“Why did you choose Duke?”
I stood at the podium for a second and considered the question.
Why did I come here?
And I followed that with another question: Why did I decide to take a public speaking class?
I figured it would be easy. I’d been giving different clichés during interviews since I was a junior in high school. How much more complicated could a public speaking class be?
At least, that was my theory. But then on the first day of class my sophomore year, Professor Byerly volunteered me to be the first person to speak. As soon as I got up there, I immediately fell out of my comfort zone.
I’m not much of a talker by nature, and that was especially true my first couple of years at Duke. If it wasn’t for interviews about basketball, I’d be perfectly fine not saying a single word all day.
I stared at the other students. They stared back at me. Then I went into a monotone drawl, which is, you know, the way I talk.
“Well, I always dreamed of attending Duke since I was a little kid. And I….”
Professor Byerly stopped me. “That’s a great answer, but give me a little inflection.”
“No uhs, Grayson.”
“I watched the team win the national championship in 2010, and I think that’s when I knew that I wanted to play for….”
She stopped me again. “I love that, Grayson. Good posture, but try speaking with a bit more confidence.”
It went on like that until my turn was over — with me awkwardly trying to push out sentences. When I got back to my seat, I remember thinking to myself, Dude, you just won a national championship with millions of people watching a few months ago. Why are you so nervous doing this?
But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, looking back, that public speaking class has been the single most useful course I’ve ever taken at Duke. It forced me to come out of my shell.
That first day of public speaking class, I was asked why I decided to come to Duke. At the time, it seemed really simple: It’s Duke. Come on. If you love basketball, and you have the chance to go to Duke, then you’re going to Duke.
Now people are asking me a different question. “After everything that’s happened the last few years, why did you decide to stay for your senior year?”
That’s an interesting one … we have to go back to the first night Coach K came to my parents’ house in Jacksonville. That was a big night in the Allen household. My whole family was nervous. Everything had to look perfect. Every room was cleaned. We dusted under all the lamps. We all put on our Sunday best. And my mom spent the entire afternoon preparing her signature dish.
Mom brought out the big guns. Chicken scampi pasta, sweet tea and my aunt’s homemade cookies.
I remember just looking around in awe that night as we were all sitting around my family’s dinner table: Mom, Dad, Coach K, Coach Capel, Coach Wojo and me. When Mike Krzyzewski is in your dining room, I mean … that was all I could see.
This was near the end of my junior year of high school. It was a surreal moment for a lot of reasons, especially because I was somewhat of a late bloomer. I hadn’t started taking basketball seriously until around the eighth grade, which is actually kind of late for someone hoping to be recruited by a top school. I had played soccer since I was four years old, so for a long time I didn’t think basketball was a thing I had a future in.
I developed my love for basketball at the Dunes Park playground near our house. On those outdoor courts, I learned to play with an edge. Out there, the game was simpler. Let’s just say that the rules were enforced only when necessary. You played hard so you could get extra runs in. That was all that mattered. It was streetball.
At school, I was always much more reserved. My grandmother was a high school English teacher, so from an early age, it was drilled into me that school came before everything. As long as I had good grades and stayed out of trouble, I could spend the rest of my time how I wanted. So I would go to the playground.
On the court, I was a completely different person. I wasn’t the quiet kid. I was a dog. I was scraping up my knees diving on the asphalt for loose balls, and taking elbows to the chest going up for rebounds. I used to have to referee youth soccer games to get money to buy new basketball shoes because I’d always rip mine to pieces during those games. It was a different side of me, but a side I really liked. When I had a basketball in my hands, I felt a confidence that’s hard to describe. I felt … powerful.
That attitude wasn’t just a facet of my game – it was my game. For most of my life I had terrible shooting form. I chicken-winged every shot. Just bricks for days. But I still managed to find success because I competed. In high school I realized that if I wanted to go anywhere with basketball, I had to learn the proper way to spot up, and that’s when I started to develop the shot I have today.
