The Players That Made Me, Part 3: Mike Dunleavy Jr.
On contrarianism, a classic college basketball game, and the ugly part of sports fandom.
Everyone in my family loved Duke basketball, except for me. My dad was a longtime coach, and he had a level of admiration for Mike Krzyzewski’s ability to consistently field winning teams. My two older sisters also took a liking to Duke basketball, but for different reasons that I will get to shortly. My mom was more along for the ride than anything else.
I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. Part of me enjoys zigging when I am expected to zag. A story that one of my sisters loves to tell is that when I was a kid, I would pretend to like the taste of eggs. I love eggs now, but when I was a kid, I didn’t truly feel that way. The first time I was offered eggs, everyone at the table said they didn’t think I would like them, because I was a horrendously picky eater. Annoyed by this, I gave a big thumbs up as I put the first forkful of eggs into my mouth, even though my face told a completely different story. I believe I came to like eggs simply because I forced myself to buy in to the narrative I was trying to create.
This contrarian nature showed it’s face in 2002, when I first started to get into college basketball. Previously, I was predominantly an NBA viewer, as I grew up on the Jordan Bulls. I didn’t have an allegiance to a particular college team. I’d root for Arizona when I saw them on TV because I knew Steve Kerr went there, but that was the extent of my fandom. So, in 2002, when my family was plunging deep into Duke fandom, I had to find a different team. I turned toward the other top team in their conference: the Maryland Terrapins.
While I started my fandom somewhat out of spite, there were some things I truly enjoyed about Maryland basketball. First off, they had the coolest uniforms in the sport. Beyond that, I developed a fondness for their roster. Juan Dixon was a lights out scorer with a thin frame, reminiscent of another one of my favorites at the time, Allen Iverson. Steve Blake was a hard-nosed point guard who was elite at setting the table for his teammates. Chris Wilcox and Lonny Baxter swatted away shots on defense and gobbled up rebounds. Drew Nicholas was a microwave scorer off the bench. This team was fun to root for, and fun to watch.
So right now you’re reading this, and you’re thinking, “hey, wasn’t this supposed to be an article about Mike Dunleavy Jr.?” IT IS AN ARTICLE ABOUT MIKE DUNLEAVY JR.! HOLD YOUR FREAKIN’ HORSES! I previously mentioned that my sisters had gotten into Duke basketball, and Mike Dunleavy Jr. was the reason why. Both of my sisters were tremendous basketball players (for some reason I didn’t get those genes), and they admired his pristine jump shot. Additionally, they thought he was very handsome. My oldest sister even went so far as to send fan mail to Mike Dunleavy Jr., and he sent back an autographed picture. Had 11 year old Maxwell been more devious, he could have claimed to the NCAA that his sister included $20 in her piece of fan mail, and that in sending back the autographed picture, Dunleavy had violated the sanctity of amateurism, rendering him ineligible. Sadly, I was stupid then, and I’m still stupid now.
Part of my disdain for Dunleavy came from the fact that he was adored by my family members. The other part of it was that I just didn’t like guys like Mike Dunleavy Jr. I was the freckly fat kid in school; Dunleavy was handsome and slim. He was also the antithesis of the hardnosed Maryland squad I loved. Along with every other tall guy who took jump shots in that era, Dunleavy was labeled as being soft, and I agreed with that at the time. Respectable big men like Chris Wilcox and Lonny Baxter would throw elbows and jockey for position in the post; Mike Dunleavy hung out on the perimeter like a coward. I both envied and reviled his existence, and I wanted him to fail.
This should, theoretically, be the part of the story where I get to a big rivalry game between Duke and Maryland. In fact, both teams earned number one seeds in that year’s NCAA tournament, and they were on opposite sides of the bracket. The stage was set for a Duke-Maryland showdown for the NCAA Championship. That’s not where this is going, though. Instead, our focus shifts to a Sweet 16 game between Duke and fifth-seeded Indiana University.
To set the stage, my entire family was excited for the game. We even invited over another family, who had daughters that played basketball with my sisters. One of them was also a Mike Dunleavy Jr.-loving sicko. Duke was obviously favored going into the game, and it was obvious why, as the Blue Devils held a 42-29 lead after the first twenty minutes of play. The second half was where things got interesting. Despite Duke leading by as many as 17 points, Indiana had no quit in them. Jared Jeffries was playing out of his mind, and ended up tallying 15 rebounds. Jeff Newton had 10 boards off the bench. Neither team was particularly hot shooting the ball, but Indiana controlled the glass, out rebounding Duke at a 46-29 clip. You could feel the air slowly coming out of Duke as the half wore on.
You couldn’t feel the air coming out of me, though. My chest was fully puffed, and I was loving every second of it. I was gloating non-stop as Duke’s lead was withering away, and my family, as well as our guests, had hear enough of my trash talk. My mom kicked me out of the living room like a pro wrestling referee ejecting a manager from ringside for interfering in a match too many times. HEY YOU- YOU’RE OUTTA HERE! I was apoplectic, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan style! I begged and pleaded, and thankfully, a concession was reached: I could watch the game from the fringe of the living room, but I couldn’t step foot on the carpet, and I wasn’t allowed to speak for the remainder of the game. Fair enough!
