Andre Dawkins is back on the court for Duke and now wearing No. 34. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY
DURHAM—It’s a friendship that started in stereotypically male fashion: video games and golf.
Sean Kelly, a Duke basketball manager, didn’t particularly care for his freshman dorm, so he would go hang out with his big brother, Ryan, at his off-campus apartment. Ryan, then a junior on the basketball team, lived with teammate Andre Dawkins. Round-robin tournaments with a version of the NBA 2K game for Xbox were frequent between the three, but the younger Kelly and Dawkins shared another hobby.
“It started with golf,” Kelly said. “We were both beginners, and we were both embarrassed to play with anyone else good, so we just started playing golf a lot and just hanging out, and it developed a lot last year, especially in the fall.”
Dawkins, now a redshirt senior, had more free time last year than he’d had in previous years. He took a leave of absence from the team in order to work through the grief associated with the 2009 death of his sister, Lacey. She, along with their mother, was on her way to watch Dawkins play against St. John’s on Dec. 5, 2009, but the two never made it, as a fatal car crash took Lacey’s life.
After Duke’s disappointing 2012 NCAA Tournament loss to Lehigh, Dawkins had a meeting with the coaching staff. Clearly, the present situation wasn’t working. Some games, he was unstoppable, and in others, he would just disappear. After shooting 6-for-9 from 3-point range in route to 22 points at Florida State on Feb. 23rd , Dawkins only hit two more 3-pointers (out of 17 attempts) and scored a combined eight points over the season’s final six games.
Deciding to take a year away was a two-way street, with both Dawkins and the coaching staff having a say in coming to that outcome. So, without his daily basketball obligations, Dawkins had some free time. And with Sean Kelly, he had a golfing buddy.
“The first semester we ended up golfing, it felt like at least once a week,” Kelly said (Hillandale was the course of choice). “We would go to the movies, we got really close.”
The two didn’t talk about Dawkins’ grief and personal feelings—he had his parents and a counselor for that. Instead, it was Dawkins who offered Kelly advice.
“I was seeing a girl or if I needed advice on how to take out a girl, he would give me advice, ‘you’ve got to take her out here, you’ve got to go here, you’ve got to get her a nice dinner, stuff like that,” Kelly said. “He was like a second big brother, basically.”
Once the season started last year, the two would go shoot basketballs at night (Kelly, like Dawkins and his older brother, can shoot from downtown—he actually beat N.C. State’s Scott Wood in a 3-point shooting contest at an ACC Barnstorming stop last spring). When the team would go on the road, Kelly and the other managers would stay and do film work. Dawkins started coming along to those sessions, too.
“There was definitely a period where it was like, let’s just step away,” Kelly said of Dawkins and basketball. “We did a lot of golf. But when the season started, that was when I started to know.”
And when Kelly saw his friend sitting behind the bench at Duke’s first home game, he knew Dawkins had the itch again. Kelly started to see the passion come back to Dawkins—this was the guy that was the first to tackle Austin Rivers after his game-winning shot at North Carolina, after all. When senior walk-on Todd Zafirovski scored his first career basket Dec. 1 against Delaware, Dawkins’s celebration caught Kelly’s eye.
“It was just really big,” Kelly said. “It was really cool to see him still really going out and enjoying it. He was rooting for the guys.”
After Duke’s season ended with a loss to Louisville in the Elite Eight, it was time for Dawkins and the staff to decide what he would do with his final year of eligibility. He was prepared to have to go elsewhere to continue playing.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything, to meet the coach and have them say, ‘hey, we’re going to move on in a different direction,’” Dawkins said. “You’ve got to weigh your options and make sure you’re ready for anything that could happen.’”
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski left the decision up to Dawkins. He could rejoin the Duke team, transfer somewhere else, stop playing, whatever he wanted. Dawkins wanted to resume his career at Duke.
“I chose Duke for a reason, and Duke chose me for a reason,” he said. “Those reasons still stand. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. They gave me an opportunity to get myself better off the court that most programs and most coaches wouldn’t have given a player. I was really grateful for that. That just validated my decision to come here in the first place.”
“He was at a time in his life where you take ownership,” Krzyzewski said of Dawkins. “It’s called taking responsibility for what you’re going to do. It’s on no one else. He’s done that, and he’s in a good place.”
Dawkins changed his jersey number this year, to No. 34 in honor of sharpshooter Ray Allen. It’s also the jersey his original roommate, Ryan Kelly, wore during his four years, and Dawkins has taken over his locker sport, too.
“People ask me if I can still shoot, and I ask them if they can still breathe. That’s kind of the same thing,” Dawkins said, sitting in front of his locker, holding court with the media on the first day of practice. “I’m going to be able to shoot for a long time.”
It was the same spot Kelly sat last year and told reporters he, too, could still shoot after his foot injury (and he went out and scored 36 points against Miami a few days later). Dawkins began this year’s practices as the team’s sixth man, spelling Rasheed Sulaimon at the off-ball guard position and helping pace the offense and defense up and down the floor.
Last year’s break was necessary, Dawkins said, and now he’s back, ready to focus 100 percent on basketball. He moved in with Sean Kelly, his old golf buddy. Dawkins’s game has improved significantly—a score in the high 80s is a good day for him, Kelly said. And his basketball game is as smooth as ever.
“I was joking with him the other day after practice, ‘it’s just so fun to watch you now, you just seem like there’s this huge weight off your shoulders,’ Kelly said of Dawkins. “’You seem like you have fun again.’”