Playing in college seemed like a distant goal. Playing at a program like Duke seemed completely impossible. But as I progressed and grew taller, I started to draw attention from schools, and eventually the scholarship offers started to come. I remember how cool it was to be offered by Florida and Georgia because my mom was a Gator and my dad was a Bulldog. My entire childhood, they tugged me to both sides of the rivalry, but it was useless. Ever since I was a little kid, it was all about Duke Basketball. After the Blue Devils won the ’ship in 2010 in that amazing game against Butler, it was over. That was my school for life.
And now Coach K was eating chicken scampi in our house? It was insane. The entire time I remember just thinking, Coach K is right here at our dining-room table.
We were in the middle of dinner when he extended an offer for me to play basketball at Duke.
Inside, I was like, YES! YES, I WOULD LIKE TO GO TO DUKE! ARE YOU SERIOUS? YES!
But my parents had specifically told me beforehand not to do anything impulsive, so I waited a few days before officially committing. I had to play in a Nike EYBL event in California the weekend after Coach K offered and I didn’t want the extra attention that a Duke commit would surely attract. Seriously, those were the longest days of my life.
I won’t be able to do a good enough job of explaining what it means to me to play at Duke. It’s impossible.
Some nights after practice my freshman year, I would wait around the basketball facility until people cleared out. When it was mostly empty, I’d go sit alone in the stands at Cameron. I’d take some time to look around and try to make sense of the fact that I was actually there. I was a basketball player at Duke — the place where Grant Hill and J.J. Redick had played. I was blessed to be part of that brotherhood. I almost expected to wake up in my bedroom as a 12-year-old, being told the dream was over and it was time to go to middle school. It was hard for me to feel like I belonged at such a special place. Surreal … surreal.
Because of that, early on, I tried my best not to be noticed in the locker room. I was surrounded by teammates, but I didn’t really feel like I was part of the team. I would hang out with the other freshmen, but for the most part, I just tried to stay out of the way of the upperclassmen.
Quinn Cook wasn’t having any of that, though. Not at all.
Quinn was the oldest guy on the team. He was our captain — our heart and soul. Quinn’s the type of person who, when he’s talking everybody in the room listens. That was partially out of respect, but the other part was also because you knew whatever came next was going to be good.
My locker was next to his, and every day he would come into the locker room and greet me right away. Well actually, he would shout a greeting at me.
“HEY, GRAYSON! WASSUP GRAYSON?!”
Which of course would make the whole locker room look at me.
Then I’d kind of awkwardly respond, “Hi, wassup?”
Now, at the time, I didn’t really know why he was singling me out. Why would Quinn Cook even give me, the freshman at the end of the bench, the time of day? Now I get it. And I truly appreciate it more than he can imagine. Quinn wasn’t drawing attention to me because he was trying to embarrass me. He was doing it because he was trying to involve me. He knew I needed to come out of my shell.
It didn’t take long for me to start looking up to him like my big brother on the team. We eventually made up this ridiculous handshake that we did whenever we saw each other.
Because of Quinn, I started talking a little more my freshman year, which was something I really didn’t like to do. And I realize now how important it was to my development. If you’re comfortable talking in the locker room and on the team bus, you’ll feel comfortable talking when you’re on the floor. That can only help the team.
My freshman year, I thought I played pretty well in our team scrimmages and exhibition games. But once the real games started, I stayed on the bench. The first time we played Wisconsin that season, I didn’t play a single minute.
I was pretty down about it.
I’ll never forget sitting across from Coach K in his office and him telling me, “Grayson, don’t think this isn’t your year. I need you to stay ready, because you never know when this team is going to need you.”
Turns out he knew what he was talking about.
After that conversation I stopped thinking, I’m not getting in the game because I’m not good enough, and changed my mindset to, We have a really talented team, and I’m on it for a reason.