Duke couldn’t buy a bucket. Mike Dunleavy Jr., my nemesis, was 5 for 16 from the field. With about two minutes remaining, Indiana’s Tom Coverdale sank a pair of free throws for to tie the game. Their next trip down court, Coverdale scored again (his only made field goal of the game) and gave the Hoosiers a two point lead. After a missed three by Duke, Indiana took possession again. With a six second difference between the shot clock and game clock, Duke needed Indiana to miss. For a brief second, something even better happened for Duke: the ball was poked loose. After a whirlwind series of events, the ball wound up in the hands of Indiana reserve guard A.J. Moye, who was subsequently fouled after Duke’s Chris Duhon got a little too physical going for a steal. Moye sunk both free throws, and the arena became so loud that the broadcast camera was shaking. Still, I was on the outskirts of the living room, silent, but bubbling with glee. Indiana had a 4 point lead, and the game was all but over. Duke rushed the ball down the court, but missed a three point attempt. Then, the unthinkable happened.
The missed three pointer came off the rim hard, and it was recovered by Duke’s Jay Williams at the top of the key. Williams was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history. He led Duke to a number one seed while also earning both the Naismith Award and Wooden Award, which are given to the best player that season. Williams had averaged over 20 points per game while still being a selfless point guard who would find open teammates. Most importantly, in this moment, Williams was a three point bomber who was ahead of his time, launching 8.1 threes per game and hitting them at a scorching 38.1%. Here, Williams had the ball, and he took a small step back to get behind the three point line. He took the shot, he made the shot, and even worse, he was fouled in the act of shooting by Indiana’s Dan Fife. This was incredibly uncharacteristic of Fife, who had just won the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Jay Williams, the greatest player in the sport, was headed to the free throw line to tie the game with 4.2 seconds left. Indiana’s coach, Mike Davis, turned toward his seat and collapsed to his knees in anguish. To this day, it was one of the most gutting and visceral displays of emotion I’ve ever seen during a sporting event. Surely, we were headed to overtime.
Jay Williams missed the free throw. Shock and joy washed over me, but soon, that feeling vanished. Duke’s Carlos Boozer had grabbed the rebound. Jared Jeffries, for whatever reason, had given up so much position that he wasn’t able to box out Boozer at all. Instead, he’d backed away from the basket as Boozer launched himself up into the air to grab the ball. Boozer went into his shooting motion, and Jeffries suddenly remembered that a game of basketball was still being played. Jeffries got his hand on the ball just enough to alter Boozer’s follow up attempt, which ricocheted off the backboard and the right side of the rim. The clock sounded. Miraculously, Indiana had held on to win the game.
Per the stipulation of my agreement for getting kicked out of the living room, I felt that I was allowed to speak once again since the game was over! I ran my mouth like crazy while everyone told me to shut up. I was on cloud nine, filled with joy. The Duke Blue Devils, and that no good pretty boy Mike Dunleavy Jr., were done, finished, kaput! I was the the happiest I had been watching basketball since the Chicago Bulls won their last championship, and it had nothing to do with the underdog success story of Indiana; I was happy because a guy I didn’t like, a guy I had never met, failed in achieving his dream.
The Maryland Terrapins, my team of choice, would win the NCAA Championship a few weeks later. I didn’t get to see the game because I had been on a plane with my family during the broadcast. When the plane landed, a flight attendant announced the final score over the intercom. I was fired up, and I’ll never forget the first thing I did: I turned to my sisters, and said, “Maryland is better than Duke.” Even during what should have been a moment of pure joy, I was left wanting. My happiness wasn’t enough. I had to heighten my own experience by making sure someone else was dragged down lower than where they were mere seconds before.
This is a key part of the sports experience. It’s ugly, and it’s often left unsaid. You’ll never see a commercial from ESPN or Nike where they talk about how we watch sports to see the people we don’t like lose big games. Instead, they’ll showcase joyous moments, like fans celebrating a game winning home run while players storm the field to congratulate their teammate. But still, deep down, this insidious craving lives inside of us. Sometimes it’s more publicly visible. Living in the Chicagoland area, people here are still protective of Michael Jordan’s legacy. When LeBron James reached his first NBA Finals and came up short, you would have thought the Bulls won another championship based on the social media response. As a member of Sixers Twitter, one of the most fun days online this past season was the day the Utah Jazz got bounced from the playoffs and Rudy Gobert was played off the floor by Terence Mann. It didn’t matter that the Sixers were in the midst of a series they would lose, the guy we hate lost!
The reason the larger, mainstream sports media focuses so little on schadenfreude is because it is a bad, unhealthy thing. Nothing productive is done for humanity by taking pleasure in another person’s pain. Still, it is undeniably human, and sports is about humanity. It’s about pushing the boundaries of what is possible, overcoming obstacles, and also, failing. And wherever someone fails, there will be someone else celebrating. The celebrity gossip industry is able to financially subsist on the fact that we want to see famous people struggle, often in ways worse than we do in our own lives. It makes us feel better about ourselves, and reminds us that even the people we see on TV or the internet are just that…people.
When Mike Dunleavy Jr. left Duke, I largely stopped caring about him. I eventually grew to have an appreciation for him when he served as a role player for the Chicago Bulls from 2013-2016. My sisters stopped caring about Mike Dunleavy Jr. too, even the one that wrote him fan mail. She had a storybook ending, though; she ended up marrying a handsome former Division One basketball player who finished his college career with a higher three point percentage than Mike Dunleavy Jr. Shoot for the moon, kids.
Hating Mike Dunleavy Jr. was a key part of my basketball journey. If I didn’t hate him, I probably wouldn’t have cared about college basketball as much, and I’m probably not sitting here typing this blog on a site where I wrote a 39 page guide to the NBA Draft, primarily focused on college basketball players. Mike Dunleavy Jr. is a player that made me, because without him, I don’t know who I am today. That’s weird, but it’s the truth. Hating someone is wrong, and it’s a bad thing to do…but in this case, it brought me here. I’m regretful, but thankful.