ACC Legends: Kenny Dennard of Duke

Feb. 16, 2012

The announcement that he’s an ACC Legend reduced elbow-swinging, joke-cracking, cancer-beating Kenny Dennard to tears. And it gave his wife a perfect rhetorical opening.

“Well now,” Nadine Dennard said, “it’s not just in your own mind.”

Seriously, folks, the former Duke forward is a self-effacing link to two eras in Blue Devil history and a guy with a lot of tales to tell. And you’d better believe he enjoys the opportunity.

Having shot 51 percent from the floor and scored more than 1,000 points over his career, he could make a case for his newfound status on numbers alone. But it’s more fun to quip than to quote stats.

So much fun, in fact, that Dennard’s writing a book, tentatively titled “Back Stories From the Front Lines,” that has a projected publishing date of Dec. 12, 2012.

“That way, I get it out there nine days before the world ends,” he deadpanned, referring to the ancient Mayan calendar that allegedly foretells man’s doom. “I think you can read it in nine days.”

The book itself has a backstory. Eighteen months ago, Dennard met Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, whose son attends Duke, at a football game tailgate party. Alito was the guy who encouraged the project.

Dennard came to Duke from a relatively unlikely place, King, N.C. And if not king of the hoops universe, he was at least a prince and a jester. As a freshman, he helped the Blue Devils to the NCAA championship game. After Dennard’s junior season, coach Bill Foster surprised the masses by taking the job at South Carolina.

In came this 33-year-old guy from Chicago with the challenging last name. By timing, seniority and leadership, Dennard and Gene Banks became the captains of Mike Krzyzewski’s first Duke team.

“Gene and I had more dog years together than he did as far as experience at Duke was concerned,” Dennard said. “It was an interesting time. It was a risk for everybody. It could have gone either way.”

The Coach K era began with a 17-13 record that was followed by consecutive losing campaigns. But while some may have wondered, Dennard was a believer, having seen the coach’s adaptability.

“I had a great year with him,” the player said. “He didn’t come in like some heavy-handed guy, and I give him a lot of credit for that.”

Dennard averaged seven rebounds and 10.6 points a game as a senior and was often able to step into passing lanes and disrupt opposing offenses. His total of 11 steals against Maryland on Feb. 3, 1979 set an ACC single-game record that still stands.

He went on to the NBA and just as his season with the Kansas City Kings was about to start, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

“Back then, they didn’t want to say the word testicle,” he said. “The Kings released that I had cancer ‘of the lower abdomen,’ which is a death sentence. Everybody thought, ‘Well, he’s gone.’

“I woke up from surgery and there were these flowers everywhere. The kind of arrangements you might see at a gravesite. I thought, ‘Well, am I dead?’ “

Far from it. Dennard fought the disease the way he confronted opponents like fellow ACC Legend Lee Raker of Virginia, among others: straight ahead.

As of this year, he’s a 30-year survivor and an eloquent fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society’s Coaches vs. Cancer program. He’ll donate 33 percent of his profits to the cause, a joint venture with the National Association of Basketball Coaches that has brought in more than $70 million.

“I tell people that cancer saved my life because it sensitized me and changed the way I viewed the world,” he said. “I was pretty singular and focused and I don’t know if that would have been healthy for longevity in this life.”

For the past 15 years, Dennard has run his own investment consulting business in Houston. He stays in contact with the Blue Devil program and has become a good friend of his former coach, the guy the outside world once doubted.

And every Oct. 18, he collects birthday checks from friends who at least pretended to bet him he’d never see his 30th birthday let alone the 30th anniversary of his diagnosis. They suspected they’d have to pay up, of course.

“And I always demand interest,” Dennard said.