John Seward never lost his affection for
basketball. A former all-conference forward, he returned to campus for games, ventured to a
and held coach
in high regard.
But Duke basketball did lose Seward after his first two seasons. Not to injury or the
To war. To a POW camp in Limburg, Germany.
So as reigning champion Duke prepares for Friday's
, here is a story from another era, a story of courage, sacrifice and love.
The son of a Newport News shipbuilder, John "Bubber" Seward grew up in a boarding house on 32nd Street. He attended Newport News High and played basketball for coach Julie Conn.
Another iconic coach, Duke's Eddie Cameron, noticed Seward's talents and offered him a scholarship. Seward played on the Blue Devils' 1942 Southern Conference champions and a year later earned first-team, All-Southern honors.
Taken by Conn and Cameron, he dreamed of becoming a coach.
But first, duty called.
Drafted in 1943, Seward joined the 7th Army's 103rd Infantry Division in southern France during the winter of 1944-45. Almost immediately, he and 17 comrades were sent to free part of an American regiment cut off by the
The combat was fierce, and after two days, Seward and Co., ran out of ammunition. They were captured Jan. 20, the day of FDR's fourth inaugural.
"Bubber Seward, Local Star Athlete, Missing In Action," read a Daily Press headline Feb. 8.
The Germans transported their prisoners via a dank box car to Stalag !2-A. The journey took three days, during which Seward later told friends his feet froze from the cold.
But that was tame compared to camp life. Prisoners slept outside, in foxholes. They received flour water and potato peelings for breakfast — soup would be a generous description — and black bread for dinner.
Seward lost 40 pounds.
"He didn't talk much about it," Seward's son, Joe, says of his father's POW experience. "But he did say he'd never miss another meal."
Seventy-one days into his capture, Seward heard the Germans abandoning the camp. Soon thereafter, Third Army tanks arrived.
Germany surrendered a month later, days after Hitler's suicide.
Seward returned to Duke after the war and made all-conference again in 1946. As a senior in '47, he captained the Blue Devils and served as Student Government Association president.
Most important, he met Matilda Paty at a Sigma Chi dance at the Washington-Duke Hotel. Months later, they were married at the Duke Chapel.
"If it weren't for Duke, you wouldn't be talking to me," Joe says with a laugh from his Johnson City, Tenn., home.
John still fancied a coaching career, but his father-in-law convinced him to join the family lumber business in Tennessee. There he settled, raising a family and becoming a community activist — he served on the Johnson City School Board and the boards of the Johnson City Medical Center and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
The Sewards returned often to the Peninsula to visit relatives, and to this day, Joe, now 49, says he knows Newport News "like the back of my hand."
Joe and his older brother, Steve, inherited their dad's basketball passion, and John coached them in youth leagues. Steve was the better player, and after transferring from Vanderbilt he captained
's team as a senior in 1973.
Like his dad, Steve hoped to coach. So he headed west for a graduate assistant position at Virginia Tech under Don Devoe.
Alas, Steve "Satch" Seward died of leukemia in 1975.
To honor his son, John helped raise $3 million to establish the Steve Seward
Treatment Center in Johnson City. Opened in 1992, the center serves thousands of patients annually.
John lived in Tennessee the rest of his days. He attended the 1992 Barcelona
, where basketball's original Dream Team — Krzyzewski was an assistant coach — won gold for the United States, and visited his POW site, now a summer camp for underprivileged children.
"He knew exactly where it was," Matilda says. "He didn't go to pieces like many (former POWs). He was fine."
Seward retired from the lumber business in 2000. He played golf, remained active in his church and doted on his grandchildren.
He died of congestive heart failure in 2008 at age 86.
"He loved basketball, and he always followed Duke," Matilda says. "But he liked Carolina and Dean Smith, too. After Duke, he rooted for Carolina."
Joe thinks often of his father during college basketball season, especially when Duke plays in the NCAA tournament. But might his loyalty be tested Sunday, when the Blue Devils face a potential matchup with his alma mater, Tennessee?
"Oh, no," Joe says. "We'll be cheering for Duke, and I'll put out our Duke flag. It was my dad's."