Farewell, Duke

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Today I’m declaring for the NBA draft.

So I’m thinking back about my year at Duke and everything that led to where I am today.

The first thing that jumps into my mind is the day I got a call from Coach K. You don’t forget that day. He was coming to Kinston, N.C.

To my house. It was my junior year of high school.

And it wasn’t just Coach K who was coming over to my house — it was the entire Duke coaching staff, all in blue suits. They were all huddled around my living room table. Jeff Capel, Nate James, Jon Scheyer. All of the guys I’d seen on the sidelines during games on TV.

Coach K was just sitting there across from me at the table. I remember how calm he was. I instantly liked that quality.

Coach K was just sitting there across from me at the table. I remember how calm he was.

We started out talking basketball.

He’d seen me play more than any other recruit that year, he told me. He also told me I shouldn’t worry about my physical growth.

“What you have to focus on is adjusting to the next level. The biggest part is going to be mental.”

But then the conversation shifted.

The next thing he said surprised me. I think it surprised his staff. I know it surprised my parents.

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils talks with Brandon Ingram #14 in the first half against the Oregon Ducks in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Coach K pulled out his phone. It’s an iPhone 6. For some reason, I’d never considered that Coach K even owned a phone. Not to mention an iPhone 6. But anyway, he said:

“You’ve got a good Instagram.”

Huh? I’m thinking it’s some kind of joke. Or maybe that I posted something I shouldn’t have?

“Tell me what this means to you,” he said, pointing to a quote I had written as a caption for a photo.

The quote was, “Stay hungry and stay humble.”

For the next 10 minutes, I told him about what I meant.

Now, on the day I am declaring for the NBA draft, I’m going to tell you.

***

Growing up, people called me a quiet kid. That word followed me around.

It’s not that I don’t like to talk — my friends will back that up — but I don’t talk much on the basketball court. I used to hang around with my older brother and his friends at our local gym. When you’re the younger kid playing up a few grades, you learn to listen before speaking. Your game should talk the loudest.

Another word followed me around as a kid, too: skinny.

Other kids would get people commenting on their handle or their shot. Or maybe, if they got a bad haircut or something, they’d hear about it for a couple weeks.

Me? I got called out for my size.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny. Even my clothes didn’t always fit right. When I was in seventh grade, my brother went to a Duke game and brought me back a gift: a black-and-blue Duke away jersey.

Another word followed me around as a kid, too: skinny.

Number 2. Nolan Smith. Authentic game jersey.

I grew up a two-hour drive from Durham. If you’re from my part of North Carolina, there are a lot of ways your loyalties can go. Chapel Hill and Raleigh are nearby. But for me, Duke was it. That jersey was instantly the coolest thing I owned.

There was just one minor problem: It was about two sizes too big. I was under six feet tall, and the jersey barely held on to the edges of my shoulders.

Of course, I wore it anyway. I wore it all the time. I loved it.

Around the same time, my brother and his friends started to invite me to play basketball with them at the local gym.

That was the best thing that ever happened to my game.

My brother and his friends were several years older than me — some of them were already in high school — so it was a big deal to get to run with them. You know how they say playing with older kids makes you better? The Kinston version of that is like ten times more powerful. A lot of these guys would go on to play D-I hoops. And I was only 11 or 12 years old.

I loved it. After school, I’d race over to the gym and every time there would already be a line down the sidewalk of people waiting to get in. The anticipation of those pickup games is still one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

Because once I was in that gym, I wasn’t the skinny, quiet kid.

In that gym, no one was doing me any favors. Despite my size, I learned how to hold my ground. You gotta remember this was pickup ball, so you didn’t call a foul unless it was a flagrant. They didn’t go easy on the trash talk, either. But it was all love. I’ll always be grateful to my brother, Bo, and his friends — Akeem Sutton, Quinton Coples, Termaine and Jermaine Miller and Mike Smalls. Thanks for showing me that real toughness comes from within.

