Five minutes into the second half of Duke's weird 91–90 win last Sunday over the 1-4 Catamounts of the University of Vermont, Blue Devil freshman Jabari Parker, the 6-foot-8, 235-pound future NBA All-Star, stole the ball from a green-clad guard named Candon Rusin, loped down court and dunked delicately with two hands, as if dropping a bomb down a foxhole.
The crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium went nuts. Vermont called a timeout. The score was 61–49, Duke.
"Right after that," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski post-game, "was our worst." He looked and sounded like a Michelin chef who'd just eaten three microwaved corndogs. "Those are the kind of situations when we show our immaturity."
Ten minutes later, Vermont led by three. They'd been getting layups all night long, as Duke's defenders failed to rotate back under the basket, leaving dudes wide open. Now Vermont started making jumpers. The cheering section behind the Catamounts bench lost their mind and kept losing it, led by one young brown-haired soprano whose whoop seemed to cut through Cameron's nervous up-and-downs of frightened hush and roar.
Vermont senior Sandro Carissimo was the first player who seemed to believe, directing traffic, driving hard, drawing fouls, hitting shots. Hector Harold was next, a 6-foot-7 junior coming off the bench to drop 24 points on Duke's Rodney Hood and Parker. Other men with excellent names like Clancy Rugg haunted the unprotected rim, helping Vermont shoot 65 percent from the floor.
Meanwhile, Blue Devil veterans Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton vied for world's dumbest foul as they slide-tackled jump-shooters at the three-point line. Defense happened only rarely, and even the occasional Parker blocked shot was promptly wasted by Vermont's weak side rebound and score.
In the end, Duke survived this game at the line, forcing shots, drawing fouls and making 25 of 30 free throws. Parker had 26 points and Hood had 22, including some dazzlers, but nobody was fooled.
"From watching the old stuff," Parker told the Fayetteville Observer back in early November, recalling Duke teams of yore, "they always brought energy. They were never comfortable, and teams were afraid of them. I think nowadays, teams aren't afraid of us but are more highly anticipated in looking forward to beating us. We need to have that mentality back from the late '90s where teams were afraid to play and schedule us."
When those teams were playing, Parker was a 4-year-old in Chicago, the youngest child of a devout Mormon mother and an NBA-veteran father (Sonny Parker), who'd moved their family to the city's ill-reputed South Side to work with disadvantaged students and their families. Since Parker turned 16, he's been singled out as a "once in a lifetime player" (ESPN) and "the best high school basketball player since LeBron" (Sports Illustrated).
On the court, there's an economy to his movement that's unusual for a young player. He's fluid and he's fast, and seems relaxed and comfortable in his large body. Off the court, post-game, he looks as if he'd like to find an obscure corner of the locker room where reporters might overlook him. "If he could just play basketball without all of the other stuff," his mother told ESPN, "he'd be a very happy camper."
Neither Parker, his coach nor his teammates looked like happy campers leading 90–89 with 11 seconds left in the game, as Vermont's Rusin stepped to the line for the free throw that would complete a four-point play and tie things up. Cameron Indoor Stadium seemed to lift off its supports in the din of people: students, season ticket holders, the casual fan who'd spotted this game on the schedule and knew they could score tickets. An 80-something guy there to cross Cameron off his bucket list, the little blue haired boy in spandex sitting courtside, a crew of Durham locals screaming their heads off in the Duke student section. The Vermont fans shook their fists like Visigoths poised to sack the Roman Empire. Every basketball player has imagined that moment of standing on the edge of history, stepping up for one last shot.
Vermont's Rusin made the free throw and tied the game. All eyes turned to Parker, whose scoring had kept Duke alive in the second half, but it was Hood who drove straight down the middle, drew the foul and hit one of two. And then Rusin had the ball again, driving the left baseline, reaching out one long arm to let it fly. The ball was still in his hand when the buzzer sounded and the game-ending red light on the basket lit, and he could only watch as the ball floated through the air and nestled softly through the net.
"It feels like a loss," said Hood. "Unacceptable," said Coach K. "It's like telling a kid not to do something and he keeps doing it," said Duke's Quinn Cook. Parker called himself "the weakest link" on defense.
More than an hour after the game had ended, Hood, Cook, Parker and their coach were nowhere to be seen, but the Vermont players were back on the court at Cameron, hugging their parents and fans while the stadium crew cleaned up. Their bus was waiting, but they didn't want to leave.
This article was originally published in different form on the INDY's sports blog.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Big man on campus."