. It was hard to talk about for a long time. To this day though, Jay, Brad, Jeff and I are all really close. When something like that happens, it reinforces how important relationships and friends are because it teaches you that you have to seize the moment while you can."

The stunning episode of Duke's death put the game of basketball into perspective. His death turned basketball into a seemingly unimportant, distant memory. Those who know him best know him not as the star basketball player, but as a son, a brother, and a best friend.

"He was the glue and he was the light," Staci said. "In a sense, he is still that same bond. He is the common thread that runs through the people who knew him and were touched by his life."

As WWU senior center John Patton said at the time, "He found beauty in everything and everybody. The doctors said he had a bad heart, but I can say that he had a huge heart, full of love for everyone he came in contact with."