By the time the NCAA tournament came around that year, I had started playing more minutes. The second time we faced Wisconsin was in the national championship game. I came off the bench to score 16 points, and probably had the best game of my life up to that point. After that, I wasn’t the anonymous freshman at the end of the bench anymore. People started paying attention to me, wondering who I was. And that was when everything changed.
Why do people do what they do? I think about that a lot.
I took a social psychology class early on at Duke and it really fascinated me. I learned a lot about people’s behaviors and motivations. What was most interesting to me was how much psychology and sports overlap. That’s what led me to major in psychology at Duke.
Being a skilled athlete is only part of the equation when it comes to sports. Whether a player (and really any person) reaches their full potential is determined by what can’t be seen — their mental makeup. It seemed important to learn about that stuff at the time, but I never had any idea how crucial it would be in my life.
I’m insanely competitive. That’s always been me. It’s a double-edged sword.
The same aspects of my game that help me succeed at this level are the same things that cause some people to have a poor impression of me.
Surely, there will be a spotlight on me — and my talented teammates — this season. I want to finish things the right way. Especially for Coach K. I’m extremely lucky to have a coach who has stood by me and who really believes in me. Over the past couple of years, he’s definitely been hard on me after I’ve fallen short of our program’s standards and my own. He’s never sugarcoated things when I messed something up. But he’s also never tried to shame me. And he’s never given up on me, even when countless others suggested he should.
It’s funny, my whole life I loved Duke basketball because of its amazing tradition and history. That’s what I wanted to be part of when I came here. Today, I still love Duke basketball, but for different reasons. I love this place because people here on campus view me not only as a person who plays basketball well, but also as one who might make mistakes. Basically, members of this program and my Duke classmates understand that I am still in the process of maturing and figuring out who I am, even when the lights are brightest. I’m so incredibly thankful for that. Simply put, Duke is my extended family.
This might surprise people, but sometimes I get fan letters. They come from the whole spectrum in terms of demographics. But regardless of the sender, I’ve always taken the messages to heart. So many great friendships that I’ve developed came directly from fan mail. These friendships allow me to see kindness and goodness from my journey at Duke.
I particularly loved this note that I received from a young fan named John:
There are always going to be people who don’t like me. I know that. My options are to either buy into that negativity and feel really small, or take the things I hear and use them to grow into a better person.
When I considered staying for my senior year, I thought about all of the things that I could still accomplish on the basketball court — becoming a true leader, being more vocal, and trying to be like Quinn for our freshmen. Basketball wasn’t the only consideration. I thought about the life I have here at Duke — and how I wanted more of it. Another year of hitting up the West Union for food before heading back to the dorms to get after it playing two-on-two Rocket League. Another year of walking across the quad to class, and seeing so many familiar faces along the way. Another year of Cameron — not just as an arena, but also as one of my favorite quiet places on campus, where I can go to reflect.
I thought about how good it will feel to finish what I started as part of Duke’s class of 2018, and earn my degree — and how proud I will feel when I walk across the stage to accept my diploma. At Duke, or anywhere for that matter, that’s a great accomplishment.
Maybe most important, though, I thought about who I am — and who I can become a year from now. That’s probably what excited me most. With God’s grace and help, I’ll have this amazing opportunity to rise — as a vocal leader, as a confident public speaker, as a great teammate, as a better player and as a proud Duke graduate.
Certainly I’ve harbored a lot of embarrassment and shame for situations on the basketball court that were of my own doing the past couple of years – the ones you saw on TV or read about on social media. They could have easily snowballed more than they did and ruined the rest of my basketball career.
What happened after … well, that is why I’m so thankful to play at Duke. Everyone in the program — from my teammates in the locker room to the coaches and the rest of the staff who support us every day — knows me for so much more than my mistakes. They’ve never tried to make me feel isolated because of them, and I love them for that. And I’ll always be grateful.
I stayed at Duke because, like most college students, I still have some growing up to do — and because there’s nowhere else I’d rather do it.
I’m back at Duke because I never left.