Button Man helps preserve Duke memories

This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.

An open box sits on the kitchen desk of a farmhouse in the small city of Mulhouse in northeast France. Inside the box are a handful of pin-backed buttons featuring pictures of Allison Vernerey, a junior center for the Duke women's basketball team.

They're rare buttons. You can't buy them anywhere. There's only one place on the planet you can find them.

Jacques Vernerey had to travel nearly 4,300 miles from Mulhouse, in the Alsace region of France not far from the German and Swiss borders, to Durham, N.C., to get those buttons two years ago.

Viv Bernstein

Rob Rabb, better known as the Button Man, has been a fixture at women's games since the early 1990s.

"Most of them are Allison's game action," wrote Vernerey, who rarely gets to see his daughter play, making the long trek to Durham only once a season. But Vernerey takes a moment to look at the buttons on the kitchen desk every week, and he knows he will keep them forever.

There are thousands of buttons of Duke women's basketball players out there, in boxes, on desks and in drawers, pinned to hats and stuck to bulletin boards. They're in Texas and Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia and North Carolina, even Australia and who knows where else.

There probably are buttons in places Rob Rabb couldn't imagine if he stopped to think about it. Not that he ever does. Rabb is the Button Man of Duke, a longtime fan who has used a little home button maker to forge a connection between the women's basketball team and the community that spans three decades.

Spend enough time with Rabb and you'll know he's far too unassuming to realize the impact and import of his buttons.

But others surely do.

An unexpected fan

A box in the home office of Gail Goestenkors in Austin, Texas, holds buttons from her 15 years as coach of Duke's women's basketball team. She used to wear them in Durham, although that's hardly appropriate these days. Goestenkors is the coach of the Texas Longhorns, and blue is definitely not her color these days.

But five years after she left Duke to move to Austin, she still has 15 or 20 buttons at home. Goestenkors takes them out of the box about once a year to reminisce.

Viv Bernstein

Rabb makes buttons of the players and hands them out to fans, family and friends. He keeps a fair share too.

"Those buttons represent great memories," she said.

Goestenkors and Rabb arrived in Durham around the same time in 1992. Goestenkors had just taken on the monumental task of reviving Duke, a distant third in the Triangle behind rivals NC State and North Carolina and a bottom dweller in the ACC. Former coach Debbie Leonard said Duke was the last of the ACC schools to put an emphasis on women's basketball, and it showed.

There were hardly any fans back then.

"We would joke it was basically the family members and friends of our players," Goestenkors said. "We probably averaged 200, 250, something like that. I remember the first year we didn't have a banquet. We didn't have enough people to attend, so we had a pizza party for basically our season ticket holders and team, and I think there were 25 people that came."

Rabb, 56, likely wasn't among them. He was not a women's basketball fan. A computer software specialist from Takoma Park, Md., Rabb moved to Durham in 1992 because his wife, Merry, had attended Duke and wanted to return to the area. They bought a house about two miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium and quickly became season-ticket holders -- for Duke men's basketball.

The women were mostly an afterthought. But the games were free, and they thought it would be a convenient night out.

At the start, that's all it was.

"It wasn't like, 'Hey, we're into women's basketball. Let's find out what's going on,'" Merry Rabb said.

But those plucky Blue Devils kept drawing the Rabbs back.

"We just sort of got engaged by the players and the game and the program," she said. "In '95, we beat Carolina, they were the defending national champions. I remember that game. I remember the first time we beat NC State, which took a couple more years. We sort of got into it. And then the success started to build, and it became even more engaging because you felt like you were part of something that was up and coming."

An important part, it turns out. Women's basketball has never drawn many fans from the student body; it still doesn't. Yet even without the students, the community support in Durham grew. The Rabbs were part of a group that became known as the middle-aged Cameron crazies. They were the ones who started the cheers, caravanned to nearby NC State and North Carolina and traveled to Wake Forest, Tennessee and beyond.

"I always appreciated the ones who stuck with us from the beginning," Goestenkors said. "Those were always the ones -- and he was one of them -- that were really special."

A button man

There are buttons on countertops, buttons in dishes, buttons on tables, buttons scattered all about the Rabb household. Drawers are full of them in the basement. There are sports buttons, political buttons, social-cause buttons and cartoon buttons that include the Jetsons and the Flintstones. Over the years, Rob Rabb has collected a thousand or more.

"I just always liked buttons as a mode of expression, whether it was for your favorite rock band or your favorite politician or your favorite social cause. It was just a great way to share," Rabb said. "I like to collect things. It's easy to collect buttons because they're relatively small and lightweight. I traveled on business for a lot of years, and it was easy to bring stuff back without flooding the suitcase."

In the 1980s, Rabb's sister-in-law bought a home button-making kit for a children's school project. She used it to make Christmas gifts for Merry and Rob one year. That's when it occurred to Rabb that he could make his own buttons. He bought a kit sometime around 1989, and one of his earliest buttons was a tribute to his wife's longtime devotion to the soap opera "General Hospital." On the button is a picture of the famed Luke and Laura wedding. They still have that button.

Somewhere in the mid-1990s, in the days when you couldn't buy a Duke women's basketball T-shirt or memento even if you wanted to, Rabb decided to make buttons of the team to wear and share with fans in the stands. It was his little way of helping support the program.

