You don’t appreciate something special until it’s gone. We’ve all heard that saying. I felt that way last December when my x-rays came back after my foot injury. I also felt anger, confusion and frustration. Was my college career over?
I had big plans for my senior year. Hang banners, cut nets, average a double-double, lead our team. My plans didn’t include stepping out of bed and calling Jose to tell him I can’t walk. My plans didn’t include watching the season unfold in street clothes. I was knocked back. I lost my spirit. I had two fractures that only time could heal. I didn’t have the time.
There were moments during my recovery where I felt self-pity. The team was forming an identity without me and I wanted to be out there so badly. I am on the sideline and we are struggling with things I know I can do well.
The hardest part for me was the three-game losing streak we had (Clemson, Notre Dame, Syracuse) and watching those games play out in front of me on the bench. Those were basically one possession games. One play goes differently and we win. I know I could have brought a toughness that pulled us through. That beat me up. We can win those games if I am out there.
As the season progressed, it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to be myself as a player at any point. I was never able to push off or run until we got to the ACC Tournament. I wasn’t in shape. Do I want to try to play postseason games and have my career be over with one wrong step? Or maybe play 10 minutes a game and hope for the best after the team had built a positive identity and style without me?
I tried to stay positive. I had great teammates and they were fighters. They never quit. They made no excuses. That win at Carolina will always be a positive reference point for me and a reminder that belief and resiliency can take you a long way. Our backs were against the wall especially once Matt went down, but we stayed the course and kept battling. We believed in our coaches and each other. Down the stretch everyone made huge plays and we pulled out the win.
Seeing the guys scrap and fight like that and watching the team on a daily basis gave me strength. If the guys could fight and forge ahead without making any excuses, then I certainly could too. As time passed, I tried to stay very positive, supportive and observant.
I learned a great deal as an observer of the game. I saw it from our coaches’ point of view. The first thing I learned is how much planning really goes into each game and how much our coaches break it down. We know everything the other teams want to do. It was amazing how often player tendencies in our scouting preparation would reveal themselves in the game. The game slowed down for me. I started to see things differently. I saw where I could be on the court. I gained a better sense for defensive positioning.
I noticed so much more about how we do things as a program. I watched our managers and the attention to detail they have. I noticed all of the logistics that go into a game. But my biggest observation hit me every time I sat in the chair in front of my locker at home or on the road before a game. The room would be pretty quiet as guys laced up their shoes, stretched and listened to music.
All I could think about it was opportunity. There is endless opportunity when you play basketball at Duke.
Think about a Duke Basketball game. You are representing an incredible university. Playing for the best coach ever. You have terrific fans all over the country and the most unique homecourt in basketball. You have a special brotherhood of past players you have relationships with and want to fight for. You have the best teammates. You play basically all of your games on ESPN networks.
And so going forward, I have two primary thoughts. These thoughts apply to me, my team and our fans too. Anyone who wants to come along for the ride with us!
Our motto has to be “earn everything.” We can‘t feel like we’ve arrived. We have to improve daily. No one has arrived until the last Monday of the season. Nothing is given to us. We have to work. Run without complaining. Do extra work. Compete. Make each other better. This all starts with a tone set by Matt, Grayson and me. We can‘t “big-time” anything. Our identity has to form in a cohesive, selfless environment. As a captain, I want to make sure we have that atmosphere and culture where guys have a bond. We will go as far as our bond takes us.
I love playing the game of basketball. You get a bucket and the crowd cheers. That feels good. You lock up a great offensive player and that feels very good. You win big with your brothers, creating a bond around unforgettable winning moments. That’s the best gift you can receive from this game and it’s the hardest one to get. Matt, Grayson and I were fortunate to experience that first hand in 2015. We have friendships and memories from that season that will never fade. Special shoutout to Jah, Q, Stones, Justise, Marshall and the whole squad!
It starts with doing tough things and setting our standards early. I want to instill in our younger guys what the Mason Plumlee’s and Ryan Kelly’s did for me. We are all in. The tough things we do in the offseason will help us be worthy of winning in March. The respect we have for our opportunity will take us far. It has to be every day.