This is what Kinston’s about. A tough style of basketball comes out of our town.

Jerry Stackhouse is one of Kinston’s most famous residents. When I reached eighth grade, he became my AAU coach. By that time, I was calling him “Unc.” He was my coach on the court, and my mentor off of it. When I got to Duke, Unc would check in on me now and then.

You don’t get much past Unc. One time he texted me after he had been watching a Duke game on TV. He had noticed me sitting down while I was clapping — while my other teammates on the bench were standing up and cheering.

“Support your teammates the same way you want them supporting you.”

It was a good lesson. Like I said, you don’t get much past him.

Want to know what Unc was like as a coach? Here’s one drill he liked to do with me when I was in high school: I’d start at the elbow with the ball and do a jump-stop at the low block. That’s where he’d be standing. He’d want me to lean into him to draw contact and then finish the layup.

The drill always started out normal enough.

Jump-stop. A little contact. Finish.

But after a few times, Unc would start really playing defense. Like, NBA defense. He’d grab my forearm really hard or stick an elbow into my ribs.

Then I’d come back the next time swinging my wiry elbows and he’d duck.

“Watch it with the elbows!”

We’d laugh. I loved those drills. I could feel myself getting tougher.

(How come you don’t want to try those drills anymore, Unc?)

Back then, even playing college ball wasn’t a sure thing. By ninth grade, I was 6’2″. So when Coach K sat in my parents’ living room and asked about my Instagram quote, I told him about all of this. I told him about growing up in Kinston. I told him about being seen as “too quiet” or “too skinny.”

Before he left, Coach K said something that I haven’t forgotten.

“I can only promise you one thing: The next level will be an adjustment. I can’t guarantee that you’ll start for me, but you’ll have a shot.”

That really made an impact on me.

Here was the most famous coach in America saying to a recruit, No guarantees.

Here was the most famous coach in America saying to a recruit, No guarantees.

At first, this seemed backwards. Shouldn’t he be promising me everything? A lot of other college coaches had suggested, or even promised, that I’d play a certain amount. I’d be their go-to guy. I’d be a big man on campus.

But after he left, I thought more about it, and it started to make sense. I wanted to work for my spot, and he wanted the same thing for me.

My big Nolan Smith jersey was still hanging in my closet. By then, I was a 6’6″ junior, and the jersey finally fit. I still wasn’t filling it out all the way, but it rested on my shoulders like it was supposed to. It felt good.

That day, I decided I was going to get my own Duke jersey. With my name on the back.

Coach K was right about a couple of things. Adjusting to the next level was harder than I expected. The truth is, I really struggled for the first few months of the season.

One game is still burned in my memory. I get a bad taste in my mouth just thinking about it. We traveled to New York to play VCU in an early-season tournament.

From the tip-off, I was out of rhythm. I was hesitant to take shots. I was avoiding contact in the lane. I was making myself small on the court. Then came the free throws. I missed five free throws in that game. I never did that. The low point was when our own fans cheered really loud when I finally made one. They were just being supportive, but I was thinking to myself, This is not my game.

When we got back to campus, Coach K called me into his office.

He wasn’t mad. He was calm, just like he was at my house.

“Where’s that hungry kid I recruited? Show me that kid.”

“Who’s up next?”

I hear my teacher’s voice. I know her eyes are looking around the room.

I’m looking down at my notes, trying to avoid eye contact.

But if you’ve tried this trick in class, you already know that it always ends the same way.

I know she’s going to call my name.

“Brandon…”

Aw, man.

This is just few weeks ago, on the first day of my second semester at Duke. There’s a buzz in class because it’s the first day.

I’m scribbling in my notebook as fast as humanly possible, but I know I’m out of time.

“Brandon … you’re up.”

That’s Ingrid, the teacher for Public Speaking. She’s one of the reasons everyone loves the class. She has a reputation for putting people on the spot.

