The Cayuga Kid: Tyler sports icon Ned Duncan passes away

Published on Thursday, 12 October 2017 22:13 - Written by PAT WHEELER, Sports Correspondent

It was one of those pleasant summer nights under the lights at Fun Forest Park that you wished would never end. On one of the softball fields, Ned Duncan is pitching for First Baptist.

    His longtime battery mate, Hillard Peters, is catching, while manager Jim Gasaway exudes a calm confidence from the dugout. Equipment manager Bubba Peerson is talking smack to whoever might be listening.

    It’s a snapshot of my boyhood days in Tyler. The team facing Duncan really didn’t matter. We came to see Ned pitch. We came to see if anyone could luck out and get a hit. Duncan was that good and with men’s fast-pitch softball now long obsolete, he helped define a bygone era of Tyler sports.

    A resident of Tyler for almost 60 years, Duncan passed away Wednesday evening at age 81. He was retired after a long career with the Massey & Brown Sporting Goods Company.

    Before he became legendary in softball, Duncan was widely known for his basketball skills, playing against Wilt Chamberlain in the NCAA tournament while at SMU in the late 1950s. Growing up in tiny Cayuga, Duncan’s basketball career was storybook.

    The Cayuga Kid was a “gym rat” before that term was part of the sports lexicon.

    “The gym was less than a mile from our house and always open, so that’s where you’d find me,” Duncan said in an interview in 2014. “The key to good basketball is practice or repetition, whether it be shooting or dribbling or developing the peripheral vision for passing the ball.”

    Duncan put those talented skills to good use in leading his high school team to state championships in 1952 and 1954 before following coach Joe Turner to Kilgore College, where his play making as a guard guided the Rangers to their first junior college national title in 1956. At SMU for his junior and senior seasons, Duncan played on two Southwest Conference championship teams.

    “He had a set shot with the ball cocked to the right side of his head that I will never forget,” former PGA Tour winner Jacky Cupit, a native of the Kilgore-Longview area said. “He seemed to never miss with that shot.”

    After his basketball days were over, Duncan turned to fast-pitch softball to satisfy his competitive thirst.

    “Like a lot of people, I would get the Tyler paper every morning to look at the box score,” Kilgore’s Terry Stembridge said. “I knew First Baptist had won but just wanted to see if someone got a hit off Ned.”

    On one special occasion, perhaps the greatest fast-pitch softball pitcher of all time, Eddie Feigner, came to Tyler with his traveling team, The King and His Court. Duncan, pitching for a Tyler all-star team, wowed a packed house at Mike Carter Field, then known as Municipal Stadium. He matched Feigner pitch for pitch in a duel for the ages.

    “The wind was at a good angle that night so the ball was really moving for me,” Duncan said. “I was a little pumped up and with that wind, my riser was acting like a screwball and that made it hard to hit. They only had four players and that meant having to face those big guys every inning or so. They did hit a couple of balls that would have been out of softball fields but not Municipal that night because we had good outfielders.”

    It was one of those fleet outfielders, Bobby Watkins, who hit a screamer down the third base line for an inside-the-park home run for Tyler and the only run of the game in a 1-0 win.

    Inducted into the NJCAA Men’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, Duncan got to share the memory of his glory days at Kilgore College with wife, Donna, and his family, that includes daughters Amy and Leslie and son Brent. Leslie’s twin sons, Trevor and Tristan Blake, joined their grandfather to watch an SMU practice led by coach Larry Brown before the Mustangs’ opener in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

    Brown, made aware that Duncan played against Chamberlain in an NCAA match-up at Moody Coliseum, came over for an extended visit. The twin boys were star struck as Brown shared his chance meeting with Duncan’s old SMU coach Doc Hayes.

    “I was here playing with New Orleans in the old ABA and heard he was getting a hot dog,” Brown said. “So I ran up to the concession stand in my uniform just to meet him - he was a great coach.”

    Duncan agreed and the two men enjoyed a laugh. After a group photo, Brown then told Duncan he was welcome to attend an SMU practice anytime.

    After his softball days were over, Duncan started playing golf and applying the same principles of practice and repetition, became a good player at Briarwood Country Club (now The Cascades Golf & Country Club). Never long off the tee, he was methodical in his technique and accurate. To combat a strong right hand no doubt developed from all of those softball pitches through the years, Duncan employed a double overlap grip. The result was very little time spent off the fairway and true to his athletic prowess; he was a superb chipper and putter.

    Another pleasant memory was a tournament in 1976 at Holly Lake Ranch when my partner Keith Jones and I won second place in our flight. I used my prize for a Zebra Putter that was becoming the rage at that time. I was showing it off on the putting green when Duncan came over and asked if he could try it out. I made the mistake of saying yes.

    He liked it so much that he talked me out of it. In exchange for the putter, he gave me a gift certificate for some duds at Massey and Brown.

    I never got to use that Zebra putter but can say without hesitation that Aubrey Alvin Duncan made more than his share with it.