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A legacy of ‘Duke is the best’

He entered through the back, lightly tinted doors of the Oral Roberts University Aerobics Center. His decade-old Etonic sneakers scuffled across the notyet-waxed floors of the university gymnasium. He drug two-wheeled silver poles to the center bounds of each thin, yellow-lined court. A wrinkled hand extended to straighten out his salmon-colored roll sheet. The routine double check verified his first class of the day: “Beginning Badminton & Fitness.”

“Duke is the best,” a passerby shouted with an arm raised and a tan finger, pointing in case the volume of his voice failed to grasp the coach’s attention.

The phrase is common across the 74171 bubble: Coach Bernis Duke is the best. After two morning classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the beloved coach goes home. It’s here, in the black, wooded house with the red door, just behind the ORU soccer field, where 86 years of “un-Oracled” history thrives.

Duke began his athletic career at Arkansas Tech as a boxer. His desires to pursue a basketball career were placed on hold when the school’s boxing coach drooled over his size at 6-foot-3, 195-pounds. “And I was strong,” Duke added.

Duke’s mind took him back to the “glory days” when he entered as a heavyweight for the novice division to compete in his first Golden Gloves tournament. The 1949 newcomer walked away with the State Golden Gloves Title.

Duke, unable to forget his first love of basketball, transferred to Arkansas College to “dominate the paint.” Basketball was his focus, but the adrenaline rush of dodging hooks and throwing punches taunted him. Boxing offered Duke a high he was not ready to quit, so he did both. Without a team and without proper training, his naturally athletic build and former instruction proved sufficient to take home the 1951 State Championship in boxing.

In ’52, his feet danced in the ring again. Duke was starting forward for Arkansas College’s basketball team which was fighting for a slot in the state AAU tournament. Duke long awaited the day he could defend his boxing title, and his heart sank when the schedule was posted. The Arkansas Scots were scheduled to play in Batesville at 6 p.m., and his shot to redeem his boxing title in Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock was at 10 p.m. the same night.

Duke’s mind went to work, planning his dual triumph. A fellow student offered to drive the athlete in his beat-up ’49 sedan. A rusty old bucket wasn’t enough to keep Duke from making history.

Two 20-minute halves passed, 17 points penciled in adjacent to Duke’s name on the team’s stats sheet. He was gone at the buzzer, too busy to notice. Sweat from his uniform drenched his friend’s vehicle as the Sedan hiccuped the 95 miles to the big city. Duke sprinted into the night’s feature fight, facing off Billy Ray Smith (who went on to play defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts). Duke defeated Smith, defending his crown for the second consecutive year.

He ended his boxing career after one more year as state champion in 1953. After coaching track and field at Hoxie High School, Duke and his family moved into the black wooded house with the red door behind the ORU soccer field. He was hired to coach basketball, but ended up forming the university tennis team.

“It was 1965…Tennis wasn’t even my best sport,” he said. “It was like third.”

Duke gazed at the retired rackets nailed just below the ceiling on the dark, wood-paneled walls of his home. The tennis players who held those rackets got Duke inducted into the Intercollegiate Hall of Fame in 2002. To the right, a tacked world map covered with pins in six continents marked the players he recruited: over 120 players from 28 countries.

“You know, if I ever got captured in another country, I’d have a friend there,” Duke said. Duke held a letter from a former student, something that happens quite often and is a testament to his tenure at ORU.

“You have been God’s light here on this earth and you can confidently believe that you are everything a true Christian should be, an example to us all.”

And, with that, he turned his head and answered with a humble response to his decades of esteem. “Maybe I did do something.

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