I hear my academic advisor’s words in my head. He’s the one who encouraged me to take a public speaking class. “This will be good for you. It is everyone’s favorite class.”

For real? Then why does it feel like my heart is going to jump out of my body?

I’m still in my seat. Frozen. Anyone who’s ever spoken in public might know what I’m talking about.

My legs are wobbling as I make my way to the front of the class.

I can feel people’s eyes on me. The only thing I can compare it to is when you’re fouled with no time on the clock and you’re down by two. You have no choice. You have to step up to the line and sink both.

I look up. It’s a whole classroom of eyes on me. Public Speaking is one of the most popular classes on campus, so it’s mostly full of seniors. I’m one of the only underclassmen in there. I clear my throat and look down at my notes. The page is mostly blank. I guess I’m going to have to go off the top of my head.

Then something crazy happens. As I’m looking out at the class, I get overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling. I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s not exactly calm, but it’s close to that. I’m sure I’m still looking nervous, but my legs get steadier and my breath slows down. A voice inside is telling me something.

O.K., I got this…

***

My time is almost over here in Durham. Today as I declare for the NBA Draft, I’m both excited and sad about this moment.

On one hand, one year at Duke isn’t a very long time. I know that. But I’ve done a lot of growing, and growing up, in that time. I know by leaving I’ll miss out on a lot of friendships and opportunities. I’ll really miss all the students who showed me so much love. One of my favorite parts of the Duke basketball tradition is the high-five line at the end of home games. The students who camp out for seats for up to a week before a game — and get in their seats two hours early — are always still there after the final buzzer. Win or lose. You guys gave me the energy and support that I needed. I’ll never forget you all.

I’ll miss my teammates the most.

Amile: Big man. Your injury was a big loss to our team. You were our leading rebounder and I learned a lot from you. But more importantly, you were always there for us. Even with your injury, you never missed a practice and you were always there at the games. I’ll remember the Oregon game, when you were there picking up my spirits.

Chase: You kept us laughing in the locker room with your personality, and you always worked extra- hard in practice. I saw flashes this year of what you can be next season. Your impersonations of Nate James will go down in the books.

Grayson: Obviously you meant so much for our team. When you stepped on the floor, we knew that no one would play with more energy. You made us want to dive for loose balls and hit the big shot. You were more than just our best scorer — you were also a great passer and you taught me a lot.

Marshall and Matt: Our captains. I look up to you guys. Thanks for taking the young guy under your wing.

Luke: I’ll say it because you probably won’t: you’re a truly great player. I admire your ability to score. You’ve got the whole game. But outside of basketball, we all looked up to you as one of the smartest guys on the team.

Nick, Sean and Justin: Our bench guys. You never stopped hustling in practice. Nobody else could see it, but we did. I don’t know how many times Coach K got on us because you guys were making difficult shots in practice, making us look bad.

Derryk: My roommate. One of my closest friends. We’ll share a lot of memories, and I know many of them will last forever. I learned a lot from you about your on-ball defending.

Antonio and Brennan: I probably hang out with you guys more than anyone, going to eat or going to the movies. Thanks for reminding me to be myself. Like true friends, you were always willing to compliment me on good stuff and to criticize me when I needed it.

To the coaching staff — Coach K, Coach Capel, Coach James and Coach Scheyer. The best coaches in the game. You care about us growing as men, not just players. Duke family forever.

And, of course, to my parents: Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You continue to give me the guidance and strength any son would hope for and more.

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The year’s not over yet, though. I still have one more assignment to turn in. It’s for my public speaking class. The assignment is a six-to-eight minute speech in the style of a TED Talk that I have to deliver in front of the whole class. I’m not sure I’ve ever spoken in front of a group of people for that long.

This weekend, when I wasn’t watching the Final Four, I was trying to think about a theme for the speech.

I still don’t have much planned out yet, but I know what my general theme will be. It’ll be about how you can love a place and still have to leave it.

I know it’s not going to be an easy speech to deliver.

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