There’s so much going on in the world right now. That‘s another Devil’s Life column for another day. We all know life can be tough.
But Duke Basketball? Having this group? This support system? This is love. This is opportunity. This is a true dream come true.
Every single day counts. Every day as a Duke Basketball player is a gift. And we are surrounded by reminders that give us hope and inspire us.
It’s visiting Colby in the children‘s hospital and hearing his story and seeing how incredibly upbeat he is while facing really, really tough health challenges.
It’s going over to the Emily K Center and talking to the kids there and seeing all the joy and hope on the faces of the youngsters from Durham.
It’s walking past K-Ville every day and thinking about the lengths our fellow students to go to support us.
It’s seeing all the fire and passion Coach K still has, coaching us like he‘s never won a game before.
It’s having access to all the resources, support staff and gear that you could ever dream of as a basketball player.
It’s feeling the love from our fans at our games at home, on the road, and on Twitter.
There is no doubt. We have all the tools in the toolshed. One day you need the hammer. Then you need the screwdriver. Then we play another team and need the powersaw. We have all the tools. Size, length, shooting. We have drivers. We have size. We have three-point shooting. We have rebounders. We have the talent. It’s scary. We have a mixture of all kinds of guys who want to play. We have to bring it all together now, pushing ahead with confidence.
The biggest thing we need is that great bond. We need to continue to build a camaraderie and togetherness. There will be people who want to see us divided and see us stumble. We will face adversity at different times during the season. We need to have a united group where we cherish every moment together and just have fun. We want to have relationships where we can’t stand for this thing to end because that means we won’t be together anymore as a group.
These are the things I think of now, having four years under my belt and experiencing almost all the highs and lows the college game has to offer. I know for sure that you have to take advantage of your moment when your number is called. You never know when that will be.
Our moment has started this summer and it’s an exciting time. The talent is like I’ve never seen. It‘s special. We have that mix of older guys with Matt, Grayson and me. We have guys who have a year under their belt in Luke and Chase. And then we mix that in with a freshman class that has it all. The new guys are polished and ready to play. They are hungry and have all the physical abilities you could ever want to play our game. To have a team with this talent is a blessing. It doesn’t come around like this often. It may never come around again. Even some legendary Duke players never had the fortune of playing with the talent we have.
When you get to February and March, I’ve found that there are always three to five teams truly deserving of winning the whole thing. The team that rises to the top and gets that extra push is the team that built a stronger bond starting in July and August. The team that wins is the team that would feel the most pain by losing. I think that’s how we got it done in 2015.
For us, it comes down to having one mission and one goal. We should aspire to win every game we play and hang every banner possible. Personal stats take a backseat to winning.
We haven’t won the ACC regular season in six years. We haven’t won the league tournament in five years. Those facts should be reminders to our group that this isn’t going to be easy just because we are loaded and have Duke across our chest. We need to know we have to be prepared daily.
Hanging banners is a day-by-day process. If we love each other and cherish this opportunity every day, everything will take care of itself. The stage is set. We have everything you need. We have to stick together because this will be big and emotions will be high.
The past doesn’t matter. Expectations don’t matter. Preseason hype lists and player rankings don’t matter. Preseason award watch lists don’t matter. High school accolades don’t matter. The haters and the naysayers don’t matter.
What matters for our program: hunting banners together, guided by a collective belief in our standards and mission.
As we go forward, I hope everyone involved in our program allows our team to embrace the full journey. Our program is 0-0. Every win has to be earned and enjoyed.
This will be our only time together as a group. This is my last season. This will be Matt’s last season. We have several guys who would have been first-round picks this year if they wanted to declare and were eligible. And Coach won’t be doing this forever. Although I think he might go another 20 years because he is a machine!
We can’t take anything for granted. What we have right here is so special. At the end of the day, we are college kids doing what we love at the best school in America.
We will have fun. We will compete. We will embrace and appreciate everything Duke has to offer. We will respect everyone. And we will earn everything.
Here Comes Duke…