"The whole idea is people would see folks wearing buttons," said Rabb, whose license plate on his Prius reads 6THWOMAN. "Hopefully they didn't only wear them for games. Or maybe they went out for a bite after the game and people would see them and it would raise awareness this was going on. At the time, games were free. 'Come to the game, support the team and have a great time.'"

It quickly escalated.

"He started wanting to make individual buttons for individual players and their parents," said Merry Rabb, who has a CAMCRZY plate on her Prius. "Someone will say, 'Do you have a button with so-and-so on it?' He started doing it more to satisfy that, do something special for people that wanted it. And then once you start doing individual player buttons, then you want to do them for all the players because you want to treat all the parents equally."

As the women began to win and become more popular in the late '90s, Rabb began making lots of buttons. He would bring as many as 60 to each game and invested a few hundred dollars for a better button maker to increase production.

That was around the time the Blue Devils shocked women's basketball by knocking off Chamique Holdsclaw and Tennessee to reach the Final Four for the first time in 1999. After that, there were fans, and buttons, filling the stands behind the Duke bench.

"The buttons brought people together in conversation, where before games and after games, tournaments, they were all trading buttons," said former Duke player and assistant coach Joanne Boyle, who is now the head coach at Virginia.

Boyle, who left Duke in 2002, still has her buttons pinned to a "Cat in the Hat" top hat that her mother, Joan, used to wave at Duke games.

"No other team had that," Boyle said. "It was just such a community, and this brought it together in this fun atmosphere of trading memories through buttons, and so you got to wear many of those memories. It was like a scrapbook, and people were wearing their scrapbook on their jacket or their hat."

Most buttoned

In a house in Tulsa, Okla., there's an armoire that serves as a small shrine to the basketball career of Iciss Tillis. She played professionally for seven years, overseas and in the WNBA for a stretch, before retiring to prepare for law school. Among the various mementos that her mother, Melanie Hughes-Morris, collected over the years are buttons, maybe two dozen of them, from Tillis' days as an All-American at Duke nearly a decade ago.

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Rabb estimates he's made 10,000 buttons through the years, and he has always given them away for free.

"Each button, I can specifically remember what was going on at that time," Tillis said. "Some of the buttons were definitely from the Final Four. Some of the buttons were from different ACC championships. One of the buttons was from my first year. I probably have at least 20 to 25 buttons, and each one I have a very fond memory of."

Tillis was an integral part of the team that elevated Duke to the upper echelon of women's basketball in the early 2000s. The Blue Devils won four consecutive ACC tournament titles during her career -- five in a row in all from 2000 through 2004 -- and went to consecutive Final Fours in 2002 and '03.

The centerpiece of that team was Alana Beard, the most decorated women's basketball player ever at Duke. She is the school's all-time leading scorer and was national player of the year in 2003 and '04. Beard's No. 20 is one of only two retired Duke women's jerseys.

Beard also was the most buttoned player in Duke history. Rabb said he made 500 to 600 buttons of Beard during her college career.

"It's quite an honor," said Beard, who plays for the Washington Mystics and attended a recent Blue Devils game. "To have people like the Button Man cross your path who care enough about you to make buttons for you, to give them out to your parents to share with your family, it means a lot to me."

Most of Beard's buttons have gone to her parents over the years and are now housed in Shreveport, La.

Michael Currie, father of Monique Currie, said he has as many as 30 buttons from his daughter's career at Duke from 2001 to 2006. He lives in Washington, D.C., and has given them to family and friends over the years, with some of the buttons going to cousins in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"When you go on your job and you can hand your co-workers one of those buttons and then he can take it home and show one of his kids and they see your daughter on TV, it gives them a personal relationship because then they feel as though, 'I know her, or my dad works with her father,' so that means so much when you can pass that on," Currie said.

There are buttons Down Under in Australia too. Jessica Foley, the former Blue Devil who plays professionally for the Townsville McCafe Fire in the WNBL, is best known for a buzzer-beating 3-point shot that sank Connecticut in the 2006 NCAA tournament.

It was a shot for the ages. One for the buttons too.

Still buttoning

Rabb never kept count of the number of buttons he made over the years, including those for the Duke women's volleyball team and the men's basketball team from time to time. A rough estimate is somewhere in the range of 10,000. Nor does he keep track of the money he has spent, although the Rabbs figure that it's around $3,000. And there's no dollar figure for the hours he has devoted to making the buttons, which he always has given away for free.

These days, Duke doesn't need that kind of publicity. The Blue Devils have become the premier program in the ACC and are averaging a conference-best 5,109 fans per game this season, 15th in the country.

Rabb remains a regular at women's games, although he admits the production of his buttons has declined in recent years. Still, they remain prized mementos for parents and friends.

"When he gave them to me, I was just really touched by it," said Sharon McCloskey, whose daughter, Haley Peters, is a sophomore on the team.

McCloskey was given a bag full of buttons last season and displays some of them on a bulletin board in her home office in Durham. Haley has passed them down to cousins spread from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic.

"Obviously, there's work involved in doing what he does," McCloskey said. "I was really touched by the fact someone would really do that."

Rabb will never know how many people have been touched by his buttons over the years. There are too many to count.

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